Scott Benhase: Forgiveness allows the other virtues

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Virtues are not values we can pick up or put down. They run far deeper than that.

Christian virtues are not values. Values are changeable because they represent commitments we hold in relationship to other commitments. For example, we might say we value time with our family more than we value time at work.

Values have a price tag on them and we daily weigh the cost of holding one value in relationship to another. Virtues, however, are more immutable ways of being. Virtues like truthfulness, compassion, and mercy cannot be values we hold. They are ways of being and acting in the world. For example, we cannot “value” compassion. We either live compassionately or we do not.

Christianity is less a set of beliefs we hold than a way of being we embody. The creeds of the Church are not set before us so we can be challenged to believe them. Rather, they are a summary of the faith Christians practice.

In Galatians, St. Paul writes: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” These are just some of the virtues that disciples of Jesus are to incarnate in their lives. When he writes: “there is no law against such things,” he acknowledges that these virtues cannot be commanded. They are rather ways of being that each disciple must cultivate in her or his life. Such cultivation of virtue is a lifelong discipline.

Probably the most challenging of all the Christian virtues is forgiveness. It is also the virtue Jesus addresses most often. He makes it a central part of what we now call the Lord’s Prayer (“forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who sins against us.” Luke 11:4). Jesus sees forgiveness as the cornerstone that enables all other virtues. Without the capacity to forgive, incarnating other virtues simply could not be possible.

Yet forgiving others is clearly one of the hardest virtues for us to incarnate. The hurt can be so deep. The desire for vengeance can be so powerful. But we should remember: this is not a minor teaching by Jesus or one that can be open to several interpretations. Jesus is clear -- we must forgive.

The Church teaches us much about forgiveness. She teaches us that our primary identity is as a child of God. Such an identity cannot be lost in our interaction with others, even if those others sin against us or we sin against them. That is why Jesus calls us to seek reconciliation: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24). Jesus shows that our lack of forgiveness prevents us from finding our identity in a God, whose very nature is forgiveness.

Our call is to embody forgiveness as the central virtue of our life as we practice the Christian faith.

Scott Benhase is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia.