Study Guide

Gilead Compassion and Forgiveness

By Marilynne Robinson

Compassion and Forgiveness

I have always liked the phrase "nursing a grudge," because many people are tender of their resentments, as of the things nearest their hearts. (1.8.7)

You might think that holding a grudge wouldn't be a terribly pleasant experience. More like a rotten experience, right? Well, maybe—except human experience doesn't work that way. Unpleasant emotions like anger and resentment have their own pleasure, and they can even feel good, in a way.

I always imagine divine mercy giving us back to ourselves and letting us laugh at what we became, laugh at the preposterous disguises of crouch and squint and limp and lour we all do put on. (1.8.7)

For John Ames, sin is silly. It's irrational. In the light of God's mercy, it's almost comical. Instead of imaging souls burning in hell, screaming in endless torment, he envisions those who accept God's mercy finally being able to see the humor of their excuses.

So often people tell me about some wickedness they've been up to, of they've suffered from, and I think, Oh, that again! (1.8.19)

There's no sin a preacher hasn't heard of. However depraved human beings are, they're pretty consistent in their transgressions.

I think sometimes there might be an advantage in making people aware how worn and stale these old transgressions are. It might take some of the shine off them, for those who are tempted. (1.8.19)

Doing wrong has its unique and powerful allure, all the more when the bad deed seems remarkably bad. Ames suspects some of this allure could be lessened if people knew just how common their sins are.

I must be gracious. My only role is to be gracious. (1.9.3)

Ames is a good man, but he struggles to forgive and to trust, especially where his wife and son are concerned. He has to remind himself to have the right disposition toward the people he finds it hardest to show compassion to.

You may know by now what a fallible man I am, and how little I can trust my feelings on the subject. And you know, from living out years I cannot foresee, whether you must forgive me for warning you, or forgive me for failing to warn you, or indeed if none of it turned out to matter at all. (1.10.5)

At this stage, Ames hasn't told his wife what he knows about Jack Boughton. He doesn't know if he will tell her at all. He's in a bit of a jam, not knowing whether warning her or remaining silent will bring about the greater evil. Whatever he does, he hopes his wife and son can forgive him.

"It don't matter," she would say, in that low, soft voice of hers. That was what she said when she meant she forgave someone, but it had a sound of deeper, sadder resignation, as if she were forgiving the whole of the created order, forgiving the Lord Himself. (1.14.31)

It's funny how knowing someone well can make all the difference when interpreting them. Taken on its own, the assertion that harm doesn't matter seems almost nihilistic. But Ames knows his wife. He knows that her words are words of unconditional forgiveness.

…in Scripture, the one sufficient reason for the forgiveness of a debt is simply the existence of debt. (1.15.19)

Ames appeals to a biblical ethic of forgiveness, one that asks for no return and expects no return. There's a debt. You forgive it, expecting nothing in return. It's that simple.

He could knock me down the stairs and I would have worked out the theology for forgiving him before I reached the bottom. But if he harmed you in the slightest way, I'm afraid theology would fail me. (1.16.9)

There are limits to Ames's ability to forgive. If Jack were to harm him, he'd have no trouble forgiving him in the moment. But if Jack were to harm his son, Ames's response would not be forgiveness but retaliation and resentment. His anger would overpower his Christian faith. At least, that's how he feels at this moment.

"I thought maybe things were improving, but they were all just being Christian." (2.21.64)

Jack would like to impress the family of his common-law wife or at least get on their good side. They're kind to him—but not because they like him. They're merely staying true to the tenets of the faith. Ironically, their devotion gives Jack the wrong impression.

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