book report: Free of Charge by Miroslav Volf (2005)
The deepest understanding of unconditional forgiveness can only come from
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experiencing the most grievous offenses. Miroslav Volf has made hard choices, and chose the unworldly option of following Christ's exhortations. He draws on his own experiences, those of victims in Yugoslavia's civil, Jesus, the apostle Paul, and Martin Luther's works, to present his conviction about the prominence of generosity in Christianity.
The full title of the book reveals its broad outline, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. The first half of the book is about the act of giving. Regarding our need to give he writes, "The self will lose itself it it simply lives in and for itself. It will seek only its own benefits, and the more it seeks its own benefits, the less satisfied it will become. That's the paradox of self-love: The more you fill the self, the more it echoes with the emptiness of unfulfillment." p.52 He contends we emulate God when we give. "Why? Because you are giving. Every gift breaks the barrier between the sacred and the mundane and floods the mundane with the sacred. When a gift is given, life become extraordinary because God's own gift giving flows through the giver." p.54 "Instead, we give because we are givers, because Christ living in us is a giver." p.66 His practical theology is swollen with the understanding of God's inhabitation of us. If God is in us, then we are freed to follow a new human script. It is powerfully encouraging to read and ponder. Volf has also been profoundly affected by trinitarian theology. As Fred Sanders pointed out in his book, the Trinity changes everything. It even models gift giving. "Because the Godhead is a perfect communion of love, divine persons exchange gifts - the gift of themselves and the gift of the others' glory." p.85
In such a short book, Volf is surprisingly thorough. He looks at giving and the many concerns others might have, of giving too much, of giving wrongly, of giving proudly. But giving "through" God solves a multitude of issues. "The only way to ensure that we will not lose our very selves if we give ourselves to others is if our love for the other passes first through God, if we, as Augustine put it succinctly and profoundly, love and enjoy others in God. Those who serve the poor often express such a stance by saying that they serve Jesus in the one they help. The same is true of all Christian giving." p.103 He also addresses the "give to get" theology that contaminates all of us to one degree or another. "So God doesn't pay givers; God gives to givers... True, we often treat God's gifts as payment for services rendered. But when we do, we fundamentally misconstrue God's relationship to us and mistreat God's gifts. God is not an employer, not even a very generous employer. God is a giver." p.105
After half a book on the generosity of God, a clever set-up on Volf's part, he then turns to, in my opinion, the most important part of the book, forgiveness. "We give when we delight in others or others are in need; by giving, we enhance their joy or make up for their lack. We forgive when others have wronged us; by forgiving, we release them from the burden of their wrongdoing. The difference lies in the violation suffered, in the burden of wrongdoing, offense, transgression, debt. And that's what makes it more difficult to forgive than to give." p.130 He does not shy away from God's justice and wrath. Without those characteristics, his forgiveness would be unnecessary. "You can summ up where we've landed in four simple sentences. The world is sinful. That's why God doesn't affirm it indiscriminately. God loves the world. That's why God doesn't punish it in justice... What Does God do with this double bind? God forgives." p.140 To which I reply, Hallelujah! "Finally, in addition to faith and repentance, we respond to God's forgiveness by 'passing on' forgiveness to others." p.154 But where does justice and revenge belong in our world? "Revenge corresponds to illicit taking, the demand for justice corresponds to legitimate acquiring, and forgiving roughly corresponds to generous giving." p.158 "But why is forgiveness, rather than retributive justice, a Christian duty?..I suggested on reason: Consistent enforcement of justice would wreak havoc in a world shot through with transgression. It may rid the world of evil, but at the cost of the world's destruction." p.160 Forgiveness is hard because, among other reasons, it is complicated. "To forgive is to blame, not to punish...Those who forgive will have a system of discipline, but retribution will not be part of it. They ought to forgive rather than punish because God in Christ forgave. Christ is the end of retribution." p.170 Volf is not a caricatured liberal. He is not denying the utility of prisons. But he is exhorting us to let the life of Christ flow out of us. "We make God's sending of the"forgiveness package" our own. That's all we can do. And that's what we have the power to do. Whether the package will be received depends on the recipients, on whether they admit to the wrongdoing and repent." p.197 In case you weren't challenged enough he reiterates, "But the forgiveness is unconditional...It's predicated on nothing the perpetrators do or fail to do. forgiveness is not a reaction to something else. It is the beginning of something new." p.209
His book concludes with a conversation with an unnamed skeptic, not too hard to find at Yale, where Volf teaches. If a skeptic finds this book in their hands, perhaps he should start here, at the end. Is there really a community of giving and forgiving? Is it worth it? Is it possible?
I've quoted Volf liberally so that your appetite is not only whetted, but also convinced that the writing is excellent and compelling. It also drew me into worship. What a great God we have.
Zondervan provided this book to me free in exchange for a review.