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God Squad: Why some sins are unforgivable

Q: What is the unforgivable sin?

— B, via email

A: Every religion has a deep understanding of sin, which is the way we go wrong; repentance, which is the way we admit it; and forgiveness, which is the way we are graced to begin again. The central spiritual revolution of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is the belief that sins need not stain us forever but can be washed clean from our sullied souls. The promise of faith can ultimately be reduced to the promise of forgiveness for our sins.

Although all sins can be forgiven in principle, not all sins can be forgiven in practice.

The first type of unforgivable sin obviously is killing. In such sins the victim cannot forgive the attacker. Forgiveness is impossible and therefore atonement is impossible. Some believe that God can forgive such sins even when the victims cannot. I am not sure.

I have written about the families who have found the spiritual courage to forgive the killers of their loved ones. I admire and I am perplexed by their soaring compassion, which seems to me misplaced. Relatives of the slain are not the victims of the killing and therefore they have no spiritual standing to forgive the killers. Only victims can do that and they cannot because they are gone from here.

The idea that killing is an unforgivable sin derives not only from the fact that the victim is dead, but also that the descendants the victim would have had if he or she had lived are also dead. In Genesis (4:10) when Cain kills Abel, God says to Cain, “The bloods of your brother cry out to me from the ground.” The text should have read, “The blood of your brother . . . ” The use of the plural “bloods” in the original Hebrew text is a way of teaching us that killing is a sin against the future as well as the present.

So despite what God may or may not do in heaven, killing is clearly the greatest unforgivable sin here on earth.

Are there other sins that are also unforgivable? This is a very interesting question to me because it takes us into our own souls. I have encountered, and so have you, people who cannot forgive sins in others that are by any measure truly trivial. Families are broken up by the irrational refusal to forgive. In some families the bitter refusal to forgive endures long after anyone in the family even remembers what the fight was all about. So some sins are unforgivable not because of the sin but because we are just stubbornly unforgiving.

Finally, I would like to throw in here for your spiritual consideration my own choice for minor-but-still-unforgivable sin. This is my choice of a sin that to this day drives me to deep sadness whenever I encounter it. It is not the kind of sin that has a single name like killing or stealing or adultery. This is my unforgivable sin: believing the worst about a person you used to like.

The bonds of love that bind us to family and friends are built upon trust. That trust is built up over time as those we love prove their loyalty and love with deeds. Then, as often happens in life, those we love seem to betray us with a single act that contradicts our past with them. Sometimes we misinterpret this act as hurtful when it really was just a misunderstanding. Sometimes it is just a thoughtless act of ignorance, lust, or jealousy. The point is that these are single acts that deviate from the norm of love. They are a single bad beat in the symphony of life. The sin, I have seen too many times, is in believing that this one act of supposed cruelty cancels out years and years of faithful, loyal friendship and love. We leap to the worst conclusion about those we love as soon as we can. This to me is unforgivable.

The Bible knows of this sin. The people who were shown the most dramatic miracles by God and through the leadership of Moses immediately turn against both God and Moses when they have no meat or bread or garlic to eat, or when the journey seems too hard. All that God and his prophet Moses had done for them was forgotten in an instant kvetch of “what have you done for me lately?”

So let us try to overlook what we can and forgive what we can in the name of all those other days when we were healed and not hurt by those we love. To say it another way, the only unforgivable sin is to not cut the people we love some slack.

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