“Sorry” doesn’t put the Triscuit crackers in my stomach now, does it Carl? (Eric, Billy Madison)
If restitution is required for true repentance to take place, then we are all screwed. Sure, there are some sins for which restitution can be made. Stolen stuff can be returned. A relationship can be restored. But, for the vast majority of sins, it seems to me that robust restitution is really an impossibility.
Even if a thief gives back the stuff he stole, feelings of trust and security are not so easily restored. We all know how abuse scars its victims; our lesser cruelties and insensitivities have similar (albeit less severe) consequences. We can apologize to the person we humiliated, but we can’t really make it like it never happened. The memory of being humiliated is not erased by an apology. In general terms, our experiences leave indelible marks upon us which, because of their seamless integration into our new selves, become impossible to undo.
Recognizing that we can’t fully restore things to the way they were, we can still see the importance of trying to fix the wrongs we have perpetrated on others. Both as an indication of true penitence and as a good in its own right, trying to fix the bad things we do is worthy. But we should remember that as one of the “R”s of repentance, we can’t really be expected to restore things to how they were but just to make our best attempt at such a restoration.
At this point, it is not uncommon to bring the atonement into the mix. Many theorize that although we are unable to make full restitution for the things we do, making full restitution is something Christ does for us as part of the atonement. I don’t really buy into this idea and the reason is that I don’t observe this taking place. As the sometimes recipient of wrongs perpetrated by others, I don’t notice God taking away the effects of their wrongdoing, or even making it up to me with some sort of compensation. Rather, it seems to me that God is willing, if I ask, to help me make the best of any situation. This strikes me as very different than the idea of restitution.
Firstly, there is the “if I ask” element. If God is really in the business of making restitution for all the sins that are committed, then why would this be predicated on our asking for help as a victim of sin? Inevitably it is the case that most people do not seek his help and it appears to me that injuries to them are allowed to run their course, sometimes destroying their lives, sometimes making them bitter, sometimes making them sad. Surely there has been no restitution in such cases. Does this mean the sinners who led to these situations cannot yet repent? Obviously not. Is the promise of restitution most often just a long-term promise that some day, in the eternities, God will make it all up to us by bringing us to heaven? If so, this broad “blanket” restitution seems to neuter the concept of restitution, in my mind. If God has already promised to bring me back to heaven before someone breaks into my house and takes all my stuff, then how can such a promise be said to serve as restitution for the break in?
Secondly, the “best of the situation” is not guaranteed to be good. For some of the things that are done to us, God is able to bring about a good even greater than the evil he started with. We may look back on such events in our lives and be grateful for being wronged because of the transformation that it led to within us. At other times, it seems to me that the best of a bad situation is far worse than if the bad situation had never existed. Thus it is wrong, I think, to believe that all victims of abuse should be able with God’s help to look back and be grateful for the abuse because of the good God brought from it. As powerful as God is, he is not powerful enough to turn every evil into a greater good for its victims than they would have otherwise had. To put it a different way, there are lots of things that happen in the world for which I expect there to be no restitution, ever.