Forgiveness isn't easy

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"For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."  (Matthew 6:14 -18)

In the Gospel it seems that the Lord makes a direct link between fasting and forgiveness by putting them side by side.  Thinking about it, this makes absolute sense.  What on earth would be the point of putting time aside to deepen our relationship with God by a particular type of effort, if we know that at the same time our relationships with other people are in chaos or seriously flawed.  The Lord puts together the two commandments to love him and to love others.  We can’t really separate them out into self-contained compartments which don’t impact on each other.

But forgiveness isn’t easy.  It’s not a fluffy, candy-floss business - either when we consider God’s forgiveness of grievous human wickedness, or when we get down to the business of dealing with our attitude to people who have acted badly to us.  Some people have suffered damage so serious that no human being has the right to glibly inform them that they “must forgive”.

Forgiveness is linked with God’s judgement – also an important theme in the repentance of Lent.  In Christianity, Judaism and Islam there is a belief in a final judgement by God where wrongs will be recognised as wrongs, where the truth about what has happened will be told.  Whatever one believes about what will actually happen when each person comes before God at the end of their life, I think it is essential to retain this sense of truth and justice.  In a fluffy moral world where nothing really matters, truth and justice just don’t happen.

On the other hand, all the religions I have just mentioned, have a deep sense of God’s mercy.  Take, for example this passage from Hosea 11.8-90: ‘How can I give you up, O Ephraim? For I am God and not a mortal’.  In this passage God is seen as almost helpless as a result of his own nature, a nature which just cannot stop loving.  It seems to me that we have to hold these two aspects of God’s nature, (just and merciful) together.

Most of us long for peace, peace among people, peace with ourselves, and if we are believers - peace with God.  We usually find that forgiveness is a huge component in finding that peace.  One of the reasons that finding forgiveness is so difficult is that we think of it as generating a feeling in ourselves.  In fact, it needs the full engagement of mind and will, far more than just feeling.[1]  Often people need to talk with another person, outside of the situation, about their need to forgive or receive forgiveness, and spell out for themselves how they can practically or inwardly embark on this engagement of the mind and will to change their inner stance towards another person.  How, in real terms, can a cessation of hostilities be brought about?

Anger can play an important and constructive role here.  Anger can be a process of recognising wrong, of recognising that something was unjust, of recognising that the dignity of the human person deserved something different.  But anger can also fester, it can become a bitter destructive force eating away at the life of a person with disabling pain and a desire for revenge.  In her book “Forgive and Live” Una Kroll places an emphasis on what she calls “hate amnesties”.  These are practical decisions to refuse to keep going over it or to hang on to what one has suffered, to give up a certain addiction to the pain.  These are hard words, but we are not dealing here with something that is essentially fluffy.

What I think we are dealing with is something that is intrinsic to a relationship with God, where human beings become, as Peter’s letter says so astonishingly, “sharers in the divine nature”.[2]  To be able to give, and to accept forgiveness, is a sign of humanity touched by God.  It is a sign of sharing his life.  As Rowan Williams says in a reflection about forgiveness and the Lord’s prayer - forgiveness is the exchange of the bread of life and the bread of truth.

Mother Sarah


[1] Rowan Williams, Foreword to Una Kroll, Forgive and Live


[2]  2 Peter 1:4

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