Recently my brother and I started to discuss the Christian concept of forgiveness. He is of the tradition, albeit loosely, where one confesses one’s sins to a third party and receives absolution. This discussion led me to explain scriptural teaching on the matter and how we are instructed to forgive as we have been forgiven. But ultimately it is an individual personal choice that is not without consequences. And then came the arguments, “But what about murder, rape, child molestation?” “Why have you got to make a big thing about forgiveness?” “If someone hurts me I don’t forgive them, I get even!”
It dawned on me that I was being exercised by the Holy Spirit. Forgiveness is easy to think about but extremely hard to live out in the fullness of our Father’s love for us. Suddenly there came to mind two examples, two sides of the same coin as it were.
“I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge …….. I will pray for those men tonight and every night”. These words were spoken by a man who had just lost his daughter to a terrorist bomb in Enniskillen Northern Ireland on the 8th November 1987. Many of you will remember the heart wrenching interview that Gordon Wilson gave shortly after the tragedy in which killed 11 people and injured 64 more. He was a man who loved his family dearly but he loved his God even more. He could not judge, that was not his prerogative but he could choose to forgive, so he took the same approach that Jesus did from the cross and called out from the depth of his pain and distress:
“Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:24)
On July 7th 2005 a young woman from Bristol called Jenny Nicholson died in identical circumstances in the London Tube Bombings. Her mother June Nicholson, a former Vicar said “Can I forgive them for what they did? No, I cannot. And I don’t wish to. I can’t pretend to have much forgiveness in my heart for the person who took my daughter’s life”. One can only try to imagine the pain that June continues to feel but even with her faith in God she chose not to forgive. As I said one coin, two sides. Can we be forgiven and not forgive?
Jesus was asked by Peter as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel:
“Lord how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21)
Jesus answered: “I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (18:22)
In Luke, he qualifies this teaching, saying: “If there is repentance, you must forgive” (17:3)
Both Gospels include the reciprocal formula in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us as we forgive others”
Let us consider the qualification from Luke’s Gospel. There was a time when I did something wrong and I had to ask a lot of people to forgive me. To receive forgiveness I had to make a conscious spiritual effort to repent of my actions before I could ask humbly to be forgiven. The pain that I still carry is a burden that I have to bear and is a daily reminder that even the worst of sinners is forgiven and held dear by God the Father through Christ the Son.
In all four Gospels, Jesus notes the importance of forgiving others to ensure God’s forgiveness. Matthew includes the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, in which a freed slave who does not forgive the debts of another is thrown into jail to be tortured. Jesus concludes this story with a less-than-comforting moral:
“So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).
When we forgive and meet un-forgiveness, remember the words of Jesus, “Bless those who curse you [and] pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28), and let God do the rest.