Forgiveness

by Sheryl Anderson.

For a long time now I have been very exercised by the notion of forgiveness. It seems to be a word that Christians use freely without giving much thought to what exactly it means. It is one of those concepts that everyone thinks they understand until asked to explain, and then it becomes clear that actually it is a slippery term that it hard to define and of which it is difficult to give a proper account. What is forgiveness and what does it mean to forgive?

One of the things we like to teach our children, when they get into conflict with others (often siblings) is to say sorry and make friends. I am sure you remember that from your own childhood, or with brothers and sisters, or at school? Mostly children co-operate with this, and will sulkily and grumpily say “sorry” – sometimes complaining that it wasn’t their fault or the other person started it!

Christians often seem to think that it is an imperative for us to forgive others, and many Christians pray every day the Lord’s Prayer which contains the line, Forgive us our sins (trespasses) as we forgive those who sin (trespass) against us, as though we are in some sort of bargain with God, which means God can only forgive us if we are forgiving of others. Therefore we have to say sorry and make up…like we were taught as children.

The philosopher Richard Swinburne, in his book Responsibility and Atonement[i] argues that forgiveness follows when someone has properly atoned for the wrong that they have done you. According to Swinburne atonement involves four stages; penitence (recognising that you have wronged someone), apology (saying sorry for doing the wrong), reparation (doing what you can to put the wrong right), penance (going beyond merely putting the wrong right – offering compensation). Swinburne indicates that once someone has fulfilled these requirements, forgiveness should inevitably follow.

However, in real life serious wrongs are very difficult to put right. Personal wrongs – killing someone (deliberately or accidentally), sexual abuse or rape, exploiting someone’s vulnerability – can result in psychological damage that is not easily repaired. Similarly, collective wrongs – the death of 6 million Jews (and others) in the Holocaust; genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia, or Darfur; the effect of warfare on a population; the torture, persecution and oppression of blacks by whites in South Africa – these acts often have consequences that continue for generations.

In Country of my Skull[ii], Antjie Krog relates a story told by Father Mxolisi Mpambani during a lunch time panel discussion at the University of Cape Town.

“Once there were two boys, Tom and Bernard. Tom lived right opposite Bernard. One day Tom stole Bernard’s bicycle and every day Bernard saw Tom cycling to school on it. After a year Tom went up to Bernard, stretched out his hand and said, ‘Let us reconcile and put the past behind us.’

Bernard looked at Tom’s hand. ‘And what about the bicycle?’

‘No,’ said Tom, ‘I’m not talking about the bicycle – I’m talking about reconciliation.’”

She then goes on to make the point that traditionally the Western Church says you must forgive, because God forgave you for killing God’s Son. With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Archbishop Desmond Tutu translated this for the post-apartheid situation in South Africa. ‘You can only be human in a humane society. If you live with hatred and revenge in your heart you dehumanize not only yourself but your community. Perhaps reparation is not essential for reconciliation and forgiveness.

It seems to me that forgiveness cannot happen outside of a relationship, for it is a performative act. To forgive one must be willing to endure the consequences of someone else’s wrong and overcome resentment. To achieve this one has to consider the breach in the relationship a greater evil than the injury caused, and this is not always the case. In some instances reconciliation is neither sensible not healthy. Survivors of sexual abuse, for example, can find themselves re-victimised by the pressure to forgive that comes from those who assume that if the perpetrator says sorry then forgiveness must follow. In these circumstances, perhaps it is enough to ask God to forgive the one who has wronged us, which is actually what Jesus did.


[i] Swinburne, Richard, Responsibility and Atonement, Oxford University Press, 1989

[ii] Kroge, Antjie, Country of my Skull, Jonathan Cape, 1998 pp 109-110

12 thoughts on “Forgiveness”

  1. This piece stopped me in my tracks. I have often wondered about that little word ‘as’ in the Lord’s Prayer as we have it in English.

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  2. Jesus put a lot of emphasis on freeing ourselves from the past and moving on. Forgiving those who have hurt us is a key factor in that. But why doesn’t Jesus mention the person making recompense or at least apologizing to us before we forgive them? – Because that’s not the way forgiveness works. “I’ll forgive you, if you say you’re sorry” isn’t true forgiveness. Forgiveness, by its very nature, can’t be conditional, because, like love, it is a state of heart and mind. True forgiveness isn’t a matter of words or of actions; it is a change of attitude within us, a healing of resentment. We can forgive people even if we never have the chance to tell them, even if they don’t acknowledge their offence, and even if they are already dead. True forgiveness isn’t dependent on the response of the other person. It’s a matter of us rising above what has happened and not allowing what has been done to us to hold us back spiritually. Corrie Ten Boom, a Christian who survived a Nazi camp, came to realize that, “Forgiveness is to set a prisoner free, and to realize the prisoner was you.” But this can take a long time, if we have been badly hurt; deep hurts heal slowly. Superficial glossing over a wound can lead to more damage later. Corrie Ten Boom struggled with unforgiveness for years. It is important to remember too that we can forgive without forgetting. Someone who’s been abused can forgive without allowing the perpetrator back where he could hurt them again.

    If true forgiveness is unconditional, how does that affect the other side of the coin – our own need of forgiveness to remove the guilt and regret caused by things we have done or failed to do, which have hurt others, left us disappointed with ourselves, and have come between us and God? Part of the healing process of dealing with the past may be through a practical approach to repentance – acknowledging the wrong, trying to correct it and actively trying never to do it again. Yet we don’t need this to earn the forgiveness of God, because that is already available to us. Unforgiveness with all its spiritually damaging facets can’t be part of the nature of a God of love. “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners” symbolises God taking the initiative, long before we get round to repentance. In the story Jesus told of the prodigal son, forgiveness has already taken place while the son is still frittering away his father’s money in licentious living. The father spots his son at a distance, because he is looking out for him. He rushes down the road and embraces his son before the boy can say a word.

    Reconciliation moves beyond forgiveness. Since it’s the restoration of right relationships between people, it involves the responses of more than one person. We see this again in the story of the prodigal son. Although forgiveness had taken place before the son even realised he’d done anything wrong, reconciliation could only take place when the boy was ready to be restored to the family. Similarly, we have to respond to God’s forgiveness, if we wish to be restored into a proper relationship with him. Forgiveness is already there, but we have to recognise our need of it and to accept it, so that we can be reconciled. It’s worth noting that reconciliation will restore relationships but actions may still have consequences. The prodigal son has spent his inheritance. A father who becomes abusive in a drunken rage may well lose his family, even if he’s sorry afterwards. God’s forgiveness is available and we can be reconciled with him, but we have to move on from the position we find ourselves in; we can’t turn the clock back. Forgiveness and reconciliation don’t change the past, but they certainly make a huge difference to the future.

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  3. Forgiveness is a thing I’ve been struggling with this year. I always thought I must forgive in order to be forgiven, and how difficult it is sometimes when the wounds are deep.
    I found it helped, as a starter anyway, to pray for the desire to forgive, and trust that forgiveness would naturally follow, albeit slowly (and even grudgingly!)
    But when I focus on Jesus’ words as he was dying on the cross, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ I think perhaps God’s mercy, as well as His love, is unconditional and universal. Maybe God, in His infinite wisdom, can forgive even our unforgiving hearts? And it is this realisation that makes me want to forgive, not from a sense of duty but from a sense of gratitude.

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  4. As a hospital chaplain, whenever I was asked about forgiveness I always suggested that ultimately if someone found it impossible to forgive they might ask God ‘to forgive .….for they know not what they do’. I have spoken in a similar vein when preaching.

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  5. When I do wrong and then do my best to put things right there comes a point where I find I can move on. I know then that I am forgiven and my “sin” has been forgotten. Actually I find that fact amazing! Basic to forgiveness is the point that if I am hurt I should try to forgive the perpetrator: However I feel there is something missing here. Forgiveness, God’s forgiveness of us, our forgiveness of ourselves, and forgiveness of those that offend us is, or should be, unconditional. In Christ we are forgiven even before we ask to be forgiven. (The parable of the Prodigal Son comes to mind here). God forgives and forgets that the crime ever happened. However we live in a world where it is necessary to protect society from murderers, paedophiles and power-mad politicians. I maintain that in these circumstances we can forgive the perpetrator, but it is our duty, before God, to protect and care for our neighbour by locking up or excluding offenders. So there are circumstances where we forgive and yet remember the crime. I assume we would agree that reconciliation is better than retribution, but would we agree that God forgives and forgets, but we must forgive and yet remember the crime? And if we forgive and yet remember the crime, is that really forgiveness?

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    1. Forgiveness isn’t the same as letting someone off punishment. The parents of a boy blown up by terrorists and a teenager killed by a gang publicly forgave the murderers but that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t want them put into prison to protect society. We can forgive without forgetting. Someone who’s been abused can forgive without allowing the perpetrator back where he could hurt them again.

      True forgiveness is a change of attitude within us, a healing of the resentment (which can take a long time, if we have been badly hurt; because wounds need time to heal). It’s changing the way we feel about the other person. We can forgive people even if we never have the chance to tell them, even if they are already dead, even if they don’t acknowledge they’ve done anything wrong. True forgiveness isn’t dependent on the response of the other person. It’s a matter of us rising above what has happened and not allowing what has been done to us to hold us back spiritually.

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  6. Another thing about forgiveness that comes to mind is what it means to be forgiven. Is it a state of being? Can we divide people into categories called the “forgiven” and the “sinners”? Is it not more likely that we live in a contingent world where we “sin” simply by living? What right have I to food and shelter when others are living desperate lives – is that not a “sin”? So if we commit this structural sin, or through apathy or error, should we not recognise that there is no duality here and we are all sinners or no one is, and all are forgiven or no one is? From that point of view when someone says “You are forgiven” doesn’t it imply the sure and certain knowledge that forgiveness is freely given to us by God and we can overcome the condemnation and sense of guilt associated with sin? And this is irrespective of whether we are saved or not saved, Christian or not Christian, religious or secular.

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    1. “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” That’s a lot easier said than done. It’s natural to get angry when people hurt us or upset us. It’s also natural to want to defend the ones we love and if they’ve been hurt, our anger will reflect the depth of our love for them. Yet Jesus stressed the need for us to forgive those who have wronged us or upset us. It’s in the Lord’s Prayer, Peter is told to forgive 77 times and it’s in several parables. So why does Jesus say that it’s so important to forgive? It’s because of the damage unforgiveness can do. A U.S. priest Father Hagedorn comments: “When I was first ordained, I believed that over 50% of all problems were at least in part due to unforgiveness. Now, after more than 20 years in ministry, I’ve concluded that 90% of all health, marital and family problems are rooted in unforgiveness.” Unforgiveness stops us becoming the person we could become. It’s very difficult to be a disciple of Jesus and to carry out his commandments of loving God and loving other people, if we are carrying around a load of bitterness. As Mother Teresa said, “If we really want to love, we must learn how to forgive.”

      Why doesn’t Jesus mention the person apologizing or making recompense to us before we forgive them? Surely that is the least we can expect? But that’s not the way forgiveness works. “I’ll forgive you, if you say you’re sorry” isn’t true forgiveness. Forgiveness, by its very nature, can’t be conditional, because, like love, it is a state of heart and mind. Forgiveness is the way we feel about the other person; it isn’t a matter of words or of actions.

      Forgiveness isn’t the same as letting someone off punishment. The parents of a boy blown up by terrorists and a teenager killed by a gang publicly forgave the murderers but that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t want them put into prison to protect society. We can forgive without forgetting. Someone who’s been abused can forgive without allowing the perpetrator back where he could hurt them again. True forgiveness is a change of attitude within us, a healing of the resentment (which can take a long time, if we have been badly hurt; because wounds need time to heal). It’s changing the way we feel about the other person. We can forgive people even if we never have the chance to tell them, even if they are already dead, even if they don’t acknowledge they’ve done anything wrong. True forgiveness isn’t dependent on the response of the other person. It’s a matter of us rising above what has happened and not allowing what has been done to us to hold us back spiritually.

      The other side of forgiveness is our own need of forgiveness for things that have damaged our relationships with others and come between us and God. Just saying sorry is not enough; we really have to mean it. Repentance means change; being sorry means earnestly trying to change, so we don’t do it again. Of course, the operative word is “try”; being human means we might well slip up; but we have to keep trying not to repeat our mistakes. Repentance doesn’t earn us the forgiveness of God, because that is already available to us. We can’t do anything to buy God’s forgiveness, because it is a gift. God’s “grace” is given freely. Unforgiveness with all its spiritually damaging facets can’t be part of the nature of a God of love. “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners” symbolises a forgiving God taking the initiative, long before we get round to repentance. Jesus didn’t die so that just Christians could be forgiven. He died to show the extent of God’s unconditional love for everyone.

      Reconciliation moves beyond forgiveness. The restoration of right relationships between people necessarily involves the responses of both sides. Although forgiveness had taken place long before the prodigal even realises he has done anything wrong, reconciliation could not take place until the boy was ready to be restored to his place in the family. Similarly, forgiveness is already there for us, but we have to recognise our need of it and to accept it, so that we can be restored into a proper relationship with God. God’s forgiveness is available and we can be reconciled with him, but we have to move on from where we find ourselves; we can’t turn the clock back. Forgiveness and reconciliation don’t change the past, but they certainly make a huge difference to the present and the future.

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      1. We talk a lot about forgiving others and being forgiven, but for some people the most difficult thing is to be able to forgive oneself. It may be that there is something we have done or failed to do that we still harbor guilt about even if it is long in the past. It may even be something that was done to us and we can’t help feeling that somehow we might have partly been responsible and we secretly blame ourselves. We end up trapped inside a circle of blame, shame, and guilt. The spiritual freedom that Jesus offered – and still offers – is to break away, with God’s help, from the unhealthy memories, attitudes and obsessions that chain us to the negative aspects of our past.

        Some find it difficult to accept that God’s forgiveness is readily available and unconditional. For them, it is helpful to go through some form of penance or ritual or to say the sinner’s prayer. It’s a clear step that they can take, and it is easier for them to see Jesus’ death as a form of transaction. This positive step turns into a negative when some religious leaders insist that one can’t enjoy forgiveness, unless one follows a certain ritual, says a specific prayer or believes particular doctrines.
        …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
        Father God, it’s never easy to let go of the past in our own strength. But you have shown us through the life of Jesus that we can be freed with your help. We ask for healing of our spiritual wounds and for the help to make a fresh start, to look forward to the future with the peace of mind and hope that come from journeying with you as disciples of Jesus in the power of the Spirit. Amen

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  7. Yes, Pavel, you express the unconditional forgiveness of God and our need to forgive ourselves and those who offend us. The nagging thought that keeps coming to my mind is that life is more complicated than that. Let me tell you about “Alice”. She was systematically abused by her husband (pillar of the community, local preacher). The abuse was physical and mental in that he would say, ”Look what you have made me do!” “You are a bad person and deserve this treatment!”. “It is the devil inside you!”. When he started to turn his attention to her daughter Alice went to the minister for help, or at least someone she could talk to about this. The minister, obviously way out of his depth, latched on to the fact that Alice said she felt that it was somehow her fault and she felt guilty. Instead of suggesting that she should not feel this guilt, he told her she was a sinner in need of redemption and as far as her family life was concerned she must forgive her husband!
    For her, in her situation there was no possibility of reconciliation since the husband would not even discuss the possibility that his actions were wrong. Alice left him, and the church, and brought up the children on her own. Years later Alice said that she realised that she had forgiven herself and did not carry the guilt anymore, Also she felt she could forgive her husband and even the minister, but in no way would she ever forget what he had done.
    So for me, and probably for Alice, the wonderful unconditional love of God is inclusive and non-judgmental – God forgives and forgets the offence. But the love we have for others may sometimes be conditional and it is our duty to forgive, but remember the offence.
    Theologically forgiveness appears to be something of a problem since if we are to follow Jesus we presumably should always forgive and forget. I get round this by saying that we are motivated to forgive and forget, but in practice God expects us to forgive, but remember the offence.
    I would value your thoughts on this matter Pavel.

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    1. Churches too often confuse forgiving with forgetting and with letting someone off a deserved punishment. They also seen to see justice as all about retribution and ignore restorative justice and preventative justice.
      We’ve seen over the past few decades what happens when a child-abusing priest or other church worker is forgiven by the church authorities and quietly transferred to a parish or placement where he isn’t known, so that it can all be forgotten and he can make a fresh start. Would it be right for a convicted fraudster, who is converted in prison, to be made Circuit treasurer when he is released? Surely, part of our duty of care for others is to take account of their weaknesses and not put them in situations where they will be faced with temptations they might not be able to resist. We can’t do that if we ignore what has happened. Churches are vulnerable to safeguarding issues, because of the assumption that anyone who expresses the ‘right’ beliefs and talks with enthusiasm about their relationship with Christ must be suitable to work with children, young people or the elderly, regardless of their past. In a domestic situation as well, we can forgive without forgetting. Someone who’s been abused or subject to controlling and coercive behaviour can forgive without allowing the perpetrator back where he could hurt them again.

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