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

4 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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