Another of my Lent thoughts.
I’ve been thinking about forgiveness.
I’m wondering what the impact is of living a life unforgiven – both from the point of view of forgiveness for something you have done, or from the perspective of just not being able to forgive something done to you.
I like to think I’m good at forgiveness.
The boyfriends who dumped me? You know what, you were probably right. It was awful at the time. But I’ve a lovely husband and an adorable son and wouldn’t have it any other way. That wouldn’t have been possible without you. See? Easy.
But forgiveness is not easy.
People that impress me are not the Beckhams and the rich and famous. These people have done well for themselves, but ultimately they are not really heroic. This week we went to Warrington (not the town centre, just the IKEA) and we talked about what it mean to us. To my husband who grew up in that area, it’s the memories of his childhood. To me, from nearly 300 miles away, Warrington is a name with other connections – sad ones. I think of the IRA bomb that killed two children. Colin Parry, father of Tim, is a hero. His forgiveness of the people that murdered his son so indiscriminately, so futilely, and his continued pursuit of peace are what impresses. “Forgive and not forget” is at the heart of his message.
And there must be days when he has to deal with the people that did this when the anger, the hurt, these things ressurge and forgiveness seems impossible.
Forgiveness after all, seems to me to be dynamic – it has to be worked at and remembered or it slips away.
And always the question, if it was you, could you forgive?
The scale of forgiveness required can be awesome. Can you forgive, but not forget, and move on at more than an individual level? Well, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa had a go at it after apartheid and is generally thought to have succeeded.
In Matthew 18:21- 22, Peter asks Jesus “How many times shall I forgive my brother? Seven times?”
And Jesus says, “not seven times but seventy times seven (seventy seven times in other translations)”.
Obviously he didn’t say the bit in brackets… and the actual number is not important, the point of the story is that the Law (for which the rabbis at the time has said forgiving twice was sufficient) is now being fulfilled by Jesus who was saying that forgiveness mattered so much that it should not be a simple matter of enumeration.
And it may be even more important than that. In Matthew 6:14-15 Jesus says “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Jesus forgave on behalf of God, with an audacity that shocked (in claiming to forgive sins commited against others and against God, which is God’s prerogative, he was claiming to be God).
And we are called to forgive too. It’s there in the Lord’s prayer – forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. We say these words but do we think about what they actually mean? Is forgiveness for ourselves conditional? Is refusing to forgive a sin?
Who are we to stand in judgement over others? It’s not just about specks and planks in our eyes, it’s about how we stand in God’s eyes. And it’s by God’s grace that we can be forgiven, given how badly we measure up against his standards. To see what I mean try Philip Yancy’s “What’s so amazing about grace?” – still one of my favourite books 7 years after being given a copy by a friend from church.
Of course recognising the importance of forgiveness is not just a Christian thing. Google “why is it important to forgive?” and you get 10,700,000 results, and that’s only in English. From this life coach to this islamic questions website, there’s recognition that peace in your heart can only come from forgiveness.
Lily Tomlin summarises forgiveness like this: “To forgive is to give up all hope for a better past“.
It’s about letting go, stopping trying to “what if” the past away, stopping trying to rewrite it, stopping trying to find someone to blame, stopping the anger. And it is so, so hard. But not being able to forgive burns, eats away, and hurts you so much. And that’s whether you can’t forgive others, or whether you feel unforgiven and can’t forgive yourself. It’s no wonder that everyone encourages you to try.
So we have to make an active choice to forgive, and once we’ve done so, we need to remember that we have done so, and why we have done so, and to not bring it all up again with all the anger and hurt as fresh as the day it happened. And it’s easy to talk about it, easy to know that we should forgive as everyone tell us to, easy to believe that of course we’ve forgiven but that it’s somehow ok still to be angry and recount and mull and… Lilly Tomlin’s right. We have to give up all hope for a better past.
Can we live a full and healthy life without forgiving? The only references I’ve found to this are people talking about never forgiving an abusive parent, but not allowing it to interfere with them getting on with their lives. Every other reference to forgiveness on the internet (and I’ve been looking at this for an hour or so now) says that only by forgiving can life be lived to the full.
I’m not good at forgiving. I’ve just been extrordinarily lucky in my life to be able to. So far.
And it’s not easy at all.
But the freedom, the grace that comes with being forgiven and from letting go and forgiving, that’s worth the inner battle.