In many Anglican churches, and the one I grew up in, there is a part spoken by the congregation which goes like this:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I didn’t know when I was a kid that it came straight out of Scripture. I thought it was some clever formula dreamt up by a dusty cleric in a monastery somewhere. I since learned it comes from one of John’s letters in the New Testament, to be precise (1 John 1 v 8 – 9). It goes on to say in v 10 ‘if we say we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.’
Forgiveness is an incredibly difficult thing to do. We all have a problem forgiving people who have hurt us, and any public demonstration of this is remarkable enough to be newsworthy. The man who forgave the Lockerbie bombers whose actions killed his daughter and the Amish community who forgave the man who lined up their children and shot them in their schoolhouse, are two good examples. Forgiveness like this seems to bypass punishment or retribution. It is weird, out-of-sync with the world we live in, and even viewed as a dangerously lenient response to obvious wrongdoing.
But in the Christian world, justice is delivered by God, not by people. And the wrong that is done to people is done to God, who created them. The wrong done to people is done by people, whom God made. Tricky. In the prayer taught by Jesus to his disciples we are told to ask God to forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. For me, that means that my being forgiven is connected to my forgiveness of others. It all sounds so simple, but we know it isn’t in reality. A member of the Amish community which drew public acclaim for its forgiveness of the shooter and support for the shooter’s family immediately after the tragedy, tells a writer that it was almost easier for the community to forgive that huge evil than it was for them on a daily basis to forgive the smaller, everyday events that we can all get wound up about.
I know I need forgiveness because I mess up. Hurt others. Act, speak and think selfishly. Without God’s forgiveness I wouldn’t have a hope. But the words that I learnt as a child speak great hope. That if I confess my sins, God is faithful and just to forgive my sins and cleanse me from all unrighteousness. And why is that a good thing for me? Because it makes it easier for me to be forgiving towards myself and others when necessary. Forgiveness stops me repeating the same old scene, leaves the scab alone so that it can heal. Forgiveness saves me from becoming bitter and resentful, moves me forward. Forgiveness disentangles me from an unhealthy clinch with the person who hurt me, neutralises their power over my present, my emotions, my potential. Forgiveness releases the other to change.
Forgiveness is central to my experience of God. His offer of forgiveness is my guarantee of finding my way back when I wander off and want to return, when I’ve messed up and need to get sorted out again. The forgiveness of God is the open door at the end of the journey, the open arms.
I am adding to this post because where I originally stopped, at the end of the last paragraph, felt incomplete. I’m not aiming to make all my posts the last word on their subjects, far from it. But this one was lacking and it’s taken me a few days to find the missing piece.
I have realised in the last few weeks that a wound I received from people close to me a couple of years ago runs much deeper than I thought. I know this because I have noticed a bitterness in my tone and attitude towards them which has refused to lift or disperse, despite all my attempts to think well of them and remember all the good things I know about them. It seems to me that I have simply failed to forgive them fully. I think that I was too proud to believe that the hurt was significant. I was also too proud to let the matter drop; there is a certain satisfaction in picking at wounds, pressing the bruises to feel the pain over and over again.
And the incapacitated are limited. The wounded limp. And it’s a great excuse to blame the one who wounded you for your limp, instead of doing what you can or what you must, to sort it out.