The F word

He who cannot forgive another breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself. George Herbert

I smiled at the comment about forgiveness I once heard on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. Apparently it was not until 1965 that the then Pope, John Paul VI, finally and officially forgave the Jewish people for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It had taken some time to offer that forgiveness, around two thousand years to be precise. It took Jesus considerably less time. It was as he was being crucified that Luke tells us Jesus said: ‘Father forgive them…’ (Luke 23:34).

Over the years I have been the recipient of many sermons on the theme of forgiveness and I’ve even preached a few. Why is it then, I wonder, that I’m so lousy at forgiving? I’m much more likely to hang on to the hurt than to offer instant forgiveness like Jesus. And when I do respond with forgiveness, the hurt that I think I’ve thrown away has a habit of coming straight back just like a boomerang. I suspect I’m not alone.

Someone once said that forgiveness is the emotional equivalent of losing weight. It must be true that the heaviest thing we can carry is a grudge. Over the years I seem to have binged on a diet of feeling piqued at offences others have caused me. I have on occasions felt quite overwhelmed by this excess weight and its ability to keep me at a distance from those I perceive to have caused me hurt. Those who make us angry really do control us, if we cannot move on.

Some years ago I spent a week with 20 other men visiting some of the First and Second World War battlefield sites in France. We spent one day visiting Normandy and the D – Day landing beaches. The rest of the week was spent on the Somme. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life, especially the myriad cemeteries with their acres upon acres of pristine headstones standing to attention and bearing the names of their mostly teenage inhabitants.

As we walked the fields of the Somme, which have long since been reclaimed as farmland, I was amazed at the amount of detritus from the war still being unearthed, including barbed-wire, shrapnel, bullets and shells. Many of these unexploded shells still pose a threat to those who work on, as well as walk the land.

That rusting ordnance has become for me a picture of how the debris of un-forgiveness has affected me. I imagine each hurt held onto as a corroding iron bar, buried in the emotional soil of my life. These bars differ in size, but accumulatively they seriously weigh me down. Many are rusting with age, contaminating and poisoning my life and some of my relationships. I fear that some of these may be un-exploded shells, packed with explosive potential from the past and capable of destroying my present and future.

In response to this I decided to work on what I have come to call ‘my gift of forgiveness’. This gift, like an unexercised muscle had all but wasted away, so I began to use it and develop it and put it to work. The first major thing I had to do was to deal with some advice I’d been given years before which had unwittingly contributed to my tendency to neglect the concept of forgiveness. A friend of mine who is a vicar once counselled someone struggling with un-forgiveness (linked with issues from childhood) that she needed to forget the past. This forgetting, he said, would free her into forgiving.

But I reasoned that such advice was in fact a very grave error. For a start it isn’t Biblical. Nowhere does the Bible ever teach that we should or could forget the hurt done to us. Apparently only God can do that, or at least God chooses not to remember! I decided that not only is it impossible for us to forget the past, it is actually a necessary part of forgiveness to bring it to remembrance. Once we can name and shame and own the hurt done to us, we can then begin the often protracted and arduous journey that is forgiveness.

The second major issue I had to address was to begin to realise that this forgiveness thing wasn’t an event, but much more a process. My reasoning (and some of the sermons I’d heard) had always been that we should forgive once, really well and then move on. But my experience showed that in reality it just didn’t work like that. Either I was not really forgiving or alternatively my method was deeply flawed.

I remembered from the teaching of Jesus that in response to Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive, Jesus answered : ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times’ (Matthew 18: 22). The point being made here is that forgiving is like a good wine, it takes time to ferment. It is like running a hurdles race in athletics. Each hurdle has the word ‘forgiveness’ on it. We need to keep in the race and keep jumping all the hurdles. Eventually, if we persevere we will finish the race. The forgiver, like the athlete, will recognise that the race is much more an act of the will, than an emotion.

Having dealt with those two issues I next devised a strategy for dealing with the debris of unresolved hurt in my life. Each time a particular issue or hurt came to the forefront of my mind (some of which went back many years) I imagined it as a small yet heavy metal bar in the soil of my life. I would enact a ritual of pretending to pick the bar up and then dropping it away from myself, as though I were giving it over to God. I would picture it crashing to the ground. I then prayed and asked God to fill the void the bar left within me with his cleansing, healing, freeing and restorative love. Next I prayed that God would bless the person whom I felt had caused me the hurt represented by the metal bar. I found myself repeating this prayer ritual numerous times over the same hurts, until eventually I could move on. This process continues to be a source of wonderful freedom in my life and I do feel as though at last I’m loosing some of the excess emotional weight I’ve gained over many years.

One final paradox about forgiveness has been a source of struggle for me over the years. It is summed up in Jesus’ words that immediately follow the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s Gospel:

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 you. (Matthew 6: 14-15).

My struggle has been that on the surface at least, this teaching seems to promote a works based element into Christian living, or at least a divine quid pro qou; I do something (forgive) and in return I merit something from God (forgiveness).

My interpretation of these words goes like this: God’s forgiveness is free and leads to healing. But if we as individuals are full of un-forgiveness over the hurt others have done to us, then God’s forgiveness cannot get in, or at least not to the extent that we can really know freedom.

If I give a nicely wrapped gift to a child who is holding something else in her hands, she will be unable to fully open my present. She will need firstly to put down what she is holding and then her hands will be free to fully open the gift. In a similar way, if we are holding onto un-forgiveness, it will prevent us from fully opening God’s gift of forgiveness for us. So we need firstly to forgive and lay down what we are carrying and then we shall be free to fully open and receive God’s forgiveness. Therefore it isn’t a question of God not wanting to forgive us, it’s about us not being able to let his free and freeing forgiveness in. So to paraphrase Jesus, ‘It is when we forgive others, we will fully receive God’s forgiveness ourselves’.

Some people think forgiveness is a really good idea – until they have someone to forgive. I think it’s definitely a good idea, but now realise it’s nowhere near as easily or quickly resolved as I once imagined. Perhaps we preachers have made forgiveness sound too easy and too trite? Forgiveness is not about forgetting the past or pretending that what happened doesn’t really matter and can be swept under our emotional carpets.

Forgiveness is a gift, a truly wonderful gift, perhaps the greatest gift anyone can ever give. Forgiveness can set us free from the past to live loved and to live loving in the future. It can release us from the breathless grip anger can have on who and what we are. It helps us give up both our just right for vengeance and being victims. But like any gift, forgiveness (offering it and receiving it) needs to be unwrapped before it can have its freeing effect, and that always takes time and effort. Of course as Christians we have the help of the Holy Spirit in this area, which we should rely upon much, much more.