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When you can’t forgive

18 April 2019

The Easter gospel does not mean that every victim has a duty to let bygones be bygones, argues Stephen Cherry


The memorial in Hyde Park commemorating those lost in the London terror attacks on 7 July 2005

The memorial in Hyde Park commemorating those lost in the London terror attacks on 7 July 2005

WHEN we read in St Luke’s Gospel the words of Jesus as he prayed for the forgiveness of those who put him to death with the words, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” we find ourselves touched and moved by his generosity of spirit. Forgiveness amid horrors is one of the most impressive acts that we can witness.

Perhaps we are also challenged. If Jesus could forgive from the cross, why can’t I forgive those who have, by all objective criteria, done me significantly less harm?

There are undoubtedly people for whom this has been a helpful question. The challenge has been the right one, unlocking in them the ability to overcome their anger, resentment, or desire for retribution towards one who has done them harm.

But I want to suggest another possibility. Are there those for whom this is not the right challenge? Are there people who, although they seek to follow in the way of Christ, might quite rightly decline to forgive?

Even to raise this question seems to go against the grain of the message that we would most earnestly want to preach as part of the Easter gospel. Christ has triumphed over evil and sin as well as death. Should we not, therefore, forgive and forget, and be reconciled to one another in newness of life?

We are to be “dead to sin”. Surely this means that we are neither to let our lives be dominated by our responses to the sins of others, nor to indulge our own negative, bitter, or retributive emotions.

The absolute sacrifice of Christ and the power of his example rightly inspire us, and his moving words from the cross must always inform our actions and attitudes. And yet to leap from “Jesus did it” to “I should do it,” or to “You should do it,” is a short cut that we would be wiser to avoid.


IN REAL life, questions of forgiveness are far subtler and more complicated than they often seem when considered in the abstract — or, for that matter, when stories of the heroic forgiveness of others are presented either in the heated immediate aftermath of an atrocity, or after many years have passed.

Forgiveness is a subject that needs to be handled with care and sensitivity, especially by pastors and preachers. The right word, at the right time, offered in the right way, may lead someone who has been harmed towards a genuine and liberating journey of forgiving.

The wrong word, however, offered in the wrong way, at the wrong time, despite being well-intended, could make life worse for someone who is already damaged by what has happened to them.

Needless to say, there is a range of definitions of forgiveness. For some, forgiveness is about shaking off resentment; for others, it is a decision not to hate. Others say that it is not about feelings, but about behaviour: to forgive is to decline to retaliate or to take revenge. For others, forgiveness is to rescind a legitimate punishment.

In Christian circles, forgiveness and reconciliation are understood to be closely related, because there is an overarching belief in community and fellowship. For the Christian, the absence of forward momentum towards reconciliation renders forgiveness suspect.

Therapeutic psychologists, on the other hand, see forgiveness as a distinctive process that happens within an individual who is thereby freed from the negative emotions towards a person who has harmed him or her.

This would not normally involve that other person, as forgiveness is not about others at all. It is an internal matter. The advantage of this is that someone who has been harmed is not reliant on the person who harmed him or her to initiate a forgiveness process.


IT IS worth noting that different religions approach forgiveness differently. The Buddhist approach is rather like that of the psychologists. It emphasises the self-poisoning effects of negative emotions, and encourages people to let their resentment and anger melt away so that they may achieve peace of mind.

The monotheistic religions all place a greater emphasis on justice, and tend to have more respect for the value of the indignation that we feel when we have been harmed. Islamic teaching sometimes makes distinctions according to whether the victim had the power to do anything other than accept his or her fate.

PAThe memorial in Hyde Park commemorating those lost in the London terror attacks on 7 July 2005

It does not consider the situation in which the victim has no choice but to accept and suffer as virtuous forgiveness. Forgiveness can be said to have taken place when the victim has power to extract revenge or leverage appropriate punishment, but declines to do so.

In the Jewish tradition, the only one who can forgive is the victim. God is forgiving, but does not forgive in the place of the victim. This is evident at Yom Kippur, when the liturgy makes it clear that, if the offence being confessed is interpersonal, then confession — and reparation — needs to be made to the person who has suffered. When that is sorted out, then God’s forgiveness is relevant and possible.

Forgiveness lies at the heart of Christianity. It is mentioned in the Lord’s Prayer, and, in St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has strong words of condemnation for those who do not forgive. It is one of the virtues mentioned in several of the epistles — alongside compassion and love — and Jesus authoritatively and regularly pronounces the forgiveness of sins, a phrase that is an article of belief in the Apostles’ Creed. And, as we have seen, the dying Jesus prays that his father will forgive those who are murdering him.


THE forgiveness that is integral to the Easter faith that we share is not, therefore, the forgiveness of therapeutic psychology or Buddhism. It is the forgiveness of God which flows from the reconciling sacrifice and resurrection of Christ.

Christians are invited to share in the divinely forgiving attitude, and there are times when we absolutely should forgive in a thoroughgoing sense: when, for instance, the harm we have suffered has healed, and the person who hurt us has had a serious change of heart and mind, and shows a reliable change of behaviour towards us.

In other circumstances — for instance, when we are still suffering, or when we cannot trust the person who hurt us not to do so again if we let our guard down — then forgiveness is often inappropriate.

The message for pastors and preachers at Easter is: “Jesus lives; the most profound, unlikely and freeing forgiveness has happened at a cosmic level; so let us now allow that spirit and energy to permeate our communities and personal lives.”

But it is vital to be clear: the Easter gospel does not mean that every victim has a duty to forgive under every circumstance. Sometimes, it is wiser and truer to say, “It’s not time for forgiveness yet,” and to help someone carry the burden of resentment, indignation, and possibly bitterness and the desire for retribution in such a way as causes no more harm, until things change.

Forgiveness is wonderful and important. So, too, is the care and support for those for whom the time to forgive has not yet come.


The Revd Dr Stephen Cherry is the Dean of King’s College, Cambridge. He will deliver the 2019 Queen’s Foundation lecture, “Is forgiveness the answer? Reflections on living well after violence, abuse, or betrayal”, at Bournville Parish Church, Birmingham, on 13 May, at 7 p.m. www.queens.ac.uk/news/queens-foundation-lecture-2019

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