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Why to forgive is truly divine

by
13 November 2020

Anthony Phillips reflects on ‘the jewel at the heart of Christian discipleship’

Art Reserve/Alamy

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1667/70), oil on canvas, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-82)

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1667/70), oil on canvas, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-82)

CENTRAL to Christian worship is the Lord’s Prayer. It forms part of most acts of worship, and is known by heart by millions. In contrast with a number of other petitions to God, it contains only one obligation on those praying it: the forgiveness of sins for those who have injured them.

Nothing is said about those to be forgiven, or the injuries inflicted, their nature or severity; no limit is placed on who or what should be forgiven, or on whether the perpetrator should even be aware of the forgiveness offered. The prayer, in effect, demands the signing of a blank cheque: that those offering it live in a state of having unconditionally forgiven, if they are to experience their own forgiveness from God.

In discussing forgiveness, then, it is a mistake to dwell on the person or persons to be forgiven, or the offence — however heinous. Of course, it cannot be undone. It will continue to have its consequences, which may be devastating. But forgiveness is not of the offence, but of the perpetrator. Whether that person is face to face with the one called to forgive, on the other side of the world, unknown, or even dead, is irrelevant. It is the act of forgiving which matters.

It may be that it will have beneficial consequences for others. Reconciliation, if that is still possible, may or may not result. But that should not determine whether forgiveness should be exercised.

Neither does the call to forgiveness mean that justice should not take its appropriate course, with punishment or reparation as determined. Justice has nothing to do with forgiveness. Indeed, forgiveness is, of its very essence, unfair, as the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son rightly pointed out. That is why, in theological terms, when applied to God’s forgiveness, we use the term “grace”. It is an act of undeserved love, for which the Hebrews had a special word: hesed. By imposing on the Christian an absolute duty to forgive, the Lord’s Prayer requires the forgiver to mirror the very nature of God himself. This is the cost of discipleship.

Nor should repentance be a prior condition for forgiveness. So, in the parable, the father does not wait for the younger son’s prepared words to be uttered, but, as soon as the boy is in sight, runs out to embrace him. That is the way of love, and forgiveness is pure love. Whether the recipient is prepared to accept that love is for the recipient to determine. It is an entirely separate and costly decision; for it will, of necessity, result in recognition of both the injury caused and the pain suffered by the other. Lack of that admission is not, though, a pretext for withholding forgiveness.

This in no way diminishes the importance of repentance, as the acknowledgment of our own sins in the Lord’s Prayer confirms. If the son in the parable is fully to be at one with the father, he has to utter his sorrowful words. Only by repenting can he be free. Frequently, forgiveness follows on from repentance, as in the sacrament of penance. But this is not necessarily so. Indeed, sometimes it is impossible — as when the offender is dead. Forgiveness and repentance are two different actions, by two different actors, both of whom need to free themselves from all that inhibits them.

For, as with all acts that mirror God’s love, the benefit to the forgiver is incalculable. It is well known that harbouring injury destroys, every bit as much as the injury suffered. Equally, forgiveness of the wrong frees in a way that nothing else can do. It enables the forgiver to be as they were intended to be, released from all that constrains them, and, once again, to be formed in that image and likeness of God which was intended for them in their creation. Failure to forgive freezes one in the past; forgiving liberates one for a future that can now be openly embraced.

 

IT SHOULD, then, come as no surprise to find Jesus on the cross asking his Father to “forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23.34). It is true that these words are missing from a number of manuscripts, but the fact that Luke also puts a plea for forgiveness into the mouth of the martyr Stephen as he is murdered (Acts 7.60) would point to their authenticity, as does Peter’s reference to the ignorance of those responsible for Jesus’s death (Acts 3.17). Later scribes may well have excised Jesus’s words of forgiveness, unable to stomach the idea that those who ensured Jesus’s crucifixion could be forgiven.

The importance of Jesus’s words of forgiveness cannot, then, be exaggerated. They confirm that there is no sin so dreadful that it cannot be forgiven, no matter what bestial acts humankind may inflict. Yet there have been those who have argued that — given the horrors of which humankind is capable — there are some things for which a call for forgiveness is impossible.

That is not the Christian perspective. As the Cross itself witnesses, no one can put themselves beyond the love of God, no matter what they do; for God is love and can be no other, and calls his disciples to be that love.

As in so many other ways, Christians may not be very good at being what they are called to be. But that does not nullify the call. To forgive is not a human instinct, but a divine characteristic. It is desperately hard. But, unless we keep forgiveness at the forefront of our agenda, we have very little hope of coming to terms with our past, or happily embracing our future. And that is true not just for individuals, but for communities, races, and nations, too.

By uttering his words of forgiveness from the cross, Jesus was able to die as he was brought into this world to die, at one with both God and humankind. By his death, he made atonement for all — even the crucifiers — and ensured for ever that mutual and unbreakable embrace between God and all whom he has loved into life.

As the Lord’s Prayer illustrates, forgiveness is the jewel at the heart of Christian discipleship. The Lebanese mystic Kahlil Gibran said that “kindness is the shadow of God in man.” There is nothing kinder than forgiveness — paradoxically, kind to both forgiver and forgiven.

 

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury, and author of God B.C.: God’s Grace in the Old Testament, published by Sacristy Press at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9).

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