POPE FRANCIS has made mercy the theological leitmotif of his papacy and reminded us of its centrality to the gospel. In Love Mercy, Sam Wells develops what he calls Twelve Steps of Forgiveness.
There is an echo here of the 12-step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous. An alcoholic’s recovery begins with the recognition that life is unmanageable. Wells shows how conflict corrodes our lives but is frequently ignored, avoided, or denied. Acknowledging the damage that it causes is an essential first step towards forgiveness and healing. The frame of reference is wide, ranging from violence in international relations to conflict in marriage.
Heroic stories of forgiveness are largely avoided, perhaps because they make forgiveness seem exceptional. The route out of conflict in this beautifully crafted book is both practical and demanding. The chapters on ceasing to fight, telling a truthful story, and making penance are among those that ask a lot, but nothing beyond ordinary human capability.
The author illustrates some of his points with extended reflections on contemporary film and literature. I have read Ian McEwan’s Atonement again as a consequence. I was reminded why the film Priest made such an impression on me. I am left wanting to see a film that I missed: The Professor and the Madman.
These examples from the world of the arts show how fundamental the search for mercy and forgiveness is to the human condition. But, most of all, it is the exploration of scripture woven into the text so seamlessly which left this reader’s eyes opened to the gospel as if for the first time. The passage on the healing of the paralysed man in Mark 2 and the exposition of the parable of the dishonest manager in Luke 16 are worth the cover price alone.
While there is much in this book to help anyone to resolve conflict, forgive, and move on, it is not merely a self-help guide. Gradually, it becomes clear that Love Mercy is a profound theological reflection on what it means to live in the new redeemed community brought into being by Jesus Christ.
The last two steps of forgiveness are taken not by us, but by the Holy Spirit, healing us and raising us to new life in Christ. The earlier steps show just how much preparatory work needs to be done to enable such grace to be fruitfully received. Ultimately, this is a book about how to live the Christian life and what it means to be the Church. It would be a fine gift for anyone open to discovering how Christianity still has the power to transform the world, or perhaps for tired Christians who need fresh awakening to the joy to be found in loving mercy.
The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich.
Love Mercy: The twelve steps of forgiveness
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.39