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Article No. 64

The ‘S’ word

Have you noticed how some people seem to be able to forgive easily, and that other people find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to say ‘sorry’?

I remember many years ago a Scot telling me that he and, he implied, his fellow Scots, found it difficult to say sorry because of an ingrained tendency over many centuries towards the taking of revenge. When he spoke I realized yet again that we human beings are all so different that it really is quite impossible for anyone to judge others.

When someone tells us they are sorry they have hurt us in some way, it is not quite so difficult to accept as when we ourselves have to say ‘sorry’ after being the transgressor. There seems to be a difference between forgiving others and asking for forgiveness.

When someone hurts or offends you, and is in the wrong, it is quite natural to feel anger and resentment. Depending on the consequences of their actions, you might cherish that resentment. If they come to you and apologise, then it is perhaps not too difficult to forgive them. Difficult, but not as difficult as it is for us to apologise when we are the wrongdoer!

But what if they don’t apologise. Indeed, what about the case where they don’t even feel sorry in any way? They go about their life as if everything is normal, while you suffer and feel the resentment building up.

In those cases we have a choice – continue to feel the resentment or finish it by forgiving them. If you let the resentment fester then of course the time may well come when you set out to get your revenge. Or, when some opportunity presents itself to you, you might opt for acting against that person’s interests.

So we can say that we have some element of choice in the matter of forgiveness – we can choose to forgive when someone apologises, and we can do this even in those cases where there is no apology, or even remorse, by the miscreant.

When we are in the wrong we often find it very hard indeed to reach out for that little word ‘sorry’. If only we could say it more easily, more often! But we feel humbled, diminished and reluctant to say it. Our ego tells us that if we let ourselves say sorry we are letting ourselves down. In fact, of course, the opposite is usually the case. In the interaction between human beings, the saying of the sorry word is often the turning point in a relationship. Instead of relapsing into enmity, friendship can start, continue and blossom.

Sometimes, one of the reasons for our finding it so difficult to say ‘sorry’ after some dispute is that we think the other person should say it first! We actually think that we should not be the one to ‘eat humble pie’. We should not demean ourselves like this – it is the job of the other party to make the first step. What tosh! In any disagreement there are always two sides. In nearly every case there is blame to be accorded to both sides. It is very rare indeed that it is only on one side. In those circumstances does it really matter which side says ‘sorry’ first? It takes magnanimity of heart to make the first move. In a sense the first one to say ‘sorry’ is the more mature and might be seen as the winner of the dispute.

If you read Luke 17, 3-4 you get the clear message that you must forgive if the other person comes to you and repents – apologises, in today’s idiom. To shut up one’s heart and refuse forgiveness in those circumstances would be churlish indeed.

However, in Matthew (18.22+) we have a different slant on forgiveness. Christ is reported here as instructing us to forgive every time an offending brother causes us distress. Not just when he apologises. There is a wealth of difference. In the first case we only had to respond when there was a prior apology. Here we are told to forgive anyway, whether there is an apology or not. This may seem rather like going the extra mile, or offering the other cheek to be struck. It seems almost too much. How can I forgive someone unless they are sorry?

This reminds me of the argument sometimes used by some fundamentalists that God only forgives us when we are sorry and repent. I see this as another legalism.

Let us say clearly that we believe that God forgives all and everyone. He doesn’t demand a formula of words. Nor does He wait until we have changed in our heart. Indeed, it is the forgiveness of God that changes our heart! Of course the forgiveness has to be accepted by a person before he can be changed by it. Forgiveness has to be both given and received. But it is not conditional on being received! The forgiveness springs out of the nature of God, not some legal concept of transaction or payment.

Likewise, forgiveness between humans is something that springs out of the heart of the victim. He does not forgive the culprit because he has received an apology, nor even because the culprit is truly sorry. It is a response of the heart and it is spontaneous. It springs from the heart of a Christian because he has learnt of the love and forgiveness of God, which, in turn, springs from His heart.

What we are talking about here is not a transaction between people, but an attitude that is spontaneous.

Of course it is perfectly possible that the act of apology may be the trigger for a hardhearted victim to relent and forgive. That can certainly happen. But we are talking about the nature of forgiveness and where it springs from. It springs from the heart of God and it teaches us to do likewise.

But now lets move to the crucifixion. As Jesus was being nailed to the Cross he prayed ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing’. This is a remarkable prayer by any standard. Firstly, it shows an immense reservoir of love and acceptance of other people, whatever they do to harm one. Secondly, it gives us the clue as to how we can think about forgiveness in our own lives. We sometimes find it very difficult to forgive people when they are not sorry, when there is no repentance. Here we have Jesus forgiving those who are actually putting him to death. Far from being repentant, they were just doing their job. But Jesus, instead of railing against them, or condemning them or totally ignoring them, prayed for them.

What does that teach us? Surely that when we find it difficult to be forgiving there is a certain way to overcome our hesitancy. It is to pray for those who ‘despitefully use you’ to adopt the old saying.

In prayer – inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit - we can find the strength to follow Christ in forgiving even those who take away our life here on earth. We can ask the Father to forgive them and not to hold anything against them.

The key word of this passage however is not even that Jesus prayed for them. The key word is ignorance.

What Christ said in effect was this: ‘Lord these men are killing me, but they are ignorant of what they are really doing, so please forgive them. Don’t mark it down to them.’

Now we come to the crux of the whole question of forgiveness. Surely it is true that all of us are, to some extent or another, ignorant of the harm we do. We blunder about and are often thoughtless. Frequently we are blind to the effect of what we do. Sometimes we have malice and intend to do harm to another person. But always there is room to see that we don’t fully realize what we are doing and its implications.

We can perhaps forgive those who apologize. We can perhaps even forgive those who are not sorry. Even when they persist in hurting us? If we can see that their lack of repentance is part of their ignorance of the true nature of the world they live in and of their Creator-God, then perhaps we can go all the way and fully forgive them with that spontaneous love that we have received from and learned of God, whatever they do?

It is perfectly obvious to every student of human nature that lack of forgiveness in a person is a very negative factor in that person’s life. It leads to bitterness and, eventually, a twisted outlook on life. The one thing we should all do when we have been hurt, for our own mental, moral and spiritual health, is get rid of the anger and bitterness as quickly as possible. To forgive is the royal road back to sanity.

This is why the Old Testament is so clearly no longer the guide for Christians. The principle of retaliation so prevalent in the Old Testament is absent from the New Testament. Originally this principle was given with the intention of limiting the extent of revenge taken – preventing an excess of revenge. But Jesus has shown us that a like response is not the way of the Kingdom. Yet the same Old Testament edict is also evident in the Jewish State today – one can see that the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth applies in both cases. In other words, the idea that you must respond in like manner if you have been hurt, and exact due revenge. It is no use talking about forgiveness to someone who holds this as a sacred principle in their life. They cannot see the damage they do to themselves, the damage they do the other person, and the inevitable futility of their action. Such retaliation never solves any dispute. Every revenge attack merely causes more resolve on the other side to respond in like manner. The history of the Middle East has been profoundly affected by the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and even today it is resulting in countless deaths and maiming.

And now, when we look at the effect on the USA of 9.11 we may perhaps discern the echo of a similar response. Although it is perhaps covered by a veneer of righteousness ('these evil forces in Iraq and elsewhere that must be destroyed') there are some who see retaliation at the root. But retaliation has absolutely nothing to do with the Christian religion. It has nothing to do with Christ. It has nothing to do with forgiveness. It is an attempt to meet force with force. It is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Forgiveness is seen by Israel and by the Arabs, and perhaps sometimes even by the USA, as weak and ineffectual. Only force counts. The principle of the pre-emptive strike is that you should hit them hard before they hit you.

Eventually there will be a lull in the fighting when men have grown tired of killing each other. Then the talks will proceed and eventually, somewhere, somehow, the two sides will sit round a table and start the constructive path to peace. And on the table will be the first need: the absolute necessity for forgiveness. Neither side thinks that they should apologize first. Neither side thinks for one moment that the other side will apologise. But, actually, both sides could express regret for the loss of human life, and for the maiming and wounding of innocent people. Maybe each side could assume that their one time enemy was ignorant and did what they did without really understanding the devastation and hurt caused. Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.

In such an attitude lies the hope for future peace. It is the only hope for lasting peace. It leads to the Way of the Cross - at the end it all comes down to the ‘S’ word.

Tony Cross

June 2004

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