Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Questions of Faith: What Does The Bible Say About Forgiveness?


On July 7th 2005, Jenny Nicholson, got on the tube at Paddington Station, to travel to the publishing company where she worked. It was a journey she had taken many times, but it was to be her last. She was one of fifty two people killed that day, as terrorists attacked the transport network in London, Jenny Nicholson was only 24 years old.

Just over three weeks later, on the 30th July 2005, Anthony Walker, a young 18 year with a very promising future ahead of him, was brutally murdered by a gang of racists thugs in Merseyside.

The one thing linking these two stories, is that both Jenny Nicholson and Anthony Walker came from Christian families. But the families have responded to their deaths, has been quite different.

The mother of Jenny Nicholson, the Revd Julie Nicholson, found it impossible to forgive her daughter’s attackers, and resigned from her role as Parish Priest. In contrast however, the mother of Anthony Walker, Mrs Gee Walker, publicly forgive her sons killers in front of the gathered press. She went on to say that she felt no hate for her son’s killers, only sadness, she said, “Jesus commanded, ‘Take up your cross and follow me.’ So I try to stay focused and my message is peace, love and forgiveness.

Both stories, illustrate the challenge of forgiveness. As Christians we are called to be prepared to forgive, yet as we see from these two stories, forgiveness can be costly, and difficult

The reality is that many people, including Christians find it difficult to forgive.

Why is forgiving people so important?

1 We are to follow Jesus’ example

As Christians we are to follow the example of Jesus, who as he was being nailed to the cross, cried out ‘Father, forgive them’. But the reality is that to forgive someone who has wronged you is not easy.

You yourself may have been hurt in the past, and you may feel that the person who wronged you doesn’t deserve to be forgiven, but then again did the people who put Jesus to death deserve to be forgiven? No. Do we deserve to be forgiven by God when we sin against him? No. But yet God still forgives us. And we too are called to forgive because God has forgiven us. Paul in Ephesians 4:31-32 writes, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

2 Forgiving is linked to being forgiven ourselves:

We are called to forgive other people, because being prepared to forgive other people is linked to being forgiven ourselves.

In the Lord’s Prayer, there is only one petition that has any condition attached to it: it is the petition of forgiveness. Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”.

Notice that Jesus assumed we would forgive others. Forgive us, AS WE forgive others… To forgive as Christians is not an optional extra, it is something we are meant to do. Notice also that our forgiveness in effect depends on our own willingness to forgive others. If we refuse to forgive those who have hurt us, it will have an impact upon our relationship with God. Jesus said, “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 your sins.

3 Because it is part of our spiritual growth

Another reason why we are to be prepared to forgive others, is that the more we learn and practice forgiveness, the more we become like God, who himself is merciful and forgiving. As Christians what enables us to forgive is the knowledge that we ourselves have been forgiven by God. God has forgiven us, not because we deserve it, but because he is full of grace and mercy.

4 Because it is in our own interest

An unwillingness to forgive people can have a detrimental effect upon us. If we hold on to resentment, anger or hatred, it can damage us, far more than the person we are unwilling to forgive. For example, I am sure we can all think of people, whose lives have been corrupted by the strong sense of bitterness and anger that they have felt towards a person or a situation.

If we do not forgive, we shall not enter into the all the joy and freedom God wants for us. Unwillingness to forgive ties us to the past, so that we cannot move forward.

What forgiving involves

So what does the process of forgiving involve?

Forgiveness doesn’t mean denying our feelings of hurt, anger, outrage, loss, but acknowledging them, and learning to let go of them so we can move forwards in freedom.

How can you forgive someone when you have been really hurt, especially when we have been hurt or let down by those who are closest to us?

There are some practical steps we can take:

· We can talk about it, especially to a wise and trusted friend.

· We can try to understand why the person who has upset us has acted in a certain way. In 2005 Abigail Witchalls was attacked whilst walking with her young son. The attack left her paralysed, and the man who attacked her later killed himself. Despite this terrible event Professor Sheila Hollins, Abagail’s mother was able to forgive the attacker. Professor Hollins said “His death is the real tragedy in this story because he lost his life and almost certainly this was the consequence of the mind-altering drugs he was using." She was able to forgive this man, in part because she understood the effect these drugs had upon him.

We can pray:

1 Pray for ourselves, by sharing our feelings with God, and asking for his help and grace to lead us to a point where we feel we can forgive.

2 Pray for the person who has hurt us that God will bless them- this can be difficult but helpful. Jesus said pray for those who persecute you.

3 And we can pray that God will somehow use what has happened for our good.

Reluctance to forgive

Sometimes we may be reluctant to forgive. It may be that we are afraid that if we do forgive, we will in effect by saying:

· That the offence didn’t really hurt me

· That I and my feelings don’t matter much

· That we believe the offender had a valid excuse to hurt us

· That the offender need not face any consequences for their actions

· That it is okay to hurt me again.

But forgiving someone doesn’t apply any of these things. Just as when Jesus said from the cross, Father forgive them, he wasn’t saying that our sin which took him to the cross wasn’t significant, it was, but he still forgave us.

Forgiveness is not just a one off event, it is an ongoing thing. In Matthew 18:21 Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" To which Jesus replies, I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. In other words, it is an ongoing thing, and for some people, the process of forgiveness may take many years.

Corrie Ten Boom

I want to finish by telling the story of Corrie Ten Boom, and how she had to face the challenge of forgiving someone who had hurt her.

Corrie and nine members of her family were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany after it was discovered that they had been sheltering Jesus refugees at their home in Holland. Although Corrie survived the concentration camp, many of her family didn’t, including her sister Betsie.

After the war Corrie was invited to speak in many countries about her experiences and about her faith. Corrie had always talked about the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation, but in 1947 she had to come face to face with the challenge and cost of true forgiveness. She was speaking at a church in Munich, when she met one of her former guards at Ravensbruck. And this what Corrie said about this encounter.

“Memories of the concentration camp came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister's frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment of skin.

Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: "A fine message, fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!"

It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

"You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk," he was saying. "I was a guard there. But since that time," he went on, "I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein--" again the hand came out--"will you forgive me?"

And I stood there--and could not. Betsie had died in that place--could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

For I had to do it--I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. "If you do not forgive men their trespasses," Jesus says, "neither will your Father in Heaven forgive your trespasses."

Still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. "Jesus, help me!" I prayed silently. "I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling."

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

"I forgive you, brother!" I cried. "With all my heart!"

For a long moment we grasped each other's hands, the former guard and former prisoner. I had never known God's love so intensely as I did then.


The greatest symbol we have for forgiveness is the cross of Jesus. The cross also reveals to us just how costly forgiveness can be, but also how necessary it is. Mother Teresa said, If we really want to love, we must learn how to forgive. In Christ’s suffering on the cross that not only do we see true love revealed, but also the power of forgiveness to bring healing & wholeness. This is what Corrie ten Boom discovered when she met her former capture, and this is what we too can discover if we are people who are prepared to forgive.

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