We’re supposed to forgive. We’re the turn-the-other-cheek Christ followers. We’re the ones who are supposed to show grace and mercy – whether it’s deserved or not. Because we’re the ones who have been forgiven first.
But if I’m honest, when I think about forgiveness, or read the several commands to forgive in the New Testament; I don’t think they are directed at people like me: people who haven’t got anything ‘major’ to forgive people for.
Because as far as I’ve been concerned, it’s the people who have been the victims of major wrongdoing who are asked to forgive: the victims of physical, sexual, psychological and emotional abuse; those who have been betrayed by someone they love; the people who have witnessed genocide and killing sprees; the people who have lost everything at the hands of someone else.
I’ll leave the forgiveness business to people like these, I’ve thought.
We’re often stunned by examples we hear in the news of people who speak words of forgiveness through tears of pain. Take Maureen Greaves, whose husband Alan was brutally murdered on Christmas Eve in 2012 on his way to church. Speaking of the forgiveness she felt towards perpetrators Jonathan Bowling and Ashley Foster on the Today programme, she said: “It’s through God’s mercy that I have been able to extend real and true forgiveness.”
It’s precisely because she couldn’t utter such words of forgiveness that former vicar Julie Nicholson resigned from her role at St Aidan with St George in Bristol after her daughter Jenny was killed at Edgware Road in the 7/7 bombings in 2005, which we will remember this coming Monday.
Knowing that forgiveness is such a huge part of our faith, she decided to step back from her role – feeling she was unable to celebrate communion for her parishioners, take funerals or weddings, and therefore feeling like a hypocrite.
Unforgiveness can become an obsession; it affects how we see the world and how we view other people. It can eat us up inside. It can cause us to lose our faith.
Maybe that’s why it’s such a big deal; why Jesus makes such a thing of it. “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6:14).
But here’s the thing: forgiveness isn’t just something that’s asked of the Maureen Greaves and the Julie Nicholsons of this world.
Forgiveness is asked of me – daily. It’s not just about the big life-altering things.
It’s about forgiving people, daily. When I think about the number of people I need to forgive each day, the list goes on and on. I need to forgive the tourists that amble along the streets, weaving their way in and out while I’m on a head-down mission to get to wherever-I’m-trying-to-get-to. I need to forgive the little annoyances I experience when I encounter friends, relatives and colleagues, daily. I need to forgive the men that shout obscenities out of their windows. I need to forgive the drivers who don’t indicate. I need to forgive pretty much every other human being during rush-hour on the Northern Line.
Even the process of making this list is releasing me from frustrations that I didn’t acknowledge existed. I forget them because they’re not ‘major’ things. But it also tells me something about the state of my own heart – and how much I am in need of other people’s forgiveness and how thankful I am that I’ve been utterly and completely forgiven by a merciful God.