Memories are important to helping me understand what Gods Kingdom will be like.
Forgiveness is one of those things we are taught from a very young age. When you play with friends or siblings and you accidentally hurt one another, you are told to forgive instead of hitting back. If you grew up Christian like me, then you will have heard about forgiveness much more often as God forgave our sins through the death of his son Jesus.
But when you’re an adult, this becomes a lot more complicated. As you get older, feelings become more complex and people’s wrongs have more ways to hurt you. The damage caused is not fleeting and can last for years if not decades if harmful enough. This post is about the complicated nature of forgiveness from both sides of the story. As someone who has been hurt and has hurt others I am developing a far more nuanced, if not necessarily more comfortable perspective.
Being wronged by someone else hurts a lot, and it can hurt in a lot of different ways; physically, financially, but for the sake of this blog we will focus on emotionally. Being hurt can trigger a wide variety of emotions such as sadness, anger, confusion, feelings of betrayal, fear, etc. You can feel like all of these emotions are being felt simultaneously, swirling around and cascading down on top of you. But one question you will need to answer for yourself is ‘can I forgive this person for what they have done?’
Forgive us as we forgive
The Lords prayer is a prayer delivered by Jesus, and is perhaps the most famous prayer ever uttered. For centuries Christians have used this prayer as a model for the perfect prayer. In a sense it is the distilled elements of any prayer that might be given, whether standing in front of a congregation, or alone on your knees at the foot of your bed. But for our purposes, we need only look at one part. In this line, Jesus does a very important thing; he ties our ability to forgive to God:
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Matt 6:12, NIV).
Lets be unambiguous here; you will not always be the victim. As a human being, it is pretty much guaranteed that you will be on the other side of this equation at some point, and depending on your beliefs or creed you may approach God for forgiveness. Jesus understood this, and therefore chose to make sure that we understood that our ability to be forgiven is based on whether we can forgive others. Later in Matthew Jesus tells us ““Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” (Matt 7:1). When we have the power to forgive and choose not to, we are making a moral judgement, that this persons crime is not worthy of forgiveness. Jesus reminds us that we also have to ask for forgiveness sometimes, and that if we are not a forgiving person, we cannot expect God to be for us.
The Cost of Forgiveness
I love the phrasing of the NIV version of the Lords prayer for the passage we used. Rather than other versions that might translate to sins, this translation uses the word debts to refer to our wrongs.
We live in a world that bases itself on economic value, personal worth, compensation and debt. I’m sure you will have seen adverts on the telly offering short-term loans, and then in the small print collect huge rates of interest. We grow up learning to pay others back for what we owe them, and thats not a bad thing. Its a good practice to get into and also saves you from being a drain on your friends.
Being wronged is like someone incurring a debt to you. You expect to be paid back, or in some ways to collect on that debt. Lets say someone hits you in the face – you want to punch them right back, right? Or when you were younger and one of your siblings broke one of your toys, you want to break one back to make things fair. When someone insults you or hurts you emotionally you want to lash back, calling them names and saying the things you know will hurt them most.
It all goes back to our concept of repayment and fairness. The fact this person wronged you was unfair, and that must be made right somehow. But that is not how the gospel works and its not how Jesus operated. When Peter asked Jesus how often he should forgive his brother, Jesus told him seventy times seven times. This number is not to be taken literally, but as a symbolic gesture; numbers in the Bible often represent different things, and the number seven represents completion. So Jesus is telling Peter that forgiveness must be complete every time, and also an unlimited number of times.
To forgive is to wipe away the debt owed. The slate is wiped clean, no additional payment can be collected. And I’m not going to sugarcoat this; that’s really hard. Its painful. It costs you to do it because it means you have to let go of that righteous rage that you feel when you confront that person. And its so natural to find it difficult because its the opposite way to every instinct of every person who has ever lived. Except one.
So why is this spiritual debt relief important? It all comes down to power.
Every relationship you have involves a power exchange. Power is unevenly distributed between people based on any number of things; money, athletic ability, looks, popularity, expertise, age, gender, race, you name it. If its a thing, power can be exchanged. As we have discussed, forgiveness is a way of wiping away the power you have over your wrongdoer, but it also has a positive effect for you also.
Proverbs 29:11 reads Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end” (NIV). Acting on your impulses for revenge may feel good initially, but only bring more anger in the future. Sometimes it can explode out in unexpected directions, hurting others not involved in the original wrong. But letting go of the anger and the power you have also means that that person no longer has power over you. Holding a grudge means that that wrong is taking up valuable space in your head when it could be used for something far more beautiful than anger and hate.
You can free yourself from that by forgiving. Wiping away a debt owed involves you taking on an enormous cost on yourself initially, but eventually you will be better off for it, having achieved a spiritual peace.
So that’s the perspective from the position of being wronged. These thoughts are not new thoughts, as I have been ok with this for a long time. What follows however are thoughts from the other perspective, and they are thoughts that I am far less comfortable with, but I feel they are the right thing.
Welcome to the other side. If you haven’t already, you will probably end up on this side of the equation at some point in your life. You may also be seeking to repair the damage done, or at least considering it. Hopefully this letter will help you understand some stuff a bit better, but fair warning, it may not make you feel better about it.
You have to ask
Seeking forgiveness is the most important step you can take. You must show remorse for what you have done, be truly sorry for the hurt you have caused. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry Ron and Hermione discuss Voldemort’s horcruxes, enchanted objects that contain parts of Voldemorts soul that he created by ripping his soul apart in acts of extreme evil. Ron asks Hermione if someone with horcruxes could put themselves back together. Hermione says the only known way is remorse, truly feeling what you have done, but that its extremely painful and that the pain of it can destroy you.
You have to be willing to put yourself in a position to be hurt (we will come back to this later). This involves removing your own pride from the equation. The temptation may be to try to defend yourself at the same time as apologising, issuing a sort of non-apology that allows you to emerge with your ego in tact. Politicians and social media figures do this all the time, “Im sorry that your feelings were hurt” being a very popular way of subtly shifting the blame to the victim for supposedly allowing your words or actions to hurt them.
The Bible uses the word repent to talk about sin a lot. Its an old-fashioned word but is useful in this context because it means a complete change in direction, a full 180 degree turn. For you to be forgiven requires an acknowledgement that you need to change. You must work on the things that cause others pain, otherwise the same things will happen over and over again.
All of this takes a lot of work on your part and assumes you are committed to showing remorse and rebuilding what once was broken by you. But perhaps the most difficult part of all of this is that things may never be the same again.
Forgiveness is not Forgetting
I write this letter because I have been in the same boat as you. In the summer of 2018 I reacted badly to a situation which in hindsight was so stupid and small, but at the time really overtook me. And that was all it took. Although things carried on as normal for a fair while after that, eventually it was one of the things that sort of ended the friendship as it was before the incident. At the time we had discussed it and I foolishly thought it was behind us, but their opinion of me had been changed once they had experienced that side of me.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about it over the past months, and I have had to come to a conclusion about being forgiven. If you’ve read the last post on this blog, then you’ll know my opinions on needing to forgive people. I think its a very healthy thing for the wronged person to do and also removes any need for further hurt in the future. However, I must make it clear here that sometimes forgiveness is seen by Christians as a sort of get out of jail free card when we hurt each other. The Bible commands us to forgive, so we then force it upon others. But forgiveness cannot and should not be a forced thing, and to do so can lead to more damage and worse consequences.
Rachael Denhollander was the first woman to accuse Doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. Nassar was the doctor for the USA Olympics Gymnastics team, and has been sentenced to between 40-175 years in prison after sexually abusing 140 women. However, Denhollander has more recently become critical of some attitudes held by churches (Denhollander is an Evangelical) that leads to them not doing due diligence to victims of sexual abuse, particularly within the churches themselves. Doing a twitter seach using the #churchtoo and the word ‘forgive’ brings up a number of stories where a victim of sexual abuse was told to forgive their perpetrator because thats what jesus would do, and the perpetrator faces no consequences.
Now this is quite an extreme example, but does get to the heart of what I want to say to you. Just because we are told to forgive, you cannot expect the person to forgive you for whatever youve done. If you said sorry and then they didn’t accept it then, you do not get to turn around and complain that they are not doing what Jesus commanded! People are complicated! Hurts can really damage us badly, sometimes destroying parts of ourselves like our ability to trust others. You are in the wrong, so you do not get to determine whether your’e worthy of their forgiveness.
But lets say that the person does forgive you or has forgiven you. What then? I think we all want things to return to how they were before we our partner/friend/colleague/stranger. we think we should act like the hurt never happened. And again, thats easy for you to say, but for the other person, that may not be possible. My actions caused my friend to look at me differently, and the damage could not be undone. It would be unfair of me to expect them to carry on as if nothing happened because that would mean I would have suffered no consequence. And thats also the thing, because the Bible does not guarantee freedom from consequence. Even where forgiveness is possible, you are not owed a continued normality afterwards. If a friendship had to end, or a relationship, then you have to accept that. It was your fault in the first place.
I’m sorry if that’s a really harsh reality. I know its tough. But sometimes the best thing you can do is to ask for forgiveness and give the other person space to heal. It may take hours, days, weeks, months, years or even never happen, but you need to let them process what you did in their own time.
So those are my thoughts on forgiveness. What do you think? Please leave a comment with your thoughts below!
A couple of weeks ago, I began listening to a podcast called It Could Happen Here, a podcast all about the prospect of a Second American Civil War. The host of the show, journalist Robert Evans, takes the listener through a list of possible scenarios that may occur if a Second American Civil War broke out. Evans, who has travelled to and covered the Ukrainian protests in the Maidan Square in Kiev, the Syrian Civil War and Iraq in the battle against ISIS, uses this experience to paint a picture of a civil war not unlike the one in Syria, with besieged cities held by left-wing separatists, to gangs of right wing militias roaming the countryside, and a state unable to handle the violence. A handful of the episodes begin with Evans narrating your life as someone trapped in a city at war, trying to maintain a life in a place where nothing is certain. The city you live in experiences violent clashes between militias, protesters and soldiers, the attempts to rebuild a normality which is then wiped out in bombings, and the subsequent flight from home as a refugee. Why do I bring this up? Apart from being an amazing podcast, Evans talks about the necessity to be prepared in case of events that change our lives.
Imagine for a moment that your life was turned upside down. Its probably a lot easier now than it would have been three months ago, perhaps even three weeks ago. As we have seen, Covid-19 has caused huge upheaval in all of our lives, whether its through uncertainty around employment, exams, or family, all of us have been affected in some way. For me, its made me realise just what a precarious position I am in in terms of employment and income; up until recently it was uncertain as to whether I would get sick pay as a zero hour contract employee. I am also worried about being a carrier of the virus whilst not exhibiting major symptoms; many of my closest friends and people I know are at risk of being severely affected by the virus.
But that’s not really what I mean when I say imagine life got turned upside down. Instead, lets think about what’s been happening in our supermarkets right now. I went to my local Tesco on Monday night for a Mothers Day card, and walked through the rest of the store to see if what I had seen on the news was true. And it was. There was barely any food on the shelves at all; no pasta, no potatoes, no rice, no paper products of any kind. It reminded me a little of a zombie movie, except the store was still lit and no one was chasing me for my brains.
But it made me really think about just how vulnerable we are to disaster. Covid-19 has caused many people to panic buy, taking as much food and other things as they can carry without a thought for anyone else. And this is thankfully for a crisis in which we can stay safely tucked up in our homes! Imagine if we had to leave en masse for a natural disaster such as a flood or hurricane, or were left without power and access to other services. Imagine if that happened tomorrow:
- would you have enough food, or would you know where you could get more food if you needed it?
- Would you have access to clean water or a method of making your own?
- would you have suitable clothing in case you needed to travel long distances, potentially on foot?
- would you have enough medicine, or even know someone who could treat any injuries?
There is a necessity to being prepared for unexpected events. Life as we know has changed, and i don’t think we can now go back to whatever “normal” was after this. So much of our world and its systems have been shown to be flawed, whether its the medical preparation for pandemics, the number of people who are unable to save money, the fact so much wealth is concentrated into the hands of a few. The world is a house of cards that could topple at any time. Our modern wisdom of individualism and capitalism have come up short against this crisis and will come up short, and will do again. But perhaps there is some older wisdom that may help us.
Be Prepared for the Unkown
“The wise store up choice food and olive oil, but fools gulp theirs down.”
Proverbs 21:20 NIVUK
Now we are so detached from the food making process, that it probably didn’t occur to many people in the West that starvation is a real potential threat within the next few decades. We are so used to having full supermarket shelves, it’s the first time I remember in my life that people in this country may not know where their next few meals will come from if they can’t access food.
We must remember however, for us, this is a new phenomeon. When the Bible was written, people were far more vulnerable to sudden changes, particularly in food supply. If your local harvest failed one year, you may not have enough to eat, or even have enough money to buy food! You could be one bad season away from starvation. So people had to be careful with food and resources because you never knew when scarcity would strike.
So preparedness is already part of the Bible. Before the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites had packed everything and were told to eat unleavened bread (bread without yeast) so they could leave at a moments notice. They were only in Egypt in the first place because centuries before, Joseph had stored grain to prevent starvation during a famine, which lead his family to come to Egypt.
Jesus once told a parable about ten virgins, half of whom were wise and the other half foolish. They were waiting for the bridegroom of a wedding to arrive for the wedding party, but the bridegroom had not appeared by nightfall. The wise virgins being savvy had packed oil so they could light their lamps, but the foolish ones hadn’t prepared at all. They had to rush off to find oil, and while they were gone, the foolish virgins were locked out of the party, all because they weren’t ready. No this story is often told in the context of the Kingdom, but its just as relevant to peoples lives today. If you’re not prepared for unexpected events you will be caught unawares.
So I hope this post has made you think about being prepared. We are fools if we don’t prepare. Events like this do not always come with warnings, but we are getting some. The growing danger of manmade climate change will likely increase the frequency of pandemics, famines and natural disasters, threatening our way of life. So what are we going to do about it? We know the world is getting worse, that our very existence could be under threat within decades. So what will you do to prepare for it?
But in some ways, the more important question is who are you preparing for? Just yourself? Or do you have others in mind?
Life’s been stressful lately. When I think back to the past year or so, there have been very few periods in that year where I haven’t felt slightly panicked or … Continue reading Peace, Perfect Peace: Nottingham Walking Weekend
“We can do this the easy way, or the hard way…”
A huge part of the Christian life is self-reflection. It is baked into the very core of the beliefs I hold; by choosing to be baptised I acknowledged that I am a person in need of changing and that would require a lifetime of examining myself and my actions. Christianity is realising you are broken, but by Gods grace we can be better.
As such, I try to keep myself in check, particularly by trying to be empathetic to someone else’s situation. This is tricky and I often fail at doing so (more on that later), but in the whole I want to try and improve myself. Understanding how others see the world and themselves is a very useful tool to have when dealing with the world and other people. And that’s also understanding how they see me also. When someone looks at me, what do they see?
Privilege has become a buzzword in the 21st century, particularly in the past decade. When people talk about privilege, they talk about the advantages you have as a person that help you get further in life. Basically, I got the privilege jackpot; I am a white cis-het middle class male, born into one of the most prosperous nations on Earth. I think a misunderstanding of the conversation around privilege is that privilege automatically makes life easier, and people who do not wish to reflect on their privilege will often point to the existence of poor white people relative to rich black people to “prove” that privilege does not exist. But this is a severe misrepresentation of what privilege means. Having certain privileges does not mean your life would be easy, it just means someone in your position but didn’t look like you would have an even harder time being successful.
I am very much aware that I have been blessed with amazing privilege. It is a shame the things listed in the previous paragraph do give me advantages over others, because the world is a messed up place. I therefore try and be conscious in my interactions that I do have certain power within conversations over others and therefore try and mitigate that. I read the tweets and articles written by women, PoCs and LGBTQ people to try and broaden my perspective and make it less likely that I will make a faux pas.
Buuuuuut that doesn’t always happen.
Learning a Lesson
Life has a habit of trying to teach you things.
Depending on who you are, life can give you easy or hard lessons. I try and maximise my opportunity for receiving easy lessons as opposed to hard ones. for example, I like to read books to learn how others coped with things that might be useful to me. But sometimes life serves you up a lesson that swings in like a fist wrapped in barbed wire. My breakup last year was one of those times; I learned that my unresolved trauma had damaged my relationship and that some of my other more minor flaws (but flaws nevertheless) also contributed to its end. I have thus far done a poor job in addressing these, but I know that I need to work through some stuff in order to move on. But today was another time where I was punched by a life lesson.
Although I try to be aware of my privileges that I listed above, I had a blind spot towards quite an important one; my physical ability. It speaks to a lot about society and the circles that I travel in that I don’t actually know anyone closely who is themselves disabled. I am only dimly aware of issues surrounding disability.
So I was waiting by my staff lift today when a student walked up to the lift, put her card against the reader (I didn’t see if it went green) and tried to get in the lift with me. I told her it was a lift for staff members only, and she very quickly said she was disabled. Now, disabled students have card access to the staff lift, but often students without disability will try and blag their way into using it.
This is where I made my big mistake. I looked at the girl. She was not in a chair or using a stick, so I wrongfully assumed she wasn’t disabled. I asked her “are you disabled?” And she replied back “I am legally registered blind, and the fact you asked me that is bang out of order.” I mumbled an apology and she got out on the next floor. Her friend complained at the desk later on when I was there and I admitted my mistake and that I was sorry I ever made it. I also said if the girl wanted to hear it directly from me I would be willing to give her one.
So life really taught me a lesson today. I shouldn’t assume that people without visible signs are not disabled. I need to remember that I have more privileges than I am aware of and I need to fundamentally shift my perspective by bringing in the views of disabled activists to better understand how I can be better. For a while I have been reading the tweets of Sharon Dingle, a Christian author who is herself disabled and who has also adopted children who are disabled. Her tweets are funny, heartbreaking and informative, but I realise I need to pay more attention to her tweets about her experience with disability.
My life is full of mistakes. I stumble down this road, constantly tripping over my own wrongdoing and bad decisions. I know that when the Kingdom comes, I will be changed for the better permanently, but here and now, with Jesus’ help, I need to learn to be better, for the sake of myself and those who I meet along the way