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Another England penalty shoot-out failure takes its toll

God forgives us, so we should forgive others. Why do we make a hash of such a simple equation?

If our lives were governed entirely by logic - like the Vulcan race supposedly is in Star Trek, we would always forgive other people. This parable in Matthew’s Gospel shows the compelling logic at work in the Christian faith. God has forgiven me – forgiven you – so much that we should forgive others the much tinier offences which distort our relationships. Thankfully we are not just buttoned-up Vulcans unable to register the depth and complexity of human emotion. Unfortunately these volatile feelings sometimes get in the way of forgiveness.

Christians often tie themselves in knots over the issue of forgiveness. ‘yes, I believe in forgiveness’ he says ‘but frankly she has no idea how much she’s hurt me and someone needs to put her in her place’. Lashing out at someone else is a darkly satisfying human emotion which highlights the tension between what St. Paul called the old nature and the new nature of the Christian.


It’s obvious that the first Christians were just as mixed up as we are over this question. The parable begins with Peter asking Jesus: ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?’ Brackets: please tell me there is a tipping point at which I can reasonably turn from being Mother Theresa into the Terminator.


This is a good example of the early Christians cutting and pasting the words of Jesus to meet an acute spiritual need. There was no Church when Peter supposedly asked Jesus this question and so it may have been glued together to a parable of Jesus to answer a common question in the early Church. Peter may well have asked this question at some point. It was certainly in character because he was impetuous and this is likely to have landed him in more conflict than most. The lead up to this parable also suggests that it concerns the relationship between Christians in the fellowship of the Church and not with relationships in the outside world. This is a distinction worth bearing in mind when the issue is debated, in case we blur the boundary lines. You often hear people talk about the value of forgiveness in the life of the victim because it helps them to move on. I am sure this is true, but the reason Christians are called to forgive is not in the first instance to help themselves, but as a response to the grace of God shown to them personally.


This particular dynamic - God forgives us, so we should forgive others - is a simple equation we proceed to make a hash of. It reminds me of a maths lesson at school where the teacher would explain to the class how to work out a sum at the front and I would understand the answer as it unfolded, yet when it came to do the sums myself I would stare blankly at the page in front of me trying to remember the connections the teacher had made so effortlessly. This simple equation - God forgives us, so we should forgive others - gets messed up because of the way we cannot resist interrupting its pure logic.


Two particular errors are made which spoil this logic. The first is people who won’t say sorry or even accept they have done anything wrong, leaving the victim angry yet still with the onus on them to forgive because of their shared faith. Forgiveness usually isn’t difficult when the other party is willing to say sorry because the apology is itself an act of justice, a putting right of what they have done wrong. Most people find it easy to soften when the other person genuinely says sorry.


It is amazing, however, just how bad people can be at admitting they have done anything wrong at all. The human heart is endlessly self-deceiving and as trust diminishes in modern society, people tend to protect themselves from others by never admitting mistakes. This was first done in the public realm to protect people from litigation but it has leaked insidiously into private relationships, affecting the whole culture. We use a form of words like: ‘I’m sorry you feel this way about what I did’, which isn’t an apology at all and actually implies the other person is being thin skinned and petty minded. This is where Christians should express their distinctiveness. When people have a sense of God’s grace towards them they should be more willing to own up with integrity.


Peter knew this, but he also knew where the logic of forgiveness takes you. If God is willing to forgive us time and again, must we show the same attitude to others? Jesus’ answer is that we should be ready to forgive people again and again: seventy-seven times the passage says – in other words an absurdly high number of times. No wonder the response of the disciples to this in Luke’s Gospel is the astonished cry: ‘Lord, increase our faith!’


The second error which spoils the logic of forgiveness is when someone won’t forgive you even when you have said sorry. It is awful when this happens - and I expect you have had experience of it. It takes courage to apologise because it puts you in a vulnerable position where you might be taken advantage of. If you have been just once manipulated in this way it can influence your life for some time to come. Not that the other person usually says something as brazen as: ‘I won’t forgive you’. Instead it is usually wrapped up in dishonest terminology like: ‘I’ll forgive you but I can’t forget’ which really means ‘I’ve marked your card, mate’. The Bible describes God as forgetting our confessed sins. Although it can take some time for us to overcome the feelings of hurt we sustain, we know from experience that healing really is possible where people are eager to put the past behind them. Life for a wise person is too short and too precious to remain poisoned.


The real reason we struggle so much with the simple dynamic of saying sorry and forgiving others is because we have such a poor understanding of how much God has forgiven us. Our culture has become more anthropocentric as time goes on – it is human-centred, not God-centred - and increasingly obsessed with personal entitlements rather than duties towards God. We have little awareness of just how holy God is because we’re not looking his way like we ought to be. Instead we are gazing at ourselves and are secretly admiring what we see because we have not allowed God into the picture. Holiness and sinfulness have become unfashionable but instead of liberating us, this development has meant we treat each other more harshly, not less, because grace figures less commonly in our judgment.


Many relationships in the Church remain broken because no-one is willing to take the vulnerable first step of making up. People justify inertia because each party has a different version of the truth and are waiting for the other one to put it right. What Jesus teaches in this parable is that God is not interested in their version of the truth, he expects one of the parties to take the first step to restore the relationship. That is where God’s truth is actually found – in living out forgiveness. We are all aware of our inadequacies in this area. What we can’t permit is for the difficulty and complexity of this question to result in paralysis. We cannot make excuses to a God who has pardoned us and Jesus was uncompromisingly hard about this. When it comes to forgiveness the Nike slogan says it all: ‘Just do it!’


To which we may need to add: ‘Lord, increase our faith!’



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