Today’s Old Testament reading from Genesis and the Gospel reading from Luke have a common theme. That theme is forgiveness. In Genesis we hear that Joseph forgives his brothers who had sold him into slavery due to their jealousy. They thought their father loved Joseph more than he loved them. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus teaches of the importance of treating others as we would like people to treat us, loving our neighbours, friends and enemies, ending in his instruction to forgive others so we ourselves may be forgiven.
A lot of the horrors in our world, both past and present, have been caused by lack of forgiveness. An inablility to forgive can cause fall outs and ructions within families as other family members may take sides or try desperately hard to avoid becoming involved. I know of two friends who fell out and didn’t speak to one another for years because they each thought the other should be the one to apologise. Great friends with so much in common and many happy times together – what a waste! It is also interesting to imagine what the world may look like if all nations practiced forgiveness. Perhaps there would be less war, acts of violence and genocides.
One of the dominant themes of the New Testament is God’s desire to forgive fallen humanity, and to reconcile himself to humankind through Christ. In the Lord’s prayer we ask God’s forgiveness for our sins so that we may in turn forgive those who sin against us. But how does God forgive us – what might God’s forgiveness look like? In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus tells us that God is like the father who, when he sees in the distance his son who has sinned walking towards him, is full of joy, he runs to meet him, throws his arms around him, and welcomes him home. Such is the amazing generosity and love of God. Speaking to the Israelites In the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, God says “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are as red as crimson, I will make them as white as wool.” God’s forgiveness is immediate and a once and for all time act. The slate is completely wiped clean.
But of course, we are not God, and for many of us forgiveness can be a slow and difficult journey, at times along a bumpy road, particularly where we have been deeply hurt. This is a process we may have to go through several times in our life due to our individual circumstances. When we encounter Joseph in Genesis, many years had gone by since his brothers had so mistreated him, and he had had time and distance away from them. Although he had encountered them previously they had not recognised him and he had not felt able to tell them he was their brother. In today’s reading he had got to a point where he was ready to face them, and as he embraced them he wept loudly. Tears are often a sign of healing, and for Joseph the time had come when he was able to forgive his brothers. Like Joseph, we too may need space to work through our pain in our own way and at our own pace before we are able to reach the point of forgiveness.
As Christians we are meant to forgive others because Jesus teaches us to do so, but as well as improving our relationships with others, Jesus teaching is beneficial for our own mental health, and emotional wellbeing. A lack of forgiveness can lead to resentment which psychologists say is one of the most destructive ways in which we harm ourselves, and it can be a major obstacle to happiness.
Sometimes the most difficult person to forgive can be ourselves, as we can at times be our own worst critic and our harshest judge. However, research shows that people who are able to forgive themselves tend to be more satisfied with their lives and less likely to suffer from feelings of nervousness or sadness.
We know we have forgiven others when we no longer have feelings of hurt or animosity, and our attitude towards them is one of benevolence and good will. Forgiveness, however, does not always mean reconciliation, and indeed where someone has been subject to abuse, this would be highly inappropriate. Forgiveness is not about accepting or condoning bad behaviour nor denying our pain. Sometimes we need to forgive others for our own sake rather than to restore a relationship. When Nelson Mandela was asked by Bill Clinton how he could forgive his jailers he said: “when I walked out that gate I knew that if I continued to hate those people, I was still in prison.”
In 2004, the journalist Marino Cantacuzino founded “The Forgiveness Project”, an organisation which collects and publishes stories about people around the world who have been able to forgive others for the most appalling atrocities. One of the writers, Wilma Derksen, tells of the disappearance of her 13 year old daughter who was found to have been raped and murdered. Wilma explains that on the night she and her husband heard the horrific news, they decided they were going to forgive the perpetrators. Their decision was inspired by a visit they received that night from a father whose daughter had also been murdered. During the course of their conversation with him, they realised that not only had he lost his daughter, but he had lost his health, relationships, concentration, and even the memory of his daughter. He could only think of her in terms of her brutal murder; the memory of who she had been had gone. These stories are powerful because they tell of lives transformed as those who forgive are freed from the prison of bitterness and regret. But for some the pain and hurt may be so severe, they feel unable to forgive.
Forgiveness can often begin with small steps, and maybe a starting point is having the desire to forgive. Where there is no desire to forgive, a way forward may be to ask God in prayer to plant this desire in our hearts.
When we forgive, we embrace God’s gift of life, the new life in Christ, who came to set us free.