If you are the kind of person who derives more pleasure from correcting others than from exploring questions that matter to them, I beg you to read no more. This post isn’t an exercise in theology but a musing on something I believe to be psychologically true and even necessary. As such, I make no attempt to justify what I say in theological terms but simply share a few thoughts in the hope that they may help others.
Yesterday saw the dreadful synchronicity of the feast of the Transfiguration and the bombing of Hiroshima. On 9 August we shall recall the destruction of Nagasaki with a nuclear bomb. There is something hideous, beyond parody, in the juxtaposition of the white light of the Transfiguration revealing the divine beauty in the human body of Jesus Christ and the destructive brilliance of a nuclear explosion which killed and maimed many hundreds of thousands of people. To look at photographs of the devastation is a searing experience. To be angry is a natural reaction. But is that all there is? Often military historians will argue that without nuclear intervention the war with Japan would have gone on, causing the loss of many more lives. Others counter that by saying the use of nuclear weapons crossed a moral red line and the world today is less, rather than more, safe as a consequence. Comparatively few mention the importance of forgiveness because the event itself is so huge, and for those of us living today, there is the distance that time lends. We know something is wrong, but we don’t know how to put it right.
It may be easier to look at something nearer to home and to our own time that poses the problem more starkly: how do we deal with pain and suffering, loss and destruction? We frequently hear someone say, ‘I cannot forgive . . . ‘. Sometimes it is a personal tragedy that casts a long shadow over their lives; sometimes it is vicarious pain or suffering, or even an assumption about the suffering or treatment of others that evokes such a reaction. I daresay this morning some of those who watched the Channel 4 documentary on Diana, Princess of Wales, will be taking to the internet to argue that she was cruelly treated and heaping abuse on the Royal Family. The anger will be real enough, although one may question its origins. What is constant in all these cases — Hiroshima, personal tragedy, vicarious suffering — is the need for forgiveness, for not allowing the evil that has been perpetrated in the past to warp the present or the future.
It is easy for Christians to say we must forgive. The trouble is that most of us try to go it alone when it comes to forgiveness and end up failing miserably. Of course we can’t forgive! The best we can do — and it takes some doing — is to invite God into the situation so that he can forgive and we can, as it were, piggy-back on his forgiveness. When we realise that, we also realise that we are engaged in a process. Forgiveness isn’t once for all. It is something we have to work at daily: ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.’ I forget how many times a day we say that prayer in community, mindful of St Benedict’s recommendation of it as a balm for the wounds we deal one another, ‘the thorns of scandal or mutual offence that are wont to spring up in community’. (RB 13. 12–13) I forget, but God doesn’t; he knows exactly how often we need his help in forgiving and in accepting forgiveness ourselves.
I think we might find forgiveness less of a battle if we remembered something that will shock the devout but which I have found to be true in my own life. There are times when we have to forgive God. That sounds crazy, doesn’t it? How can we forgive God, our all-holy, all-loving Creator and Redeemer? To suggest that he could ever do anything that needs to be forgiven is blasphemy, isn’t it? Theologically, yes, without a doubt; psychologically, I’m not so sure. You see, most of us hold God to account without always realising what we are doing. When the Boxing Day Tsunami struck many people who lost family and friends cried out in agony that they could no longer believe in a God who did such things. Even those who nuanced that to ‘allowed such things’ decided that the God in whom they had previously believed was not one they would trust in the future. For a few, a very few, the smashing of their old ideas of God led to a deeper and more luminous faith. At the heart of all was forgiveness or its absence. If we have a problem with forgiveness, we need to ask ourselves whether, at some level, we are holding God responsible. If we do, then I think we have explicitly to forgive God, or at least tell him we want to forgive him. I know that the most difficult experience in my own life only began to find healing when I was able to say, ‘God, I’m angry with you but I forgive you.’ It was a moment of sheer grace.
This morning we can look at the events troubling the world and see much that is wrong and that we feel powerless to do anything about. We can look at our own lives and see shortcomings and failures and private griefs that seem to limit our ability to live fully and joyfully. We know that God in Christ has forgiven sin, but we aren’t yet able to take on board all that might mean for us as individuals or as a society. Perhaps we need to make a start by honestly admitting that we harbour resentments against God as well as other people — or even ourselves. Sometimes it is only when our last illusion about ourself is shattered that we can begin to become the person God sees and loves.