The Importance of Forgiving God

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.

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17 thoughts on “The Importance of Forgiving God”

  1. Thank you. So very much to ponder and reflect on. What you have written resonates with my own recent experience. I am finally able to stop being angry with God and even thank Him for what I considered, at the time and in the many years that followed, the worst experience of my life. Grace indeed.

  2. Harbouring resentment is a sin. Not necessarily comparable with inflicting physical pain or causing death, but still a source of unnecessary grief for others.
    I have always believed that God is not the source of our problems but He has the answers. Once again you have posed relevant questions that we all need to address in our lives. Life is mysterious and never simple.
    Following you Sister Catherine is a cathartic but very helpful experience. Keep asking the questions on our behalf. God bless you, peace and love be with you now and evermore, xx.

  3. Thank you Dame Catherine.

    I have my own story of forgiveness, and in particular forgiveness of myself, because sometimes it’s impossible to obtain forgiveness for past slights, particularly if those involved are no longer alive.

    But I know that when I lost my faith, God was the scapegoat, not me – surely it must have been all his fault that he allowed so much pain and suffering into a life, which has plodded on slowly towards a bright future – than it all came crashing down. My father died a lingering painful death from diabetes. A friend Committed Suicide, when he had everything to live for, than my own marriage crashed and I, full of guilt, blamed myself, not appreciating that it takes more than one person to break a relationship.

    But I blindly lashed out at God, because at least he didn’t hit back- in fact, I managed to convince myself that he probably didn’t exist – and abandoned him. I couldn’t forgive him – but that seemed no longer to matter – after all, he was not going to feature in my life in the future was he?

    Off course, that was foolishness in the highest degree, when he did again feature it was in the middle of a multiple tragedy of a truamatic death, and dealing with the aftermath – completely, to the exclusion of all else – my duty required it, and I have written about how somehow in the Chaos, pain and bewilderment. God showed himself, dramatically in my life, and through the lives of those so tragically bereaved.

    I hadn’t forgotten how I had railed and shouted at God, and I asked for his forgiveness, but didn’t consider that I needed to forgive him.

    I know that since than, I have shouted at him, time and again, when some disaster or tragedy strikes, but not in a denouncing abandoning way, but just my lack of understanding of the bigger picture of ‘the why’ of it all.

    So, forgiveness is a three way street, a sort of trinity in it’s own way. First, forgiveness of ourselves. Second Forgiveness of others and Third, accepting the forgiveness offered by others, through God’s grace.

    I’m sure that the theology is there somewhere in the mix, but trying to delve deeper is for another day and another retreat perhaps.

  4. Thank you for addressing this. So many resentments have gone just by expressing a desire to forgive during prayer. There is one that I have had towards God which I have not yet asked for release from. And as I type this, it seems so silly not to. I’m grateful for the reminder.

  5. Very thought provoking. Interesting that you make it clear that there is a difference between the theological and the psychological. Obviously God can not be wrong – but it does not mean we can understand Him fully. Things will seem wrong/cruel/unfair when they happen to us. In our ignorance/fear/rage/resentement we inevitably turn to God. I am sure that ( I hope theologically correct) our loving creator who desires a relationship with each of us will understand that we can not grasp matters fully no matter how hard we try. If we treat Him a little like our fellow humans (feel emotions towards/communicate with…) then am sure we are sort of on the right track.

    • I think sometimes we are too hampered by our ideas of what we ought to be, and therefore what God ought to be. He is so much bigger than any idea of him we can have! So, being honest, really honest, clears the way for a much deeper relationship with him.

  6. What a helpful thought that is that when we are finding it hard to forgive we can try ‘piggy-backing on God’s forgiveness’. To recognise that God’s forgiveness is always freely offered can be a 1st step in forgiving others. On the other hand, being the complicated people we are it could give us another reason to harbour resentment against God. (How dare God forgive that person, that sin, that atrocity.)

  7. Spot on Sister! If I were closer, I might offer you a “high five” (though I suspect I might not have the courage)!
    I think it’s very healthy to be angry with God (though some Christians think it a sinful concept), and I am often amused at how folk who “don’t believe in God” will be grumpy with Him when suffering comes their way.
    When I’m with those who have lost a baby, I often say to them, “I’m going to start with a prayer that says ‘god this sucks. Not in those words, but it does'” and then I have what I call a modern psalm, which talks about “we are told you’re compassionate, today it does not feel like that” and so on. In particular, non-church people really relate and nod at times, as it talks about offering to God “our anger and confusion”. My working theology is that God can meet us when we are real.
    I wonder if, when we get round to forgiving God, we are also forgiving ourselves for not understanding till now that there be jewels/gems within us because of the suffering/pressure we have been through? Not that I would say that to anyone in the heat of the suffering, I hasten to add! I don’t believe God causes pain, but it is my lived experience that he USES it… even if it takes us ages to forgive him for re-moulding us.

  8. This year it was 25 years since my dear father was kidnapped and murdered. My mother, now gone 6 years, had the enormous grace to forgive the kidnappers. I’m afraid the best I can do is trust that in God’s enormous providence there is forgiveness enough to cover my inability to forgive. I’m not exactly unforgiving. It’s simply all too big for me to grant my own forgiveness: it seems impossible and somehow beside the point. Only God . . .

    • Knowing you, Robyn, I don’t think you are at all unforgiving but maybe you want to feel you have forgiven? I don’t think we ever have that because we have to forgive again and again. One day, one day it will all be clear.

  9. I’d just come across your post and was thinking about it flipping through a book on my desk when serendipity intervened with a short story by Clarice Lispector entitled … ‘Forgiving God’! She is a potent writer and these pieces together, yours, Sister, and hers, deeply felt and psychologically searching, give me much to turn over.

  10. Such a powerful post. And 9 Ausgust is also the Feast Day of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein. When I first read an account of her life as a Jewish convert taken from the sanctuary of her Carmelite convent and sent to Auschwitz, I wondered where God was for her. She embodies such terrible contradictions and suffering, a martyrdom that will always be controversial. And her faith was so costly (the grief she caused her mother), so remarkable.

    • Thank you — I published the above on 7 August but didn’t write anything for 9 August as I was in Oxford, but you may find some of my previous posts about St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross worth reading. A search in the sidebar should bring them up, if you are interested.

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