Forgiveness can be thoughtfully examined theoretically through an integrated lens with a knowledge base in social work, sociology, and theology. However, intimately experiencing it seems to me to create a richer awareness of what forgiveness is. My musing on the theoretical and experiential dimensions highlights to me that the act of forgiveness is both describable and indescribable.
Broughton (2014), in his book ‘Restorative Christ: Jesus, justice and discipleship’ capably reminds us, both theologically and sociologically, that forgiveness brings hope, reconciliation and relationship.
Such hope gives us the chance to embrace an improved relationship. For example, if we meditate on what happens when we hear someone humbly and genuinely speak, ‘I forgive you – you are forgiven?’ and what it feels like when we humbly and genuinely speak into other people’s lives, saying ‘I forgive you’. Think about the spiritual warmth of two souls connecting or reconnecting and allowing themselves to engage in a restorative relationship. When this happens, an alternative present and future ensue. Forgiveness is beautiful.
For us Christians, forgiveness is also a God-given gift for a complex, pained world. The Bible states that ‘since the beginning of creation, all people have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). I suspect that I do not have to convince people that sin exists in this world in 2021, and consequently, the world needs to contemplate forgiveness. I say words like – violence, abuse, disrespect, harshness, glass ceilings – and sadly, tragic narratives of hurt emerge. Similar to many of us, my heart aches and my mind groans with distress over the numerous accounts of destructive words and actions that continually reverberate in our precious world. Add to this the shame of my own sins. Thankfully division, or worse, caused by our sin are not the final words and actions for Christians.
Our corporate sharing in church and small groups and our private reading of our Bibles regularly remind me that God responded to sin from the beginning of creation and implemented a painful and costly reconciliation action plan addressing sin. That is, through His Son Jesus Christ’s birth, death and resurrection, we can have our sins forgiven. The Bible says in 1 John 1:9 – ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness’. And as Anglican liturgy in the Prayer Book states, I do genuinely apologise for ‘the times I have left undone what [I] ought to have done’ and ‘when [I] have done what [I] ought not to have done’.
Forgiveness is precious to Christians. It is precious to me, especially in my darkest times of regret. Please let me explain this further.
Forgiving and being forgiven gives me hope for a better future for myself and those around me. Forgiveness gives me a chance to try again. It gives me the sense of loving relationships and the opportunity to heal from what I know is complex, challenging and tragic. Author’s Keller and Coekin (2017) reinforce this in their Bible Study ‘90 days in Judges, Galatians and Ephesians’, indicating that forgiveness is a promise not to dwell on the hurt but to strive towards reconciliation. Social worker Gray and philosopher Stofberg (2000) in their article ‘Respect for persons’, helpfully point out that time alone cannot heal guilty suffering, but rather list forgiveness as one of the characteristics that can bring healing. Sociologist Professor Peter Kaufman (2013) in his blog ‘forgiveness is a social act’, writes that forgiveness transforms the relationship between the victim and the offender and between the victim and their social setting.
The act of forgiveness and entering into the process of purging hurts and heartfelt healing is an ancient and primary Biblical tenet.
The act of forgiveness and entering into the process of purging hurts and heart-felt healing is an ancient and primary Biblical tenet. Firstly, forgiveness is part of God’s Character. As Jonah states, ‘I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity’ (Jonah 4:2).
Secondly, Jesus sees forgiveness as essential, as seen:
- Through Jesus words Matt 6: 14-15 ‘For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you’.
- In Jesus’ actions on the cross, Luke 23:32-34 ‘Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’.’
These two quotes highlight that Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness is radical and counters the culture of social ideas like ‘give back as good as you get’ or ‘make sure you have the last word’ or ‘win at all costs’. Bonhoeffer (2015 ) in the ‘Cost of Discipleship’ reminds us that Jesus’ forgiveness for the world exists even amongst his enemies.
Thirdly, forgiveness is part of being a Christian or a Christian community and being virtuous. A virtuous person and a virtuous church that responds to God’s forgiveness shares love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5: 22-23) is attractive. These virtues can help us think through the complexities associated with forgiving. For example, they can help us pause and wonder deeply about any act or words or advice that does not uphold these virtues.
Fourthly, forgiveness is part of the Anglican identity. Recounting the Apostles or Nicene Creed in our churches reminds us to forgive. The Creeds both say, ‘I believe in … the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting …’ (General Synod, 1995, p 37).
Forgiveness breathes hope. The Reverend Rob Haynes, a dear friend, experiences periods of dark thoughts and profound depression. Rob in ‘Church, disability and rurality: The lived experience’ reminds us of the precious blessing of a regenerative, life-giving relationship with God grounded in forgiveness (Monica Short, Seiffert, Haynes & Haynes, 2018). Rob prompts:
‘Central to Christian thinking is the concept that God knows each person personally and works through His Spirit encouraging each individual to emulate Christ’s example to love regardless of weakness or strength … Essential … is that we never allow a feeling [of weakness, sense of tragedy or a disability] or a discriminatory label to define any person … Christians live in hope … We live in this life, but confidently hope in the resurrection … I believe in … the forgiveness of sins.’
To forgive and be forgiven is a participatory experience, and we can learn about forgiveness from others. My beautiful and gentle husband, Bishop Mark Short (2017, p 107), says forgiveness is an action. We can see this by Jesus birth, life, death and resurrection. Further, the social worker and dear friend, Giselle Burningham, reminds me that the act of forgiveness starts with understanding what happened. Next, it is breaking the cycle, so it does not happen again, then forgiving so I/we are not embittered, and then we help someone else understand what happened so they can break destructive cycles.
To forgive and be forgiven is a participatory experience, and we can learn about forgiveness from others.
Forgiveness is to happen regularly, often and generously, such as seen in Matthew 18: 21-22, which states to forgive ‘70×7 times’, and according to the parable of the Prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32 forgiveness means it is a time to party.
At the day-to-day level, forgiveness is grouped with peace, empathy, compassion and apology (Monica Short, Dempsey, et al, 2018, p 149). It is part of realising imperfections are present in our world, harm exists, and there is a need for restorative actions. This includes remorse, confession, the forgiveness of others, and self-forgiveness (Monica Short, Dempsey, et al, 2018, p 152). In our day to day lives, The Reverend Helen Dwyer, in the article ‘What is a person? Deepening students’ and colleagues’ understanding of person-centredness’ states that we need to have the ‘ability to have regret. Desire to do a better job next time. To improve, to acknowledge how you fail and the need to repair that.’ This is so we can move on with our lives and function. Similarly, the Reverend Paul Black (2011) said in one of his sermons:
‘I can let anger control me and destroy my relationships. Or I can view my anger as an opportunity to build, relate and grow. Jesus taught us if you are angry with someone do something about it. Get it settled and behind you.’
However, what about those words and actions that are not fixable or the times the words ‘I am sorry’ will never be heard? Do you ever wonder about these? I do. Judy Taylor (2015), a minister’s wife, in the 2015 Bush Church Aid Still Waters Magazine suggests the following strategies for complex situations, which I have paraphrased and slightly extended:
- Remember you are not alone; Matthew 28:20 says ‘And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’.
- Read and follow the Corinthians model. (2 Cor 2:6 Forgive and comfort.)
- Pray for yourself, your situation and that Jesus will change your heart.
- Talk with someone. Check with a trustworthy and wise family member, friend, older person or leader or counsellor or denominational contact person about the situation, pray with your pastor or chaplain. Connect with Government-based services such as counselling, see a Christian counsellor, meet with a supervisor or mentor, ring Lifeline and/or join a support group.
- Only carry burdens that are yours and not others. God does the judging (Romans 14:12), so you do not need to take the responsibility of judgement.
- Accept you cannot be in a right relationship with everyone. Resolution is not always possible.
- You may not feel love or forgiveness, but try and do something loving for the person. Follow Paul’s example of agreeing to disagree (Acts 15:39).
- Pray to know when to persist and when to walk away (Taylor, 2015, pp 5-6).
I agree with Judy’s advice. Let us not be isolated as we journey through the ups and downs of life and deal with forgiveness issues. We have the option of embracing our Anglican community and focusing on forgiveness, patience and love. As Peacewise (a Christian course) reminds us, forgiveness is about applying the gospel to our relationships. It is about:
‘Forgiving others isn’t about them; it’s about you. Holding on to anger can weigh you down no less than walking through life with a lead ball and chain around your ankle. The act of forgiveness is about deciding that you no longer want to carry the weight from a past event into your future. It’s about declaring that you love yourself more than you loathe another human being. And it’s about extracting the learning, but leaving the anger behind. (Margie Warrell)’ (Peacewise, 2019)
So what happens if I and others dare to forgive others and role model Christ’s love and forgiveness and acceptance of others in my Christian community? Then possibly hurt might be confronted, healing embraced, and you and I might have our lives changed for the better. I pray this is so for us all.
by Dr Monica Short
Black P (2011). Sermon Pentecost 6: The issue of anger. Unpublished.
Bonhoeffer, D (2015 ). The cost of discipleship. Kaiser Verlag, Munich: SCM Press.
Broughton G (2014). Restorative Christ: Jesus, justice and discipleship. Oregon: Pickwick Publications.
General Synod. (1995). A prayer book for Australia. Alexandria, NSW: Broughton Books.
Gray M & Stofberg JA (2000). Respect for persons. Australian Social Work, 53(3), 55-61.
Kaufman P (2013). Forgiveness is a social act. Retrieved from https:// www.everydaysociologyblog. com/2013/02/forgiveness-is-a-social-act.html
Keller T & Coekin R (2017). 90 days in Judges, Galatians and Ephesians. Epson, Surrey: The Good Book Company.
Peacewise (2019). Christian solutions to conflict: Forgiveness isn’t about them, it is about you. Do you agree? Retrieved from https:// peacewise.org.au/forgiveness/
Short, Mark (2017). Honouring God’s word. In K Naden, M Wighton, F Riches, & M Short (Eds.), A celebration of God’s faithfulness: AEF history, testimonials, indigenous theology, sermons and bible studies (pp 97- 127). Highpoint City, Victoria: Aboriginal Evangelical Fellowship
Short M, Dempsey K, Ackland J, Rush E, Heller E, & Dwyer, H (2018). What is a person? Deepening students’ and colleagues’ understanding of person-centredness. Advances in Social Work & Welfare Education, 20(1), 139-156.
Short M, Seiffert M, Haynes R, & Haynes L (2018). Church, disability and rurality: The Lived Experience. Journal of Disability and Religion, 18(1), 1-26.
Taylor J (2015). Loving the hard to love. Bush Church Aid (BCA) Still Waters Magazine, 2015(10), 5-6.
Affiliation: Lecturer and Social Science researcher at Charles Sturt University and proud member of the Anglican Church of Australia. Please visit https://researchoutput.csu.edu. au/en/persons/mshort07csueduau for a list of publications.