It’s not a word that you hear much in everyday conversation, but forgiveness runs like a golden thread through the fabric of most of our lives. It all starts with doing or saying something that we later regret, and then being faced with the awkwardness of trying to put things right. If we’ve been the recipient of an unkind word or a vicious social media post – or worse – it’s never going to be possible to turn the clock back and pretend it didn’t happen, but actually forgiving the perpetrator is going to involve a lot more than that anyway. And if we’re the one who stepped out of line, asking for forgiveness is never easy as it’s always going to involve an admission that we got it wrong. Even if the other person involved says you’re forgiven there’s always going to be that more complicated thing of actually forgiving yourself for doing or saying something you maybe didn’t even intend to do. That sort of unresolved guilt and shame can be destructive not only of relationships with others but of our own peace of mind.
unresolved guilt and shame can be destructive not only of relationships with others but of our own peace of mind.
That’s the problem, so what might the solution be? The one thing that’s certain is that it’s not simple. But a good start is always going to be an acknowledgement of what’s taken place, and that can be challenging – not least because we usually try to convince ourselves that whatever happened wasn’t entirely our fault. That can often be true though it’s never the whole story, and shifting the blame onto someone else doesn’t actually resolve things anyway. If we take time to dig more deeply, we’ll soon discover that some of our poor behaviour is likely to be a result of our own vulnerabilities. We lie to hide our weaknesses from others, act selfishly because we fear we will be left behind, turn away from the needs of others because they frighten us or awaken anxieties in ourselves. Many of the things we’re ashamed of are the product of our own fears – of being excluded, of not meeting the expectations of those around us, of a need to prove that we’re as good as the next person. No wonder it’s such a big deal to acknowledge all that and ask for forgiveness: this takes real courage because we need to accept that Frank Sinatra didn’t necessarily get it right with his song about ‘doing it my way’.
The good news is that we all face the same struggles over this one. At the very beginning of the stories about Jesus, a prophet named John offered the people of his day “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Baptism may not be what you’re looking for here, but it reminds us that having something to do can be a helpful way of acknowledging what went wrong and looking to a new way of being. It might be something as simple as sending a text message to someone you’ve wronged, or taking them a gift, or… just use your imagination, as different things will be appropriate in different cultural contexts. But whatever you do to initiate forgiveness, this sort of intentional reconciliation really is important. Unreconciled arguments and misunderstandings hurt and damage ourselves as well as others. We probably all know of families where things that happened years ago have become a narrative of pain that never heals or goes away because nobody wants to create a space where it can be acknowledged and laid to rest – maybe through embarrassment more than anything.
At the start of Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ message is spelled out like this: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15). What does that mean in everyday language? Jesus is just saying something like “This is your chance for a fresh start (‘the time is fulfilled’), to explore God’s way of doing things (‘the kingdom’), to turn your life around (‘repent’) – and isn’t that really good news”. He goes on to invite a motley crew of fishing folk to hang out with him and discover what that sort of life might look like. In the process of doing so, he meets people in various forms of need, identifies ways in which they can be helped, and supplements these encounters with stories that illustrate what that might look like.
“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”
A well-known one is the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). He’s made a real mess of his life by wasting his dad’s money on a destructive lifestyle but eventually he realizes what he’s done and makes his way back home expecting to be shown the door – maybe even wanting to be excluded, to complete the guilt and shame he was already feeling. Actually, his older brother thinks that’s exactly what should happen to him – I imagine we’ve all seen that sort of response to someone who’s in a mess. But the parent sees things differently and he is welcomed with open arms back into the family home. He still has no money left, and his life is still in pieces – but he’s found a safe space to recover. His dad extends forgiveness, and he finds resolution.
The story, as Jesus makes clear, is not just a piece of good advice to argumentative families but is an illustration of how God deals with us (Luke 15:11-32). Even at those times when we feel worthless and ashamed, God is there for us, reminding us that no matter how wretched we feel we are loved and we can be forgiven. The start of that journey is never going to be easy as it requires us to acknowledge the mess we’re in. It may be a mess we’re responsible for, or one that someone else has imposed on us. Either way it’s easy to feel that life is out of control, and in that situation Jesus’ message is simple though potentially transformational. Take time to read through the gospels and you’ll see that whenever he meets someone who is struggling, Jesus never rubs their nose in the dirt. Instead of rehearsing what’s wrong with us, he invites us into a way of being that looks beyond who we are to who, with God’s help, we might become. That’s really the story of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2-4) and if you’re struggling with any of this stuff that might be a good place to start dealing with it. As well as making amends where you can for whatever it is that’s causing you pain.