Before I was accepted for training as a priest, I had to attend a selection conference where I was interviewed by half a dozen men and women from different walks of life. I knocked on the door for the first interview and waited. It was suddenly opened by a man in a very smart suit who shook my hand, greeting me with the words “The trouble with you lot is that you’re all too polite. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” I was glad of the walk into the room while I contemplated the options — making up a “sinner to saint story”, persuading him of my godliness, or confessing all.
I’ve never had the nerve to put that question to people within the context of an interview, but it is challenging to ask it of oneself. Sometimes I would pose it rhetorically, in school assemblies, then turning the question around: “What is the worst thing that has been done to you?” Recognising the hurt and pain inflicted by us and on us can be a way of accepting ourselves and others.
Forgiveness is often said to be central to Jesus’ teaching and the Christian message. “Turn the other cheek, forgive seventy times seven, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” – all supersede the Old Testament “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. Many sermons are devoted to the subject, and it’s argued by some psychologists that forgiveness is good for our health. As I get older, I think more emphasis should be put on forgiveness as a process rather than something to be completed, a commitment rather than a command, and certainly not something to be asked of everyone.
One modern version of the Lord’s Prayer contains the line “Forgive us our debts …” but forgiving someone isn’t like settling a debt; it involves a change in our feelings, attitude and behaviour towards offence and offender alike. This may may be a lengthy process and one which is not always completed. We have a legal duty to repay debts of a financial nature, but forgiveness is about our relationships with each other, and like love cannot be demanded of us.
Although God is said to be all-forgiving, the gospels include the rather baffling and apparently contradictory verse “Truly I tell you, all sins and blasphemies will be forgiven….., except those against the Holy Spirit.” If there are things which God will not forgive, then surely we cannot expect more of our fellow human beings. Those who have suffered dreadful abuse, or been robbed of their ability to enjoy the trust and love of others are sufficiently challenged to lead a normal life, without having the demands of forgiveness placed upon them.