“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”
When I was a child, one of my best friends was a Roman Catholic called Evelyn. At that time in Scotland schools were very clearly either Protestant or Roman Catholic so every morning Evelyn and I would set off for school together and when we got to to a certain point she would go in one direction to her school, Sacred Heart, and I would continue to my school, Kildrum Primary. I was, I have to confess, a little envious of Evelyn’s school, which had beautiful pictures of Jesus and statues of Mary, unlike my own somewhat austere place of learning! But the thing I was most envious of was confession! My small self thought how great it would be to be able to go along every week, tell the priest my misdemeanours which he would forgive as long as I went and said a few prayers. In my mind I believed this meant that, with the slate wiped clean, I could simply go off and repeat the same cycle the following week! For a child brought up by parents whose faith backgrounds were steeped in the strict Protestantism of hellfire and brimstone and the Jewish Old Testament God of wrath this seemed like a perfect get out clause! Clearly my understanding of the theology of atonement had a long way to go!
Forgiveness is a very complex concept – whole books have been written about it so it would be impossible for me to give a full explanation of it in just a few short paragraphs. Forgiveness means different things to different people just as sin does. When we look back in history we can see that great wrongs were done to many groups of people – the persecution of the early Church, the Spanish Inquisition, the colonisation of many lands throughout the world, the slave trade, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, South African apartheid, the list is endless and sadly continues to this day. The horror of murder, abuse, exploitation, trafficking and many other acts of cruelty continues in our world. The ability of those who suffer to forgive the perpetrators of their suffering is amazing , humbling and Christlike. When Jesus hung on the cross in the heat of the day, He was still able to say “Father forgive them for they know what they do” (Luke 23:34). It is through his act of sacrifice to atone for the sins of the whole world that we are able to bring to God those things that lie heavy on our hearts, those acts we regret, those words which we wish we had not spoken. We bring them in the knowledge that if we bring them with a true and sincere desire to say sorry, to learn from what we have done and to do our best to put those wrongs right, God will forgive us because He loves us. That is why He sent His beloved Son, to teach us a better way of living, to help us learn to love each other as He loves us and that includes learning to forgive each other.
Of course it’s not that simple. We may know in our hearts that we are forgiven by God but sometimes we find it much harder to forgive each other and indeed to forgive ourselves. Forgiveness is a unique journey for us all. For some it will be relatively straightforward but for others it will be long and arduous.
But if we can keep Jesus’s words of forgiveness in our hearts then our journey will be eased and we will gradually find a path to our own forgiveness and our capacity to forgive others.