The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, (Romans 1:18)
We walk through a wilderness of suffering, disconnection and pain, a bit like visions of future in a Terminator film. Every human institution and grouping seems touched with self-serving and cruelty, and each individual life ends in hopelessness and death. We construct bubbles for ourselves where we can be happy, but reality intrudes. It is no wonder that the singer who has spoken most to me is Leonard Cohen.
The dominant emotions that we bring with us from the caves and the steppes are anger and fear. We see these in our lives, our families, our associations and groupings, in our communities and nations, and in the church on earth. The human condition centres on a dis-ease where we find it hard to let others live as they would; we find it hard to forebear or to forgive. Those who are politely brought up make an effort to rub along with others in a ‘civilised’ way, as one must in towns and cities where we are close to each other; we deplore the ‘lads and laddettes’ culture where politeness is no longer prized – but we should recognise that this merely reveals the underlying ever present selfishness of the soul.
Church life, at least in the Church of England, is founded on the middle-class virtues of a vague politeness and keeping others at arm’s length. When we share the Peace, we act out our shared gospel life, as symbolized in the bread we share; actually we hardly know each other.
Into the midst of this shines the light of Christ. “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;” (Psalm 24). We dare to believe that the life of a humble peasant preacher in an occupied territory 2000 years ago has a transforming relevance for all of history and for every life. God’s love, grace and forgiveness shine out like the sun, falling on everyone in the world. Some choose to cover themselves up, to hide from the sun’s rays, to stubbornly remain pale, and so there are those who refuse God’s love. Nevertheless, Jesus prayed forgiveness on his persecutors and killers, without waiting to see if they repented or asked for forgiveness.
Jesus shines as the one human who was perfectly in harmony with his Father, and who lived a life of humble service and obedience, always doing the will of his Father. He can help us who find our whole beings in opposition to God’s will, because he showed us the Father’s love when we were still enemies, and died for us without asking for anything in return. As a result we are called to follow him in lives of service to the Father’s will. Our many shortcomings and missings of the mark are forgiven because of his free love and unmerited grace.
The transformation comes first to the individual. “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance.” (Romans 6:17) That we have come to obey speaks of our wills being realigned, and the pattern of teaching speaks of the learning and reading that informs and helps us; pre-eminent though is that it is all “from the heart” – we love him because he has first loved us.
“The greatest truth about ourselves is not that we are damaged or dysfunctional, but that God loves us.” (Pilgrim Way p. 171)
Our whole task therefore is to love God and neighbour. This leads us to a growing realisation of God’s free forgiveness, and of our constant and growing need. We take seriously the doctrine of the Total Depravity of humankind: it is not that any of us is as bad as we might be, but that none of us is a good as we should be. The General Confession asks God to have mercy upon us “miserable offenders”; this does not refer to an emotional state of sadness, but to our realisation that we are always in the condition of asking for mercy and forgiveness. We have a continuous need for the cleansing and forgiveness that comes from the cross. In other words, when we are scuba diving we need not just an initial or occasional gulp of air, as if were buddy-breathing, but rather a constant flow that enables us to survive. As we receive forgiveness we are transformed so that we can better reflect this love and forgiveness to those around us.
Our forgiveness is not conditional upon our forgiving others. Rather we cannot forgive others unless we have first received that forgiveness and the process of transformation has begun. The inner, spiritual life is one of attention to the Father’s will. “Brother Lawrence said that many do not advance in the Christian progress because they stick in penances and particular exercises while they neglect the love of God which is the end.” The regular times of prayer, the Practice of the Presence of God, the 60/60 challenge, all of these point to a walk of faith where we accept failings and disappointments but cling to the continuing kindness of God who forgives us and transforms us by the presence of his Spirit within us.
We expect, therefore, that we will encounter people and situations that will trouble us and try our faith; very often our natural response will be anger or fear, and the temptation to seek our own way. As we reflect on this recurrent process, we see ourselves at times needing fresh forgiveness, and at other times being in the blessed condition of reflecting God’s forgiveness to others.
God places us in a koinonia or fellowship. This is a great support to each individual, but it is also an opportunity to see the gospel at work in groups, and to build community and to unite fractured relationships. The sociologist will expect a process of Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing in each group. People are polite and welcoming at the introductory icebreaker phase, but the gloves come off as we get to know each other. The temptation is to take our ball off to find another group of chums who are ‘like us’; the challenge is to receive forgiveness and to exercise that among each other. The church is not a club or a merely human organisation, but a reflection of a three-fold love that alone can bring us together united in the love and forgiveness of Christ. This dynamis of love and forgiveness is needed at every level as groups within the church are looked at as cliques, and as people at different services in the same congregation fail to connect, and as the church in any town or locality is fractured into different denominations. We need to respond to God’s forgiveness with a shared determination to do his will and share a vision of what he is doing in our community; in the light of this we will find grace to share his forgiveness with each other and the wider world.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 88:22,23)
Each of us carries a candle, as it were, that points to the light that already shines but that not all can see, and also to the coming time of light when there will be no need of grace or forgiveness because Jesus will have made all things new. In the meantime every act of love and prayer in accord with our Father’s will is a bringing of God’s forgiveness into this present fallen world.
The heart of it all is to receive God’s forgiveness in Christ. It is to live attentively in communion with God. We give up trying to love or be joyful, full of peace or patience; we recognise that we cannot be kind, good or full of faith; we have no power to be gentle or to exercise self-control. Rather we seek to respond to God’s love and to walk in step with his Spirit, whom he has shed God’s love abroad in our hearts.
1. Is there anything or anyone that we can conceive of that God would or could not forgive?
2. What do we find the most problematic part to be about the doctrine of forgiveness?
3. If we need to pray for our daily bread, how often should we pray for forgiveness?
4. Would you like to be prayed for to help with any part of this topic?