In discussing trust at Taizé, we found it very difficult not to digress and begin discussing forgiveness. A lot of the conversation centred around people trusting someone until that trust was betrayed, and then they would not trust them any more. One member of my discussion group was very emphatic about her belief that trust must be earned and when it is broken, it is our right to withhold trust in the future. We inevitably ended up talking about forgiveness as this seemed key to allowing trust to be created again.
There’s a section of the well known poem Desiderata which has fascinated me for a long time. I’ve put the whole poem below for those of you unfamiliar with it, but the line which particularly intrigues me is ‘as far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all people’. Take a moment to read the poem.
This idea of surrender is a really interesting one. I was once hurt by someone so deeply that I thought I would be angry forever. It took me several years to come to terms with my feelings and reaction, and I realised that I really hated this person. This didn’t sit particularly well with me – I don’t like the idea that I hate someone and it made me unhappy to know that despite my beliefs I was unable to work on this particular issue.
One of the reasons I found it so difficult to forgive this person was because I felt that if I forgave them it would condone their actions, it would mean that my pain was unjustified; but having realised that this was a problem I suddenly let it go. The person in question had very much moved on, so who was my hate hurting? Me, and God.
So I came back to this line again: ‘as far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all people’. I think there’s a really key point here, which came back to me during the discussion with my group in Taizé about forgiveness. One of the girls was adamant that forgiveness had to be earned and it could be withheld at each person’s discretion. When I quoted Matthew 21-22 (Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”) she reacted very strongly and said that this wasn’t practical. In many ways I agree with her, but perhaps our understanding of forgiveness needs to be expanded.
A question I find very important is about prisoners. If someone has been to prison to pay for a crime, shouldn’t we treat them the way we treat those who have never been to prison when they are released? Surely the point of prison is to repay society for the crime they have committed. If I go overdrawn on my bank account and am charged interest, that interest doesn’t carry on being charged once I’m back in credit! But human beings are so much more complicated. We find it so hard to forgive and so hard to trust, and the more I think about it, these two so often go hand in hand with each other.
To be a Christian is a hard job. We’re asked to love everyone (Matthew 22:36-40) and forgive everyone (Luke 6:37). We’re asked to let go of worldly possessions (Matthew 6:19-20) although the world around us is obsessed with ownership. We’re asked to trust God even though we can’t see God (Proverbs 3:5). My students often tell me that they think it’s impossible to love unconditionally, as Jesus taught. A part of me believes that they’re right, but that doesn’t mean that I give up trying. I watched some of the rowing during the Olympics and felt so impressed by the athletes who were clearly going to finish last but who carried on going anyway. Surely God sees us the same way – we may not manage to live up to the ideals set out in the teachings of Jesus, but we try our best and God is there rooting for us just as I was rooting for the rowers at the end of the race!
I know how hard it is to forgive, and I’m certainly not judging anyone for saying that they don’t want to forgive someone who’s hurt them. Everyone is different, and forgiveness can seem impossible. But without forgiveness, can there ever be trust? And without trust, can there ever be peace?
Bóg jest miłością, miejcie odwagę, żyć dla miłości; Bóg jest miłością, nie lękajcie się – God is forgiveness, dare to forgive and God will be with you; God is forgiveness, love and do not fear.