I was challenged today to say whether forgiveness is only possible for a person of faith.
It was in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford (or Oxford Cathedral, Christ Church) where three of us were discussing ‘The Question of Forgiveness’ as part of the Oxford Literary Festival.
We were talking about serious, extreme and difficult forgiveness. The sort of forgiveness that emerges only after a violation so shattering that forgiveness seems utterly impossible. Situations where the mere mention of the word might cause deep offence.
Is faith necessary to extreme forgiveness?
It was a challenge to answer. For some people faith might make all the difference. Faith suggests a trust is a transcendent good – God – and this belief has often helped people forward. But it also seemed to me that faith in a punitive and vengeful god might call from a victim the opposite of forgiveness. So it could go either way.
What I did feel was necessary for forgiveness was hope. The sort of hope that there will be light at the end of the tunnel even when there is no light at the end of the tunnel and a deep darkness pervades. I suggested that it is the sort of faith that generates hope which helps people to forgive.
However, the most important part of my reflection was that faith and hope are secondary matters here. It is God who matters for forgiveness. And God’s action is not limited, thank God, to the faithful mind or the hopeful heart.
In my book ‘Healing Agony’ I refer somewhere to the ‘flow of spirit’. It is this which is vital for forgiveness. There is no forgiveness where there is no spiritual flow. Where things are frozen or fixed, petrified or permanent, forgiveness is not even going to begin. But where the is flow of spirit, some movement of grace, then forgiveness has a chance.
Forgiveness is the triumph of grace in broken human affairs. But it is a strange triumph. It is both an ‘overcoming of’ and ‘entering into’ the pain of the violation. It is both a ‘freeing from’ and a ‘connecting with’ the perpetrator, it is both the creation of a strong and free ‘me’ and the blending of that me into a new ‘we’.
The negatives matter too. Forgiveness is not setting the clock back. It is not rubbing out the past. It is not the erasure of memory. It is no guarantee of how you might feel tomorrow. But it is a movement to a new quality of wholeness and freedom.
Is faith necessary? I am not sure.
But I am sure that when people face the horror and desolation of shattering harm with resolute hope it liberates a flow of spirit and creates a new occasion for the triumph of grace.
God is at work in true forgiveness. And God does not wait on our faith, but on our need.
Is faith necessary for forgiveness? No. But God is. And when we forgive, as we become forgiving, we move into God’s space.
It is very mysterious, this forgiveness, and we rarely find the words for it. But when we are in the company of forgiving people we are on holy ground.
And when we hear their stories we hear the poetry of the wounded soul. The soul that is being healed and which offers healing to others.