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Forgiveness – by David Anderson

David Anderson is an ordained Baptist minister who has held pastorates in East Lancashire, South London and Teesside, but who is no longer in church leadership. David is committed to developing a Christian community which is totally inclusive and where all are welcome regardless of who they are. He currently facilitates a monthly group in East Lancashire called ‘Just Love’ which is a place of welcome and acceptance for those who are left out, left behind and let down by the institutional church structures.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ speaks about the need to avoid ‘cheap grace’ where we expect, or even demand, forgiveness without fully comprehending the cost that was paid at Calvary for us to be recipients of that Grace. Such a diminished understanding of Grace devalues the transaction involved in forgiveness and misleads us to think we can cause offence or harm to others without consequences to either the ‘other’ or indeed our own spirituality and faith.

In the Summer of 1997 I spent part of my summer break from theological college working, lecturing and preaching in the townships of post-apartheid South Africa. After preaching one Sunday I was invited to the home of the ‘Mother’ of the congregation and as I entered her small house I was astonished at the sheer volume of food that was there. My companion, a pastor of another township church, whispered in my ear that all this food was for me and it represented the entire food budget for the family for that week. He added “You better eat it, Dave!”.

After lunch our host recalled her time as a housemaid with a white family. She shared how she used to have to sleep outside, drink stale water, compete with the family dog for scraps of food and endure beatings and sub-human treatment. The contrast between the abundance of food and the generosity of her welcome and hospitality was striking and stark. I commented to her how she must hate white people like me for the treatment she had endured for many years. Her response was simple, profound and intensely spiritual:

God has forgiven me in Jesus – what right do I have not to forgive those who have oppressed me?

This conversation between two people in a kitchen in a shack in a remote township was played out against the backdrop of the work of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission which was being undertaken under the leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Day after day the hearings were broadcast on TV and people from both sides of the separateness of Apartheid spoke of the harm and offence they had caused the ‘other’ and sought and very often received unconditional forgiveness. The transaction of confessions and forgiveness was costly for both sides – the proud white minority humbling themselves and the black community releasing forgiveness for years of torture, murder of family members and brutal social and economic oppression.

Tutu speaks very powerfully about this experience and has often said that withholding forgiveness from another who has hurt you means that you remain a victim of your experience which hinders and even stops your ability to move on and grow. It is like letting your enemy live in your house rent free and exhaust your food and resources. Bearing a grudge (no matter how justified you might feel that to be) drains you of energy that could be used more productively.

The healing of the divided nation was being purchased by the transaction of forgiveness in the same way that the Cross brings healing to a divided humanity. The separation from God and from others bridged by Grace.

Five years later I was pastor of a Baptist church in the Tees Valley and, for a variety of reasons, the relationship between myself and the other leaders in the church and the wider congregation broke down irrevocably and I was dismissed from the pastorate. I felt that two of my fellow leaders in particular had betrayed me and I hated them for that perceived treachery. I held on to that hatred and like most things you feed and nurture it grew and grew to an extent I could hardly comprehend.

And whilst I fed and nurtured my hatred, my sense of victimhood and my desire for violent revenge, everything else in my life – my family relationships, my health and my ministry withered away.

Neither of these two fellow leaders knew anything about my feelings towards them and so there was never any chance that they would make the first move and seek my forgiveness.

After about two years I was on holiday on Iona on the west coast of Scotland and as I looked out towards the wide and wild Atlantic Ocean I sensed God very powerfully calling me to my senses, a bit like the prodigal child, and reminding me of that conversation in a kitchen in a South African and saying ‘I have forgiven you – what right do you have to withhold forgiveness?’ Upon returning home I wrote letter to both releasing forgiveness into their lives.

Over the next months, released from the burden of carrying resentment and hatred, God graciously and slowly restored my family relationships (I abandoned an extra-marital affair I was involved in); my health and my ministry – albeit in a different form to that which I had previously exercised.

People sometimes argue that as an individual you can only release forgiveness when the offender confessed and seeks your forgiveness. My reading of Scripture and my life experience leads me to believe that I can choose, under God’s Grace and the prompting of the Holy Spirit, to release forgiveness to another and free myself from the burden of victimhood and the ongoing control of my oppressors. I can choose the freedom to use my energy and spirituality to grow to my full potential in the Grace of God.

To paraphrase ‘Trainspotting’ – Choose Forgiveness; Choose Life; Choose Growth; Choose Grace.

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