As I write, I am sitting on the Eurostar which is just pulling out of London, having unexpectedly vivid flashbacks to the last time I sat on a Eurostar with a large suitcase and unwieldy backpack, headed to another life (see here). I left Cambridge this morning after a long and tiring term back in my student guise: early tomorrow, all being well, I will wake up in Linz for an eagerly-awaited visit, among people I have missed very much in the last four months.
When Rach and I initially talked about this series and what we found most sacred, the first word to spring to my mind was forgiveness. Which, as I reflected more on the subject in the following days and weeks, is a funny one, because my subconscious aim in life – perhaps others will relate to this too – is to never need it. How can you value something which you hope simultaneously to never need?
Maybe my trying to avoid the necessity of forgiveness sounds incredibly arrogant, and maybe it is. But you can, it appears, get quite a long way with a determined policy of people-pleasing combined with a significant measure of self-deceit. (Perfectionists of the world, unite.)
But of course, at some point, this stops working. A relationship is strained, we mess up well and truly at work, or we simply become aware of a darkness in our own hearts – anger, hatred, envy, judgment, prejudice or pride – a brokenness which is out of our power to heal.
Perhaps it is only at this point – when our policy of attempted infallibility crumbles – that we start to value forgiveness for the sacred thing it is. When we realise that there is no opt-out from own failure and unwholeness, that we cannot make it our life’s aim to not need forgiveness because we simply always will need it, and that is hard and risky and beautiful all at once.
What if, instead of striving to never need to ask forgiveness, I instead practised being quick to ask for it – and quick to offer it? If my heart grew strong enough for the give-and-receive, inhale-exhale, humble-generous motion of gracious forgiveness?
Forgiveness is not always a fair thing to ask. It’s costly. Both in the small wounds, the everyday hurts of relationship and love, and in the huge wounds of hurt we can inflict on one another. We ask forgiveness from others in the risk – agony, sometimes – that they may not be able to give it, in the knowledge that it cannot be manipulated or forced. But when it is given, and the relationship is restored, often all the stronger for the effort that forgiveness took, what a precious gift it is!
Forgiveness allows my acceptance of myself. “It is not a failure to be flawed: it’s beautifully symptomatic / I am not afraid of being more than what I’ve been,” says Brooke Fraser in ‘Human’.
Forgiveness frees me from the very fear of needing to be forgiven.
Unless I know how to value forgiveness, the Good News of my faith is not good news. Jesus will not make me infallible and free me from the need to be forgiven, which is what I would really like him to do. But he does promise to forgive me everything, every time. Fully. Freely. Gladly. It seems I can only grasp it occasionally, for the briefest instant each time, but in those moments, I am left breathless by just how good this is. The Best News. Forgiveness: the most sacred thing, held out to us.
In The Last Battle, the concluding Narnia Chronicle, there’s a memorable scene just before the battle (yes, the last one). The king, Tirian, says this to his dearest friend, Jewel the Unicorn (life regrets: not having a unicorn best friend): “If ever I offended against you in any matter great or small, forgive me now.” Jewel’s response fascinates me: ‘“Dear King,” said the Unicorn, “I could almost wish you had, so that I might forgive it.”
This is what overflowing graciousness looks like: a gladness to give, a heart so abundant it understands extending forgiveness to be a joy. I believe this is the reality, far real-er than we know, of God’s heart.
And if we can grow enough to truly, humbly accept this gift, it will grow us into so much more: small, formidable oceans of grace contained in ordinary skins, ordinary lives. The ordinary quotient of mistakes and lapses and hurts. But we will also bring something to the world which is far from ordinary: we will be a tide, responding to the gravity of God’s own deeply-forgiving heart.
We will live in the Sacredness of forgiveness.