The central message of the gospel is that God loves the whole of creation. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16).
God loves us even though we often behave badly, just as parents still love their children even when they misbehave. We human beings have denied, ignored or rejected that love by our sin. (Sin occurs when, we as individuals or as members of society, through our attitudes, actions or inactions fail to live up to God’s loving standards.) God cannot ignore the sin of his human children, because sin causes suffering and alienation from God and one another. God’s purpose for us, on the other hand, is that we should live in harmony, creativity and love. This can only become possible through our change of heart, our repentance.
How do we receive forgiveness?
To repent is not simply to be sorry for our sins in a trite way, or even to lament their impact on others. Rather it is to experience a real change of heart, to be resolved with God’s help not to go in that particular direction again, to be determined to learn from our errors and to amend our manner of life. A moment of true repentance can be a time of profound change.
Repentance and faith are foundational to Christian life. Although we try to follow the example of Jesus Christ we often find that through our human failings and weaknesses we have not lived or acted as we should. Thus, in our personal devotions we come to God to seek his forgiveness and may receive an inward and powerful sense of God’s pardon, acceptance and love. When Christians gather for worship, they usually acknowledge in a formal prayer of confession their shortcomings and sins an receive, in the context of the liturgy, an assurance of God’s forgiveness and grace, declared by the priest. God is always ready to forgive.
What about private confession?
It is often rightly said of the ministry of private confession that “all may, some should, none must”. This ministry is normally available on request, either in the church or in a less formal setting. The priest (as suggested in the exhortation in Holy Communion One in The Book of Common Prayer, 2004) is in a position to listen carefully, offer guidance, and the assurance of God’s forgiveness, all under the strictest confidence. A practical or devotional penance may be given as a demonstration of thanksgiving or to make good in practical ways the wrong done to other people.
How is God’s forgiveness related to ours?
In the Lord’s prayer we ask God to forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Readiness to forgive as God does, unconditionally, is part of the costly, generous love demanded of the Christian disciple. It may be difficult, but the cost of not forgiving is even higher, in that it is we who fail to forgive who are inwardly poisoned.
So, at Holy Communion we are encouraged both to seek and offer forgiveness (to live in love and charity with our neighbours) in the sharing of the peace. This is not merely a convivial mutual greeting, but a powerful if sometimes uncomfortable sign that within the Body of Christ we must actively seek reconciliation before we offer our gifts or approach the table.
What happens if, in my heart, I simply cannot forgive?
The human capacity for forgiveness can never equal the divine. We need to do our best to understand the actions of others when they appear hurtful or offensive to us. However, when the crime is, in our view, too appalling, or there is no evidence of repentance, it can sometimes seem impossible to forgive. In such situations, we may only be able to acknowledge that we are not saints ourselves, that our confusion must not be allowed to turn to hatred and that the ultimate judgement is God’s. God’s forgiveness is there for us when we are honestly struggling with our inability to forgive others and praying for the grace to do so.
Forgiveness does not wipe away all the consequences of wrong-doing or condone it; it is not the same forgetting. But, through forgiving we leave behind any desire for retaliation. A man, tortured in a Second World War prison camp said afterwards that he managed to love his tormentors, not by concentrating on their present deeds, but by imagining them as little children. A woman, whose husband was murdered during The Troubles in Northern Ireland simply asked God to understand and forgive her inability to forgive.
And what of the Cross as the ultimate expression of forgiveness?
Although there are many ways of understanding the work of Christ on the cross, it is central to our faith and shows the effect of sin and the cost of forgiveness both for God and for us. It reminds us again of the love of God, who reaches out to us in Christ, calling us to repentance and offering us forgiveness.
The resurrection shows that, on the cross, Christ triumphed over sin and death, and that evil will never have the last word.
The above information: © 2010 APCK, Church of Ireland House, Dublin 6