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Reform Magazine | May 27, 2024

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A good question: Are there limits to forgiveness? - Reform Magazine

A good question: Are there limits to forgiveness?

One question, four answers

susan_watersSUSAN WATERS
‘Forgiveness might forever remain an aspiration’

‘I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge.’ The unforgettable words of Gordon Wilson, hours after the 1987 IRA bomb attack at Enniskillen. He had been buried under rubble with his daughter Marie, holding her hand as her life ebbed away. Not only did he forgive the murderers of his beloved child, he vowed to pray for them.

His reaction of unconditional Christian forbearance was also a plea for peace in a wider political context. With the same generosity of spirit, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was founded in 1995, to give space to tell the individual stories of South African apartheid. Engaging in dialogue diffused a spiral of revenge and implicitly recognised the enemy as a fellow human with the same flesh and coursing blood.

And yet. And yet. Fast forward to the 2005 London bombings. The Revd Julie Nicholson came under the spotlight when she resigned her post, poleaxed by grief when her daughter Jenny died in the Edgware Road bombing. The ‘forgive, as we are forgiven’ ethic had become an encumbrance too hard to bear. She still feels that the right and privilege of forgiveness can only come from her daughter, who is not alive to give it…

Susan Waters is an ecologist. Her story and others can be found on


richard_bendaRICHARD BENDA

‘Living through the Rwandan genocide, I wrestled with the possibility of forgiveness’

I understand forgiveness as the conscious process by which we freely let go of a legitimate desire to seek personal retribution or vindication for wrongs that we have suffered. It is also the substance of the redeeming mercy that is extended to us when we do wrong.

It is better to address the question in the light of experience than of speculation. There are wrongs that we think we could or could not forgive, but when it comes to it our reactions can be unexpected. Similarly, although having moral norms or religious beliefs that invite us to forgive is helpful – even desirable – there is no guarantee that they will hold out against real-life experiences. Our assumption that the difficulty of forgiveness is proportional to the scale of the wrong can be equally misleading.

I lived through the genocide against Rwandan Tutsi in 1994. This tragedy caused unimaginable emotional devastation and, like most of my compatriots, I wrestled with the possibility and necessity of forgiveness. …

Richard Benda is an academic researching the religion, theology and political life of post-violence societies. He is based at Luther King House, Manchester

lawrence_mooreLAWRENCE MOORE
‘There is nothing that can ultimately destroy relationships’

Yes, there are limits – and they vary almost infinitely. God forgives without conditions and without limits. We know this because God does not nuke us for crucifying Jesus, but forgives us. If murdering Jesus doesn’t hit the boundary wall of God’s forgiveness, it is difficult to imagine what might do so.
We humans, by contrast, are terrifyingly capable of an almost infinite refusal to forgive even the smallest slight. That was the point of Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving slave. Peter asks: ‘What are the limits to forgiveness, Jesus?’ Jesus answers: ‘Peter, what limits do you choose to impose on forgiveness?’

Forgiveness probes our capacity to mirror God’s character. The Easter story tells us that forgiveness is born out of God’s love and compassion. Forgiveness is at the heart of God’s salvation for the world in Jesus. God comes among us in Jesus, offering the Kingdom, and we cry: ‘Crucify him!’ How could we choose deliberately to be godforsaken? There is no going back from that choice. What hope is there for us?

Then we hear Jesus speak from the cross: ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing!’ Forgiveness belongs with resurrection: it is what creates new possibilities out of nothing when absolutely everything has been trashed. …

Lawrence Moore is the outgoing Director of the Windermere Centre, Cumbria


hilary-rock-gormleyHILARY ROCK-GORMLEY
‘We should not be condemned if we never get there’

As a psychotherapist, working mainly with people who have been victims of trauma and abuse, I meet a lot of people who are struggling with the consequences of violence. Both forgiveness, and its counterpart, guilt, are regular issues which arise in the course of my work.

I am also aware that many Christians struggle with this topic and are sometimes confused about what it means. I have met people who have said to me, through gritted teeth: ‘He did this to me but, because I am a Christian, I have forgiven him.’ That is clearly untrue. Merely saying the words is not enough.

I am reminded of Julie Nicholson, a former priest who stood down from her role after her daughter was killed by a suicide bomber in London. She stated that, as the man who had killed her daughter had also died, there was nobody left to forgive, and she felt she could not continue to preach forgiveness if she could not grant it.

So, what is this forgiveness which we are asked to grant? It seems to me that it is an emotion …

Hilary Rock-Gormley is a psychotherapist



This is an extract from the September 2016 edition of Reform.

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