ForgivenessNet home page

Back to Stories page

Stories by title : R-Y

by author on this page


Racial division and forgiveness

Colin Tipping, the author of Radical Forgiveness, Making Room for the Miracle, has just published another book in Australia called Reconciliation Through Radical Forgiveness.  It makes the case for using a spiritual technology to solve long standing issues that create racial division.

His book is for healing the divide between white and aboriginal Australians, but it can be applied to any racial or ethnic issue stemming from what has happened in the past.   Colin Tipping believes Radical Forgiveness has the power to heal the collective consciousness many generations back in such a way to break the deadlock between groups divided by the past.

In August 2001 he embarks on a world-wide reconciliation tour starting in Atlanta, then to England, South Africa, then Australia, New Zealand and back again to America.  At each place he will lead a special reconciliation workshop and ceremony in order to shift the energy in the direction of forgiveness in each of those countries.

More details at


Repentance is not forgetting

The remarkable Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard constantly called people away from superficial faith to inner depth.  In Purity of Heart he related this parable of repentance:

The story is told that there was once a man who through his misdeeds deserved the punishment which the law meted out to him.  After he had suffered for his wrong acts he went back into ordinary society improved.  Then he went to a strange land, where he was not known, and where he became known for his worthy conduct.   All was forgotten.

Then one day there appeared a fugitive that recognised the distinguished person as his equal back in those miserable days.  This was a terrifying memory to meet.  A deathlike fear shook him each time this fugitive passed.  Although silent, the memory shouted in a high voice, until through the voice of the fugitive it took on words.  Then suddenly despair seized the man, who seemed to have been saved.   And it seized him just because repentance was forgotten, because the improvement toward society was not the resigning of himself to God, so that in the humility of repentance he might remember what had been.

Quick repentance would drink down all the bitterness of sorrow in a single draught and then hurry on.  It wants to get away from guilt.  It is its wish that guilt, after a time, might be wholly forgotten.  And this is (not repentance), it is impatience.  (p 39)


'Scientific' forgiveness

In a news article in 2000 entitled "The Science of Forgiveness" it was reported that some new studies carried out by researchers at Hope College, Michigan concluded:

People who forgave were less depressed and anxious, slept better and were free from obsessive thoughts and revenge fantasies. Many of our physical symptoms of sickness are manifestations of a spiritual struggle with forgiveness.

The article surveyed people who had been tremendously hurt by a friend, co-worker, or mate and discovered that forgiving the other person was a far more important factor than previous intimacy in determining whether the two people remained close. If you don't forgive, the research said, you can kiss closeness good-bye ... There is a Chinese proverb that says: The person who seeks revenge should dig two graves.  (ABC News)


Scottish victims give life to Palestinian girl

A Scots family whose son was killed in a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv have donated his kidney to a young Palestinian girl.

The family of Yoni Jesner, a student from Glasgow, donated one of his kidneys to Yasmin Abu Ramila from east Jerusalem.  Yoni suffered serious head injuries in last Thursday's blast which killed six other people, including the Palestinian bomber, and later died.

Dina, the girl's mother, said: "I don't know how to thank the family of the victim of the attack. I feel for their pain and thank them for the organ donation that saved my daughter's life."

Speaking at the media conference Ari Jesner said: "The family is very proud that out of this tragic situation and Yoni's death that we were able and Yoni was able to give life to others.  I think the most important principle here is that life was given to another human being.  What religion, nationality, race, culture or creed is not what's important here."

Yoni came to Israel last year to study at a Jewish seminary for a year, but he decided to extend his stay and put off medical school for a further year.  After medical school, he had hoped to return to Israel.

BBC News September 2002


Seeing into a killer's mind

When making the programme From Fury to Forgiveness for UK Channel 4 TV, David Wright and Sheldon Himelfarb filmed Suezann Bosler at the time of the trail of James Campbell, her father’s killer, in Miami.  She had lived with her father, Rev William Bosler, and in a horrifically graphic narrative she described how Campbell broke into the home to rob them, repeatedly stabbing the retired clergyman and then his daughter as she came to aid him.

The killer didn’t want to see her in jail, despite her repeated requests, so she pleaded in court after Campbell’s conviction by jury, for the judge not to give the death sentence.  She was invited to speak to a group of convicted killers in Greaterford Prison, near Philadelphia.  The men were part of a programme designed to bring them face-to-face with crime victims, so that they can understand and take responsibility for their crimes.

She asked, at the beginning of the session with them,

"What was going through his mind when he rang the doorbell?  What was going through his mind when he saw me come out to help my father?  What was he feeling after?"

One of the group, a kind-faced and thoughtful man, with gentle manner and bright eyes, replied to her earlier question:

"Maybe I could look into my own situation. I killed a man in Philadelphia 24 years ago.  I was 29 years old, and I was what you’d consider a walking time-bomb.   I has a lot of problems – just frustrations with my life – failure, self-esteem problems, things of this nature.

"This person whose life I took, he was a complete stranger.  In fact he had been kind to me.  I had been drinking and I was just very frustrated with me, not with that person … and a little incident happened (snaps his fingers) and I lost it.   I would have to give it to him (Campbell, Suezann’s father’s killer) that he was whacked out of his mind … on drugs, and he was torn up with frustration."

At the end of Campbell's trial, and despite Suezann's powerful plea for 'life, not death,' for her father's killer, the judge condemned Campbell to death, saying in his verdict that such a heinous crime was "beyond forgiveness."  He was then interviewed by the documentary crew, and acknowledged that Suezann could forgive Campbell.   "Perhaps she is a better person than me."  But he said calmly that he spoke for the many, including the jury, who could not forgive him.


Seeing people for what they are

British policeman Billy Burns and convicted robber Stephen Korsa-Acquah were featured in a UK Channel Four programme The New Ten Commandments, presented by the leading news correspondent Jon Snow.  For the programme Snow recently interviewed the two men, whose story began with a bank robbery twenty years ago:

Stephen: As we got into the getaway car, two plain-clothes policemen from Bristol Flying Squad gave chase.  We stopped, and I saw Billy, and then the window smashed in on me.  I had a '38 revolver in my hand.  I raised it, in a moment of panic, and fired it at Billy.

Billy:  The bullet hit me just under the lip, sheared off my teeth, went through my tongue into my throat.  It physically lifted me clean off the ground and knocked me unconscious.  When I came round I was paralysed from the neck down.

Stephen was arrested and given three life sentences for attempted murder.  Yet within a year, Billy and his wife sent Stephen a Christmas card.

Billy: In our Christian faith we believe in forgiveness and letting go, not holding grudges.  I was very grateful to be still alive.

Stephen: I then contacted a chaplain and asked him to accept a letter from me to Billy.   I wanted to apologise to him ... Eventually Billy decided to come and visit me.

Billy:  When I did get to the prison, I was anxious about his character - whether I would like him or dislike him; which way this was going to go.  But I liked him - it appeared that he was genuine ... It's seeing people for what they are.

Stephen: When I went back to my cell after the visit, I actually felt - it feels like an old friend has been to visit me.

The two men became friends and now work together, contributing to an Inside-Out project in which they go into schools and speak of the reality of a life behind bars.

from The New Ten Commandments, UK Channel Four March 2005


Seeing the real source of our pain

In 2002 journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in Pakistan, his brutal murder videotaped by his killers.  His father, Dr. Judea Pearl, spoke with Beliefnet about Daniel, the wife and son he left behind, his message of tolerance, and plans marking the first anniversary of his death:

Revenge is a very natural and useful reaction that evolution has bestowed upon us, because eliminating the source of one's pain usually eliminates the threats of future dangers.  With this perspective of mind, we do not resist revenge—we join it.  But we view the source of our pain and the threat of future dangers to be, not the killers themselves, but the hatred that drove them into committing this horrific crime, the kind of demonising hatred that Bin Laden and his ideological supporters have been spreading in the past two decades, be it explicitly or implicitly.  Hatred killed our son, and hatred we will fight for the rest of our lives, with vengeance and tenacity.

In a letter to the people of Pakistan, published in Karachi, July 16, 2002, I wrote: "The loss of Danny will forever tear my heart, but I cannot think of a greater consolation than seeing your children [in Pakistan] pointing at Danny's picture one day and saying:  ‘This is the kind of person I want to be.  Like him, I want to be truthful, and friendly, and open-minded.’"

from an interview by Wendy Schuman for BeliefNet


Seeking forgiveness in Egypt

In the middle of May 2005, in the village of Beit Allam in Upper Egypt, a remarkable story unfolded of family feuding and a desire for forgiveness:

One of the most enduring and bloody family feuds of modern times in Upper Egypt has ended with a tense ceremony of humiliation and forgiveness.

Members of the Abdul-Halim clan went to their rivals, the Hanashat, and begged forgiveness for the killing of 22 of their number in a 2002 ambush staged to avenge an earlier killing.  Seventeen members of the Abdul-Halim clan walked through Beit Allam village carrying funeral shrouds. The choice they offered their rivals was: "Forgive me or take my life."

The Abdul-Halims entered a large tent - bareheaded, some trembling, sweating and all looking agonised - where they received forgiveness from members of the Hanashat.

A huge police presence oversaw the tense ceremony. Most villagers are Abdul-Halims or Hanashats and the merest spark could make the vendetta flare up again.

Family honour, dignity and codes of masculinity and revenge are hugely important in Upper Egypt. The Abdul-Halims begged forgiveness to avoid 22 of their own being killed in return.

After lengthy peace talks, no one is sure if the penance - and a large payment of blood money - will end the vendetta which began in 1991 with a children's fight.

BBC News Service


Sparing him greater grief

A story of compassion for a sinner from the Desert Fathers:

Three old men, of whom one had a bad reputation, came one day to Abbot Achilles. The first asked him, "Father, make me a fishing-net."  "I will not make you one," he replied.   Then the second said, "Of your charity make one, so that we may have a souvenir of you in the monastery."  But he said, "I do not have time."

Then the third one, who had a bad reputation, said, "Make me a fishing-net, so that I may have something from your hands, Father."  Abbot Achilles answered him at once, "For you, I will make one."   Then the two other old men asked him privately,  "Why did you not want to do what we asked you, but you promised to do what he asked?"

The old man gave them this answer.  "I told you I would not make one, and you were not disappointed, since you thought that I had no time.  But if I had not made one for him, he would have said, 'The old man has heard about my sin, and that is why he does not want to make me anything,' and so our relationship would have broken down.   But now I have cheered his soul, so that he will not be overcome with grief."


Stolen money

The Saudi Gazette includes a regular spiritual feature called The Message (passed on to us by Peter Grout).  Margami Mohammad relates (27.10.00) how for early Muslim leaders, forgiveness was a means to win Allah's pleasure:

Abdullah ibn Masoud (may Allah be pleased with him), one of the Prophet’s companions, left an indelible example for Muslims.

One day he went to a market place to buy some needs for his family.  However his money was stolen while in the market place and the people began calling on the stealer.   But Bin Masoud prevented them from doing so and instead he raised up his two hands in prayer and said: "0 Allah, if you know that the one who stole my money is in dire need of it, bless him by it.  But, O Allah, if you know that he is not in dire need of it, make it his last misdeed in his life".  Thus, that was the glittering example of the act of forgiving.


Student loan forgiveness

The Scholarship Resource Network's "Loan Forgiveness Directory" is a good introduction to over 200 loan forgiveness programmes in the USA, finding ways to forgive student loans:

Here's one of the best kept student loan repayment secrets and employment benefits - many employers will help pay off student loans as part of an employment incentive contract.  Indeed, numerous employers, such as state agencies, colleges, hospitals, law firms, and law enforcement agencies in needy locations, provide student loan repayment standard salaries and benefits.

For example, a young police officer who serves in Alaska for a certain number of years will have a portion of his or her student loans repaid as an incentive to come to work where help is critically needed.  The State of Mississippi provides from $1,000 to $3,000 in loan repayment assistance to individuals who agree to teach in communities experiencing teacher shortages.


Spiritual midwife

Here's one of my own experiences of forgiveness through prayer and ministry:

A few years ago I was attending an overseas Christian conference with a group of colleagues from Scotland and England, and I arrived late for a morning session.  One of our group, whom I’ll call Susan, was wandering around at the back, and met up with me, saying she urgently wanted someone to pray with her. 

I took her to the main office, and we met up with a woman called Verda, whose husband worked as the janitor at the conference centre.  I'd met them both a few days earlier.  We asked Verda if there was anyone who could pray with Susan, and rather than looking for anyone else, Verda smiled, eyes twinkling, said, "Oh, so that’s why I came in early – I didn’t know why I wanted to!" and led us into a quiet room.

We sat on the floor (deep-pile carpet) and Verda spent about twenty minutes praying with Susan, asking questions, checking, praying again.  After a while she said she said she sensed a spirit of death over Susan’s childhood.  A lot seemed to happen then, as Susan told us she had nearly died as a child, and been kept alive in a hospital incubator for six weeks.  As an adult, whenever anything went wrong for her she tended to want to "crawl away and die."  A sense of rejection and failure hung over her.

Verda gently took on the words of a sort of ‘spiritual midwife’, praying into birth a new girl, God’s child, who had been denied proper access to Susan’s life at that early stage.  Whatever else the expression being "born again" means for the Christian church, it seemed to me to have its fullest meaning here.  I cannot adequately describe the inner transformation that came over Susan towards the end of this time of prayer, and which seems to have changed her life.

Verda told us later that she had always wanted to be a midwife, but that this was her first ‘delivery’!  It struck me that the ‘giving-for’ which is so central to active forgiveness is clearly demonstrated in midwifery, assisting both mother and baby to take the next, difficult step (you may remember St Paul saying "the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth ... we groan inwardly for our liberation"  (Romans 8.22-23).  Watching a ‘spiritual midwife’ at work, helping God’s child replace a dead spirit, was somehow seeing quite far into the heart of God’s forgiveness.


Success, blame and a sinner

US Methodist theologian William Willimon spoke to the students at Duke University about the heart of repentance in Lent 1994:

Some of you have heard me tell of the medical resident here who casually said to me one day, "Working here, in the Medical Center, I give thanks everyday to God that I'm a Lutheran."

"Why does working here make you glad to be a Lutheran," I asked

"Well, I'm not just a Lutheran.  I'm a Missouri Synod Lutheran.  And one thing Missouri Synod Lutherans are real big on is sin. From the time you're baptized, you're told that you are sinful.  We're real big on sin."

"So why does that help you be a medical resident?" I asked

"Well, each morning, when I walk toward the Medical Center, all spread out so gloriously, I say to myself,  'A lot of good is going to be done here today.   But a lot of bad will also be done here today, some of it in the name of good.   While we're busy helping people, healing, doing good, we'll also be doing some bad.   Lord, forgive us."

"And you're thankful for that?" I asked

"Yea, thankful.  Because I meet lotsa people here who're not Lutherans.   Who think that they have to get everything right.  That every case has to be successful, that everyone must get well or else be blamed on somebody.  Because I'm a Lutheran, I admit I won't always get it right.  That's up to God."


Talking with an IRA bomber

Jo Tuffnell was the daughter of Sir Anthony Berry, one of the four people killed in the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England in October 1984 during the Conservative Party Conference.  The bomb was planted to kill and injure as many members of government as possible.

One of the bombers, Patrick Magee, was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment.  He was released in 1999 under the Good Friday Agreement.  Jo Tuffnell began communicating with him, and has met with him six times, once sharing a peace platform together.  Stuart Wavell reported on her story:

At the first meeting Magee apologised to her, but insisted that her father was a legitimate target.  She says that she understand what drove him to do it, but refuses to talk of forgiveness.  "There's a lot of pressure on victims to forgive," she said in an interview for the BBC.  "I think that's wrong.  Forgiveness sounds like something you do, and then it's done.  But for me it's a journey.  I can only really forgive myself."

Jo Tuffnell's journey towards these meetings began two months after the bombing.   "I happened to meet someone from Catholic west Belfast whose brother had been killed by the British Army.  It was a very powerful moment: I felt I'd built a bridge across the divide."

She began to recount her experiences at victims' workshops, and eventually met a senior Sinn Fein representative.  "He said he was sorry to me, which made a big impression.  He heard my story and I heard his.  It was another bridge being built."  She asked to meet Magee, and did in Dublin in November 2000.   "He said, 'I want to hear everything you have to say.  I want to hear your anger.  (And) I want to share what I've been through and why I did it. ... My sense is that he felt through taking up violence he's lost some of his humanity.   Now, with the peace process happening, it was time to redress the past."

Jo believes her father would approve of her actions.  "People don't have to stay with the hurt.  One way is to see humanity in people who would be your enemy."

Sunday Times  25.11.01


The death penalty doesn't 'close' anything

Ronald Carlson, now a member of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation - Texas, tells the story of his response to his sister's murder:

The phone call I received that dreadful day, June 13th, 1983, was from my father.  He had called me to tell me that my sister had been murdered.  In just a short while I found myself beside my father at his place of business. In less than one hour’s time, I had learned of how my sister had been murdered. 

Of course, I had the normal human reactions. I grieved for my lost loved one.  I was immediately filled with hatred and anger and a desire for revenge.   As I look back now, I see someone who was very angry and would have killed just as my sister was killed if I would have had the chance.  I wanted to get even any way I could.

Here in Texas, the death penalty is used widely.  Both the murderers of my sister - a man and a woman - were found guilty and condemned to death.   When the prosecutor’s office told me of this, they asked me if I was pleased with the fact that they got the death penalty.  My response was "I think they got what they deserved."

I found myself becoming more consumed with hatred.  Even the fact that I knew those monsters would be destroyed did not change the fact that my sister was still dead and gone.  Our politicians and prosecutors want you to believe that the death penalty is the answer to murders in our society.  They want you to believe that everything will be OK when that monster is beheaded.

The only thing that helped me through all of this was finding out who I am, and learning where I came from, and where I am going. It was through learning about God and his ways that I was able to find peace in my life.  Something struck me when I was reading the Lord’s prayer one day.  It was that part where it talks about being forgiven as we forgive.  I cried out to God and said, "I can’t do this!"  I believe that God spoke to me and said "You are right, you cannot, but through me you can."

Eight years after my sister’s death, I confronted those who took away that precious life and love that I had known.  I told them that I forgave them and that I didn’t hold anything against them.  It was only then that I felt the anger and hatred leave me.  It was like a great weight was lifted off of my shoulders. 

Our politicians want us to believe that those who kill are monsters, and that they should be destroyed.  Well, I have seen those monsters and they look just like you and me.  The difference is simple: They committed the sin of murder. 

But, are we not guilty of the same sin when we support the death penalty?  I found that the death penalty does not solve anything.  I know this for a fact because I witnessed the execution of one of the two monsters that killed my sister.  When it was over, I still found that my sister was dead.  I did not feel what I had hoped to feel - they call it 'closure.'

I firmly believe that the death penalty is wrong.  I cannot see how taking someone else’s life can undo the wrong that has been done.  I do know that every time someone is executed, another victim is created.  Think of the family members of the person who is being executed.

source Restitution Incorporated


The Forgiveness Chit


by_______________   to ______________

During the next week, I will overlook, forgive, not pay attention to two occasions of your being a JERK.  I do this because I know that I also have a blind side and can be a jerk without realizing it, and because I want LOVE and FORGIVENESS to be themes of my life.

I want to live every day
by choosing these

The Spiritual Growth Network of Kentucky has developed and promoted this Forgiveness Chit to encourage growth skills in a jail or prison setting in a residential community. They have a residential unit at the Fayette County Detention Center, Lexington, and copies were provided for each inmate for their use, which helped make their getting along fun.

In their program Spiritual Growth Network members teach that jail or prison is a “Fierce Landscape,” in which one either dies spiritually or grows.  Inmates must live with each other 24 hours a day, seven days each week, under trying conditions, when they often have not managed to get along well with others previously. This is an enormous challenge.

The Forgiveness Chit was developed for use among jail and prison inmates as a way to encourage facing anger, the poison of holding grudges, learning to manage conflict and the power of forgiveness and love.

They have also found the use of these chits among families and between spouses to be loving and humorous.

For more information about the Spiritual Growth Network of Kentucky, which works with the basic principles from all Wisdom traditions, see


The holiness of the gaze

John O'Donohue tells this story of entering and understanding a stranger's inner world in Anam cara:

We assume too readily that we share the one world with other people.  At a deeper level, each person is the custodian of a completely private, individual world.

In South America a journalist friend of mine met an old Native American chief whom he would have loved to interview.  The chief agreed on the condition that they could have some time together beforehand.

The journalist presumed that they would hold a conversation in the normal manner.  Instead the chief took him aside and looked directly into his eyes in silence for a long time.  Initially this terrified my friend.  He felt his life was totally exposed to the gaze and silence of this stranger. 

After a while the journalist began to deepen his own gaze.  Each continued this silent gazing for more than two hours.   After this time it seemed as if they had known each other all of their lives.   There was no longer any need for the interview.  In a certain sense, to gaze into the face of the other is to gaze into the depth and entirety of their life. (pp 63-4)


The letter or the spirit  

In "Cry of the Human Heart," the Argentinean pastor and writer Juan Carlos Ortiz tells this story:

In my country two years ago, a very poor woman went into a supermarket.  She bought bread and milk, and stole a piece of meat, putting it into her purse.  When she was going out at the counter, she paid for the bread and milk.   Then she was told, "Open your purse!"    She didn’t want to, but the police came and she had to open the purse.   The meat was there.  So she was taken to the police station and then to the court to stand before the judge. 

In my country only the judge can use the penal code to judge people.   (They are not as foolish as religious people, where everybody has the penal code and judges others with the authority of the letter!)   Not even the police can judge, but only the judges, because they are the makers of the law and not only know the law, but the spirit behind the law.   The judge talked gently with the poor woman and found out that she had been abandoned by her husband and had five children.   They had no house and had had no good food for months.  

So what did he do?  Instead of sending her to gaol, he gave her a modest house and ordered a pension for her.   To this judge, the spirit of the law was more important than the law.  (pp 86-87)


The relationship, not the issue

In his guide to American living, "Lessons in Lifemanship," Bryan Bell gives some homely advice about forgiveness: 

There is a saying which bears frequent repeating:  "The relationship is more important than the issue (at hand).  Restore the relationship."   No one is completely in the right.   Any person can begin the reconciliation, with a statement like, "Lucy, I am sorry for my anger this morning and the harsh things I said.  Will you forgive me?"  Of course, what usually happens on such occasions is that the other person(s) also asks for forgiveness and reconciliation takes place.

A case of forgiveness stands out in my memory.  When I was a sophomore in high school I decided to skip all my classes after lunch and left the school grounds.  Coach Lucksinger saw me and called for me to return.   I did a dumb thing.  I ran.   Now Coach Lucksinger was not the track coach without good reason.   He had been a star runner in college, and he could have caught me easily if he had wanted to.  Instead, he recognised me and bided his time for disciplinary action.   I began to realise this was the case and that I was in trouble.  I thought of a plan. 

I went back to school, and posted myself by his office door and waited for him to return.  As soon as he got closer, I blurted out, "Coach I was the one who ran from you today and I'm sorry."   Coach looked at me steadily, obviously deciding what he was going to do while I quaked in my shoes.  Finally he said, "You have done the honourable thing.  I won't punish you this time, but don't do it again."

It should be added here that there are some occasions when the issue is more important than the relationship, but not as many as people think.  For example, if little children are in the habit of running out into the street, it is necessary to resort to the most stringent measures.  Otherwise, the relationship may completely cease to exist.   (


The Spanish Prisoner

David Mamet wrote and directed the superb movie "The Spanish Prisoner" :

The hero/antihero Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) has invented a process/product for the company he works for.  He is troubled by their unwillingness to praise him (rightly as it turns out, since they wish to steal the work from him), but tells his new, strange friend Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin) he hopes the company will reward him.  Jimmy replies:

Dell "I think you’ll find that if what you’ve done for them is as valuable as you say it is, if they are indebted to you morally but not legally, my experience is they will give you nothing, and they will begin to act cruelly toward you."

Ross "Why?"

Dell "To suppress their guilt."


The void of benign neglect

Susan Reimer relates this personal story in her report on how therapists have recently discovered the clinical power in forgiveness :

Ellen Dahlquist's father was guilty of nothing but the sin of omission.  He simply had not been there when she was growing up.  His was the vague and distant fathering style not uncommon in the '50s.

Into the void left by his benign neglect, she poured a lifetime of anger.  By the time the mother of two was in her 30s, she could not be in the same room with her father for more than a few minutes.  At one Thanksgiving, she and her brother and sister exploded at him, hurling years of resentment at him across the dinner table.  They left abruptly, and Ellen fled to a therapist.

There was a brutal family reunion in that therapist's office, but time ran out before Ellen could tattoo her father with her bitter memories. She came alone to her next therapy session, meaning to say all those things to the empty chair in which her father had sat a week before.

"The anger was eating me alive," she says about that visit.  "Then I decided I had a choice.  I could forgive him.  I remember sensing that clouds had parted, and I could see him for who he was and I could forgive him.  The clouds returned.  I don't remember exactly what I saw.  But I didn't feel the same.   I had come to the right point.  It was spontaneous.  It was only a moment.  But the healing continues."

Now when Ellen visits her father in Virginia with her children, their time is warm and much easier.  And he has learned from her.  Not long ago, he slighted her during a telephone conversation and instead of stewing in her anger as she might have in the past, she let him know she was hurt.

"Not long after," she said, her voice breaking with tears, "I got a letter from him.  He said he felt lower and lower after our conversation, and he wrote to ask me to forgive him for what he'd said.  And he asked for my help."


'There indeed by the grace of God go I'

Four more sayings from the Desert Fathers:

  • One of the brethren had sinned, and the community's priest told him to leave the assembly at once.   So then Abbot Bessanon got up and walked out with him, saying: "I too am a sinner!"
  • Abbot Hyperichius said: "Although bread and water is all we need, it is better to eat meat and wine, than by detraction to devour the flesh of your brother."
  • A brother in Scete happened to commit a fault, and the elders assembled, and sent for Abbot Moses to join them.  He, however, did not want to come.   The community's priest sent him a message, saying: "Come, the community of the brethren is waiting for you."   So Moses arose and started off.   He took with him a very old basket full of holes, which he filled it with sand, and carried it behind him.  The elders came out to meet him, and said: "What is this, Father?"  The elder replied: "My sins are running out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I come to judge the sins of another!"  Hearing this, they said nothing to condemn the brother, but pardoned him.
  • Some old men went to Abbot Poemen and asked, "If we see brothers sleeping during the common prayer, should we wake them?"  Abbot Poemen answered,"If I see my brother sleeping, I put his head on my knees and let him rest."   Then one old man spoke up, "And how do you explain yourself before God?"  Abbot Poemen replied, "I say to God: You have said, 'First take the beam out of your own eye and then you will be able to remove the splinter from the eye of your brother.' "


'They'd just make me feel worse'

Philip Yancey, editor of Christianity Today, relates in "What's so amazing about Grace?" how he came to rediscover how central grace and forgiveness are to Christianity:

I heard this story from a friend who works with the down-and-out in Chicago.  He told how a prostitute came to him in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter.  Through sobs and tears she told him she had been renting out her daughter - two years old! - to men interested in kinky sex.  She made more money renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn on her own in a night.   She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit. 

My friend could hardly bear to hear her sordid story.  At last he asked her if she had ever thought of going to a church for help.  A look of pure, naive shock crossed her face.  "Church?" she cried.  "Why would I ever go there?   I already feel terrible about myself.  They'd just make me feel worse."

What struck me about my friend's story is that women much like this prostitute fled to Jesus, not away from him.  Evidently the down-and-out, who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer feel welcome among his followers.  What has happened?   (p 11)


Trondheim : merciful justice

In 1994, the large town of Trondheim in Norway was suddenly forced to handle the murder of a five-year old girl, Silje Rædergrd, by two little boys of her own age.  It came a year after the killing of James Bulger in England.  But the treatment of the case and the killers - and the behaviour of the media - has been profoundly different.  Simon Hattenstone of the Guardian related the story (30.10.00), as the killers of James Bulger were granted the possibility of early release from prison, and the English tabloids, and James Bulger's father, bayed for vengeance:

On October 15, 1994, Silje was playing with the friends on a local football field.   The game turned violent.  The two boys kicked the five-year-old girl repeatedly.  They stripped her and stoned her and beat her till she was unconscious. Then they left Silje in the snow to freeze to death.  The comparisons with the Bulger case were as eerie as they were inevitable.  In a way the killing in Norway was even more shocking. England had seen child murderers before.  But in the quiet, frozen town of Trondheim they were unheard of.

Seven years on from the Bulger killings, the outcry hasn't died down.  Six years on from the killing of Silje, by contrast, there is silence in Norway.  The most infamous event in the history of Trondheim has been discussed, contextualised, resolved.   Society has moved on.  In Norway, where the age of criminality is 15 - as opposed to 10 in Britain - they were treated as victims, not killers.

Silje's mother, Beate Rædergrd, suffers from post-traumatic stress which makes it impossible to work.  She lives at home with her partner and her two surviving children.  The family often talk about what happened to Silje.  "Just the other day we were talking about it, and Martin asked what happened.  I said Silje was killed by friends because they were playing too hard."

I ask Beate whether she hates the boys, and she seems astonished by the question.   No, she says, of course not, although she still cannot comprehend what happened.   "They were Silje's friends ..." she says, tailing off.  Should they have been punished, locked up?  "No, they were punished enough by what they did.   They have to live with that.  I think everybody has got to be treated like a human being.  The children had to be educated, had to learn how to treat other people so they could get back into society. 

"I have forgiven the boys for a long time.  The hardest thing is to forgive myself ... I feel I haven't done everything in the right order after Silje's death.   Small things.  I think I should have included my family more in my grief." 

Rolv Sverre Fostervold was the leader of the local child administration at the time.    He and the police had to find a means of telling the community. "Nothing like this had happened before, so on the Sunday we decided to open the schools to give information to the public.  We appealed to the people not to start any violence, and guaranteed that no one else was at risk, that children were safe. It was very important to tell the people before the media."   Astonishingly, when the community were told that the boys would return to school within a couple of weeks there was no dissent.   The boys were accompanied by a psychologist at all times.

Trond Andreassen was the head psychologist at the child protection agency in Trondheim, and worked with the boys for four years until 1998.  One of the things he remembers most clearly is how shocked the boys were.  "They were very afraid and confused.   What we wanted to do was give the boys the chance to talk about what had happened, help them make sense of it."    He talks about the way his team took the boys to Silje's graveyard and made sure they knew that she was dead.

But how could the children understand the enormity of the killing if they were not punished?  Andreassen asks what good punishment would have done.  Like Beate, he believes their conscience punished them sufficiently.  "I don't think making them suffer is the way to make them realise what had happened.  When you are continually punished for something you can't undo you have to do something to protect yourself so you begin to imagine it's not really you who did it.  You develop a split personality."


Truth and reconciliation in Sierra Leone

Joyce Mulama reports for the African Church Information Service, and interviews an old colleague of Andrew's, Arnold Temple:

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Bishop Joseph Humper of the United Methodist Church of Sierra Leone, began sitting in the country in April (2003).  Modelled on South Africa's commission, it is intended to promote the healing of long lasting wounds created by extreme acts of violence in the civil war a few years ago.

Rebels from the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone (RUF/SL) have been blamed for creating a community that exists as a living testimony to human cruelty and depravity - the amputees of Sierra Leone.   Observers have described the rebels as the "worst human rights abusers of the 20th century."

The amputees of Sierra Leone, both young and old, are a common sight, people who have been condemned to a life of disability, not by a quirk of fate, but a premeditated act of unspeakable human madness, the practice of mass amputation of human limbs as a tool of terror.

Critics contend that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission may not heal but rather open up fresh wounds of atrocities committed.  But Rev. Arnold Temple, a Sierra Leonean, disagrees, saying, "In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, former Archbishop, Rev Desmond Tutu, said that in the healing process, there is always the need to open wounds, to clean wounds.  The process of opening up wounds and cleaning them is painful, but it is part of healing."

To him, the commission is an instrument that creates peace when people tell their stories and seek forgiveness.  "Coming out in the open and pouring out what happened can heal the victim. Without the truth, however hard we may try, there can be no real reconciliation," he stresses.   "There is hope that even though people are hurting, they will allow the culture of forgiveness to come to the fore."

Like the South African TRC, the Sierra Leonean seven-member commission is chaired by a church leader, Rt. Rev. Dr Joseph Christian Humper, Bishop of the United Methodist Church of Sierra Leone. The TRC is expected to last 18 months.

Sierra Leone becomes the second country in Africa to establish a truth and reconciliation commission after South Africa, whose TRC was founded in 1995.


UN considers Restorative Justice guidelines

A United Nations 'Group of Experts' has met to review country comments on whether the UN should adopt international guidelines on restorative justice.

The meeting was held in Ottawa, Canada at the end of October 2001.   Experts in restorative justice from 16 countries attended.  The group discussed the concept of restorative justice and its use in criminal justice systems in different parts of the world. 

Based on this discussion and a review of the comments received by the UN on the draft elements, the 'Group of Experts' agreed that it was desirable to develop an international instrument on restorative justice, with the aim of assisting Member States of the UN to adopt and standardize restorative justice initiatives in their justice systems, but not to make these mandatory or prescriptive.


Unique moments

In the early part of the 20th century, the great Jewish thinker Martin Buber rediscovered the mystical wisdom of the 18thC Hasidim.  In Hasidic traditions the command is to be "humanly holy."  For example, when one Hasid is asked by another, "What is the most holy thing that your rabbi does?" he answers, "Whatever the rabbi is doing at that moment."  It led him to delineate and celebrate the "I-thou" relationship, an authentic encounter with mutuality, a recognition of the uniqueness of this and every meeting, which calls for wholeness, for attention. 

Buber told his young friend Aubrey Hodes of a key moment in his life, when as a young professor he was visited by an unknown young man.  Buber was friendly and attentive but without ‘being there’ in spirit.  After the conversation, Buber later learned that the young man who had come to see him had killed himself. 

What happened was no more than that one forenoon, after a morning of "religious" enthusiasm, I had a visit from an unknown young man, without being there in spirit.  I certainly did not fail to let the meeting be friendly, I did not treat him any more remissly than all his contemporaries who were in the habit of seeking me out about this time of day as an oracle that is ready to listen to reason.  I conversed attentively and openly with him - only I omitted to guess the questions which he did not put. 

Later, not long after, I learned from one of his friends - he himself was no longer alive - the essential content of these questions; I learned that he had come to me not casually, but borne by destiny, not for a chat but for a decision.

He had come to me, he had come in this hour.  What do we expect when we are in despair and yet go to a man?  Surely a presence by means of which we are told that nevertheless there is meaning.

Aubrey Hodes, Martin Buber : An Intimate Portrait p. 242


US Episcopalians say sorry to Iraqi victims

A website set up by Episcopalians in the United States is asking people to sign an apology to the people of Iraq for the abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib prison.  The site ( received more than 200 signatures in its first 24 hours.

"The photos make us horrified and very sad," reads the apology.   "We are genuinely and profoundly sorry about what happened to you.  We apologise to victims of this abuse and their families and to all the people of Iraq.   This should never have happened in our name."  It concludes: "To the prisoners we say: we cannot erase what happened to you but we will work so you receive a formal symbol of regret, as well as an apology."

"We need to apologise as Christians and as Americans," the Revd Dr Ian Douglas, who helped set up the scheme, said on Tuesday.  Dr Douglas is on the standing committee of Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation (EGR); he is also Professor of Mission and World Christianity at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"Clearly there were religious undertones to the torture in Abu Ghraib prison. It is our responsibility to say that this does not show the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob that we serve."  Members of EGR had been appalled at the images of torture, he said.

Bill Bowder, Church Times 28-05-04


Vengeance chic

Jason White has started noticing that revenge is becoming almost a spiritual virtue in contemporary America.  He wrote about it for BeliefNet:

At the September 2004 Republican Convention in New York City, nearly three years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, actor Ron Silver strode to the podium and delivered an emphatic statement of American resolve.  He said to the cheering crowd at Madison Square Garden.

"We will never forgive. We will never forget. We will never excuse."

Rev. Brian Suntken responded in a Charlotte Observer editorial:

Three years after the horrific events of Sept. 11, our nation is still breathing revenge and retribution.  When will the true process of healing begin?  When will our national leaders, many of whom assert religious affiliation, lead our nation into healing and renewal?"

Three years after 9/11, it is this divide - between forgiveness and retribution, healing and getting even - that shapes our country's foreign policy, our political discussions, and our country's spiritual framework ... After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it became more acceptable to express a desire for revenge. "I want revenge," a woman told The Washington Post soon after 9/11.  In The New York Times immediately after the event, columnist William Safire urged America's leaders to hit back hard: "We must pulverize them."

While the rawness of these feelings may have eased in the years since the attacks, the concept of revenge itself is coming under new scrutiny.  "The need to get even is universal," explained Washington Post reporter Laura Blumenfeld. Her 2002 book, "Revenge: A Story of Hope," tells the story of her confronting the Palestinian man who shot her Jewish father, a rabbi. While her father survived the attack, Blumenfeld was left scarred.

"Rather than trying to deny it, I wanted to try to figure out if there is a positive kind of revenge we can live with," she said.  "We're all taught to forgive and turn the other cheek.  But I was interested in revenge.  How can something be completely bad if we all feel it?"

Blumenfeld's journey led her to Israel and then to the Palestinian territories, where she tracked down the man suspected of shooting her father. Instead of reconciliation and forgiveness, she wanted from him an acknowledgement that what he had done was wrong.

"What I found was that when he acknowledged that what he had done was wrong, there was a sense of peace and resolution.  That’s a very constructive kind of revenge. It's also a very American kind of revenge, a forward-looking kind of revenge that seeks to build up."

Blumenfeld saw this same "forward-looking revenge" in America's response to the terrorist attacks.

"We had more than 3000 people killed on 9/11.  And we had a celebrity marathon to raise money for firefighters and victims. That's a very American thing to do with all that anger and energy.  After 9/11, I felt I was going to see the ugly head of revenge in America.  Mostly I didn't. I was surprised and proud."



'Wait a minute'

John P Jewell remembers this story on his website,

Some years ago a sunday school teacher told me of his difficulty in teaching 5th and 6th grade boys a lesson on forgiveness.  In the middle of his lesson, two young lads were arguing at the back of the room.  The teacher stopped the class and asked them what the problem was.  One of the boys told him the other had hit him on the way to sunday school.  "What a great time to be teaching forgiveness," the teacher thought. 

He called the two boys to the front of the class, emphasised the lesson about how God wanted us to forgive each other and then asked the boy who had been hit if he wouldn’t forgive the other.  "Sure," the lad said and then pulled his arm back and punched the offender in the stomach.   "Wait a minute," the teacher scolded, grabbing both by the arm, "I asked if you would forgive Bobby, not hit him!"   "I am going to forgive him," the lad replied.  "But I had to get even first!"


Wanting to calm my fears

Dale Wolery tells how, as a Christian therapist he realised he was using the act of asking for forgiveness to make himself feel better, without improving real relationships or facing real conflicts:

Early in both my Christian experience and my marriage I was quite fearful of being abandoned.  Distance had dominated my childhood and I can now see that I was terrified that adulthood would be a re-enactment of the loneliness and rejection I had experienced earlier in life.  I longed for a closeness which had largely eluded me.  Marriage seemed to be the solution!  It seemed like a magic carpet I could ride to places where I would be completely safe from the fear of abandonment.

Enter conflict.  As conflict inevitably occurred in my marriage I found myself desperate to have some control over my experience of 'togetherness.'  I was desperate to protect my supply of 'connection' and 'intimacy.'  It is now clear to me that I would do whatever I had to do to ensure I would not be abandoned.

Very quickly I learned a kind of pseudo-forgiveness process that allowed me to control my wife's distance and to calm my own fears.  At the slightest provocation I would rush to ask, "Will you forgive me for ... ?"  I was taught, and believed, that the more humble and specific I could be, the better forgiveness would work.  So, I practised hard.  I was highly motivated.  I would do whatever needed to be done to get to the moment when she said "Yes, I will forgive you."  My insecurities and fears would subside for a while but the cycle would soon be activated again and we would dance this strange and meaningless dance many, many times. 

At the time I managed to trick myself into believing that this was what genuine forgiveness looked like.  As I look back on it now, I understand it was a lot more about manipulating my wife to pacify my fears than it was about sincerely owning my wrongs.  I passionately and unwittingly sought to give her no option but to calm the fears which our conflict had revealed in me.   Pseudo forgiveness became just another kind of controlling behaviour.  It allowed me to pretend that "everything is all better now" without any need for real change.

Article in Steps, "The F-word" issue" (NACR)


'What I have cleansed'

Ray C Stedman relates this story from his counselling experience:

Yesterday at Multnomah School of the Bible I had an interview with a certain young lady. She had come to me after I had spoken on the subject, "How To Live in a Sexually Inflamed Society."  She told me how disturbed she was by the fact that not long before she had come to school she had been guilty of sexual immorality.   She described how terrible it made her feel, especially in this school where she felt that the other young people there had clean lives, in that respect.   She said, "I feel so dirty, I feel so guilty, and I can't get rid of this feeling.    I know God has forgiven me, but I can't forgive myself."

As we talked she said, "You know, there is one thing that really strikes me.  Since I've been here, God has been so good to me.  There are so many wonderful things that he's given me and shown me while I've been here."   I said to her, "Doesn't that tell you something?  Doesn't that tell you that God loves you yet, and that he has forgiven you?  Do you think a Holy God would let you stand in his presence unclean, as you feel yourself to be, and not cast you out?   The very fact that he loves you, and takes care of you, and does wonderful things for you is his way of telling you you've been cleansed, forgiven."

Then I reminded her of the Lord's words to Peter when he refused to eat unclean animals, "What I have cleansed, don't you dare call unclean." (Acts 10:15)  When I said that her face brightened, and she said, "Oh, that's right, that's right. God has cleansed me.  It's an insult to him to say I'm unclean."


What we do with what happens

Elizabeth Ruth Obbard, author and Carmelite nun, tells this true story:

During the 19th century in France there was a case in which an old woman was murdered and her money stolen.  Everyone knew that after dark she would only open her door to the parish priest, and so when they found his blood-stained cassock in the garden of the presbytery, the Abbé Pierre was convicted and sentenced to penal servitude for life on Devil’s Island.  There, disgraced and humiliated, he had to spend his days working in the swamps with the other convicts who reviled him as a so-called man of God turned murderer – the defrocké, the ‘unfrocked one’.

Meanwhile the Abbé Pierre gradually gained their respect.  He could not say Mass, but he would stay up late at night to pray, try to make life a bit more humane for his fellow convicts by tending their sores, fashioning small gifts for their families, ministering to them when they lay dying far from home.

After many years spent like this he was called out one night to a newly arrived convict who had been stricken by malaria.  As he bent over the dying man he heard a voice cry out ‘Is it you Abbé Pierre?’ and the dying man told this story…

‘It was I who murdered that widow.  I dressed in the priest’s cassock and she let me into her house.  But Abbé Pierre saw me stealing away and called me to him.  He heard my confession and I promised to tell the authorities what I had done, but I didn’t.  I let this man be condemned while I continued my criminal activities. Abbé Pierre, I want these people to know you are innocent.  Can you forgive me?’

The priest didn’t trivialise that repentance.  He didn’t say ‘It’s nothing; forget it’, for he had been terribly wronged.  What he did say went something like this:

‘Thanks to what happened I have become a different man.  I was a self-satisfied person with all I wanted to hand.  Here I have experienced hardship and sorrow, but I have also experienced heaven in this hell that is Devil’s Island.   For that I can feel only gratitude.  May God bless you in return and give you his peace.

And indeed, although freedom was offered and his innocence established, Abbé Pierre chose to remain where he was and end his days among the men he had grown to love and who had grown to love him in return.  What happens to us isn’t so important as what we do with what happens to us.

from Lay Carmel (Britain) magazine - available from


When churches prevent God's forgiveness

John F MacArthur is the pastor of Grace Community Church, California and a respected Biblical teacher.  In his book, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness, he acknowledges that churches often prevent God's forgiveness from reaching a sinner:

  • When a church has to engage in discipline it (must) always have restoration as its aim.  One Christian writer who had seen some discipline cases handled poorly wrote, "If I ever fall into a sin, I will pray that I don't fall into the hands of those censorious, critical, self-righteous judges in the church.  I'd rather fall into the hands of the barkeepers, streetwalkers, dope peddlers, because the church people tend to tear each other apart with their gossipy tongues."   That is a sad testimony on the reputation of the church. (p 142)

And in God is closer than you think, Juan Carlos Ortiz says this about his experience with many church leaders:

  • It's been said that Satan never kills a Christian; he just hurts her and other Christians finish her off.  How true it is that the church is the only army that shoots its wounded.  (pp 64-5)

And in The Love of God and Affliction, Simone Weil recorded:

  • People have the same carnal nature as animals.  If a hen is hurt, the others rush upon it, attacking it with their beaks.  This phenomenon is as automatic as gravitation. (from Waiting on God p 81)


When they destroyed my work

Australian writer Gregory David Roberts was imprisoned as punishment for a series of toy gun robberies that earned him the name “Gentleman Bandit”.  In July 1980 he escaped and for ten years went through some startling experiences.  For example, in India he set up a free health clinic in the slums, acted in Bollywood movies, worked for the Bombay Mafia as a forger, counterfeiter, and smuggler and gunrunner.   After recapture in Germany, he was extradited to Australia, completed his prison sentence, established a small multi-media company, and is now a full-time writer living in Melbourne.  Greg’s novel, 'Shantaram', based on his life, was published earlier this year to much acclaim.

In this piece for Books Quarterly, he recounts his awakening to the power of forgiveness.  Twice while he was imprisoned, different warders had destroyed the sole manuscript of his novel.  After the second time he recalled his experiences of torture when in an Indian prison, when the thought that had claimed me, and saved me, and freed me in that floating moment: 'Let it go.  Forgive them.  Let it go, if you want to live.' ...

I found the prison officer who'd destroyed the second draft of my book.  I told him that I forgave him.  He didn't believe me, at first.  He was expecting violence, and he braced himself for a fight.  I told him that I thought I knew where cruelty such as his came from; that I'd learned something about it in the years that I'd been on the run.  I told him that cruelty begins as an agony in the self, before it's inflicted on others, and I felt sorry that such an agony existed in his heart. 

I also told him that I wanted to thank him.  He was still wary, still suspecting a trick that might lure him in close enough for a head-butt or a thumb in the eye.  He snarled at me.  'You want to thank me, do ya?'  I did.  I thanked him for giving me the chance to scale the high wall in my angry heart and test my capacity for forgiveness - if I could forgive that destruction of six years' work, I could forgive just about anything - and I wanted to thank him for making the book a better novel.

And it is: 'Shantaram' changed as a result of that destruction, and it's a far more profoundly complex book, for its long, agonised gestation period, than it ever would've been had they just let me write it from the first draft.  And the prison officer, who expected to be attacked that day, changed as well.  He looked down at his polished boots when I finished talking, and mumbled: 'I'm sorry.  I don't know why I done it.   I shouldn't have done it.  I don't know why I did.  I'm sorry.  I'm sorry.'

The coda to this account of having my manuscript destroyed twice in prison is that I met that prison officer again, just recently, while I was speaking at the Writers Festival in Melbourne.  He approached me after I'd addressed an audience on the very theme of 'Forgiveness as a Literary Virtue', and told me that he'd changed his life in ways that resembled the changes occurring in mine.  He'd left the prison service, soon after the incident where he'd destroyed my novel.  In the years that followed, he'd enrolled in a course of night-school classes that brought him to study literature, as an adult student at university.  We hugged.  He cried.  And I signed, with no little love and impassioned thanks, his copy of the book he'd once destroyed.

Books Quarterly


Why ask for my forgiveness?

Theatre director Michael Rosen tells of a haunting experience about who has power to forgive:

One of the oddest moments in my life happened when one afternoon I got a call at my flat from someone I knew at university.  He sat in my front room and explained that, far from being the jokey, wild bohemian artist we had all known him to be, he had in fact been spying for the South African police.  He explained that this was why he had spent so much of the time avoiding reality, drunk.  As quickly as I knew how, I asked him to go.

The episode bothered me. Why was I given the role of the listening confessor?  Was I supposed to forgive him?  If so, why did he think I had this power?

On being wrong, (BBC Radio 4 2001)


Writing off bad debts

In one of his searching sermons on forgiveness, John Arnott tells how he found out personally what cancelling a debt means:

Going back to Jesus’ parable (of the Unforgiving Servant, (Matthew 18), here’s a guy who owes millions of dollars, and the debt is called in.  The day of accountability is here.  The master says, ‘Pay me what you owe me.’   The man says, ‘I can’t.  I’ve lost all the money.’

The master says, ‘Well, what are we going to do? We’re going to have to sell all your possessions, your wife and kids.’  (Aren’t you glad we don’t live in those days!)

And the guy falls to his knees and says, ‘Give me more time.’

Well the master was wise enough to know that time isn’t going to help.   There’s no way he’ll ever be able to pay back that amount, so what he did, he had mercy on him and said, ‘Aw, look, I cancel the debt.  It’s all right.  You owe me nothing.’

You need to understand that. I really learned this when we were in business, before we went into the ministry.  Every year our accountant would come, and he would go through our books and draw up a financial statement.  And he would always bring me a list of all these bad debts.  And he would say, ‘Look these over, John, because I want to write these off the books.’

And I knew what that meant. ‘Write them off the books’ meant we didn’t get the money.  I’d go, ‘No way! This is $20,000 of our money.  We need this money.’

And he’d say, ‘Well, this guy is bankrupt, and this guy moved away and we can’t find him … you need to just write them off the books.’

So I learned - what forgiveness really means is:  Somebody else gets to pay the debt instead of you.  I got to pay it.  We took it out of other profits to cover all the bad debts that were lost. 

And that’s what Jesus did for you and me.  We owed a debt we couldn’t pay – we sinned so much against God and against one another, there’s no way we can pay all that back.


Yom Kippur : Acknowledging my wrongs

Miriam Weinstein, columnist for Jewish Family, relates how the Festival of Yom Kippur spoke afresh:

A Jewish woman in the Boston area went to her first Yom Kippur service last year.   She described her family as, “atheistic.   We celebrated the historical holidays, Passover and Hanukkah, not the religious ones.”  But she’d been finding out more about the parts of Judaism she’d missed, and so she accepted the invitation of some friends to have supper at their home and then go with them to the Kol Nidre service (on the eve of Yom Kippur).

Problems in marriage had been foremost in her mind.  She and her husband had lost the closeness they once had, as each of them focused on different life goals.  “It was a year in which my marriage was very troubled and painful,” she says. “I’ve been very angry at my husband for withdrawing his affection from me.  I’ve been very stuck in my anger, focused on ‘he’s a bad person to be doing this to me.’   There was no movement at all.”

And her background as a therapist hadn’t helped her to break up the logjam.   “I rely on trying to get insight, understanding patterns, seeing where these things come from.”   But sitting in the Kol Nidre service, she was surprised by the content.  “I had expected that it would be all about 'God has to forgive you.'  But it’s God telling you have to forgive the people in your life.  To acknowledge how you’ve hurt people is very deep and true and very valuable.”  Each person in a relationship ought to take responsibility for how things have turned out, she heard.  The New Year is a time to set things straight, to ask to be forgiven.

At the service, she says, “It was very powerful to sit in a whole group of people and realise this is such a basic human experience, that this just was a piece of wisdom from the ages.”  And it was a piece of wisdom that she could use in her own life.   Although nothing external changed between her and her husband, after that night the woman says her approach shifted.  She began to take responsibility for her own part in keeping the marriage in stalemate; for not moving ahead.

“It really helped me forgive my husband,” she says.  “It was the beginning of things getting better for the two of us, to acknowledge what you’ve done, to put it behind you and start afresh.”   (


'You are still carrying her'

Another story from the Desert Fathers:

Two monks who were on a journey.  They came to a river, and could see that, on the other bank, a beautiful woman was standing, wanting to cross.  The brothers were not supposed to look at a woman, let alone touch one; but one of the brothers, seeing she was in difficulty, waded across, carried her back to the bank he had come from, and then waded back across and continued on his journey.  Meanwhile his colleague, in great alarm, had made a wide detour to cross further downstream, in order not to have to look at the woman.

As the two monks continued on their way, the one who had avoided the woman went on and on talking about her, and saying, "How could you possibly even go near her, let alone speak to her and touch her . . . and you carried her!"

After several hours of this constant talk, the first brother turned to his colleague and said, "My brother, I picked up that woman in need, and put her down again many hours ago.  But you are still carrying her, and do not seem willing to let her go."


You beat me up

The South African bishop, Eric Pike, told me this story as he drove me through the town of Stutterheim, south of Queenstown:

Before the 1990 new deal brought such transformation to South Africa, there had been a series of brutal beatings by police at Stutterheim.  The ANC had organised potentially violent responses.  In order to calm the situation, by one step and another many of the local church leaders came together to lead a public service of prayer in the town centre.  Eric was one of them.  The police refused to allow them to worship or pray at all.  There were strong exchanges of words, but then the town's mayor intervened and said the act of prayer could go ahead.  However, the police ringed the congregation.

One of the speakers was the (black) Presbyterian leader Abongani Finca.   He hobbled to the microphone, but turned to the police on all sides, and spoke to them.  "I was one of the men you beat up and jailed.  Here are the bruises and damaged bones."  The silent tension was enormous.  "And I want you to know that I forgive you."

In local examples like this, as well as through Mandela and Tutu, the foundation for a national spirit of forgiveness was being laid.


John Arnott - Writing off bad debts

BBC News - Scottish victims give life to Palestinian girl

BBC News - Seeking forgiveness in Egypt

Bryan Bell - The relationship not the issue

Suezann Bosler - Seeing into a killer's mind

Martin Buber - Unique moments

Billy Burns & Stephen Korsa-Acquah - Seeing people for what they are

Desert Fathers - Sparing him greater grief

Desert Fathers - There indeed by the grace of God go I

Desert Fathers - You are still carrying her

Simon Hattenstone - Trondheim : merciful justice

John Jewell - Wait a minute

Søren Kierkegaard - Repentance is not forgetting

Andrew Knock - Spiritual midwife

John MacArthur (& others) - When churches prevent forgiveness

David Mamet - The Spanish Prisoner

Margami Mohammad - Stolen money

Elizabeth Ruth Obbard - What we do with what happens

John O'Donohue - The holiness of the gaze

Juan Carlos Ortiz - The letter or the spirit

Judea Pearl - Seeing the real source of our pain

Susan Reimer - The void of benign neglect

Research article - 'Scientific' forgiveness

Restorative Justice org - UN considers Restorative Justice guidelines

Michael Rosen - Why ask for my forgiveness?

Scholarship Resource Network - Student loan forgiveness

Ray Stedman - What I have cleansed

Colin Tipping - Racial division and forgiveness

Stuart Wavell - Talking with an IRA bomber

Miriam Weinstein - Yom Kippur - Acknowledging my wrongs

William Willimon - Success, blame and a sinner

Philip Yancey - They'd just make me feel worse

ForgivenessNet home page

Back to Stories page