4 min read

The healing power of forgiveness

From Parliamentary Prayer Breakfasts to post-apartheid South Africa and fourth-century desert monks, Julie Canlis explores the benefits of relentlessly pursuing forgiveness.

Julie connects Christian spirituality with ordinary life in Wenatchee, Washington State, where she teaches and writes.

Eastern Orthodox icon depict the Prodigal Son
Eastern Orthodox icon depict the Prodigal Son displayed on Forgiveness Sunday

Last week, the National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast convened with a focus on the power of the F-word in public life. In our cultural moment, we prefer score settling and retribution to what was once a cherished value: Forgiveness. Can the Christian story offer anything to an era which is caught in endless cycles of violence, conflict, injustice, and vengeance?  

In our lifetime, we have seen the experiment of what happens when a whole country dedicates itself to forgiveness. In South Africa, overcoming the trauma of apartheid did not mean forgetting but choosing to remember collectively. Evil was named. But could this kind of truth set one free? There were no shortcuts to forgiveness. There was no quick wiping the slate clean that avoided the truth. Instead, perpetrators were faced with real people and stories of what they had done. Victims recounted their trauma, but in a new way that enabled them to stop being the victim of what had happened to them. In South Africa, forgiveness was not religiously sanctioned denial. It offered the victims agency, and release from the cycle of vengeance. 

From South Africa, we learned the power in sharing trauma stories. We discovered the importance of looking for underlying causes and ideologies that are contributing factors. But that was not the end. We also watched the power of restorative narratives, testifying to the beautiful fragility and hope of reconciliation. Without forgiveness, no relationship on a personal or national scale can be sustained. What would it look like to begin to create a forgiveness culture amid a culture of hate? 

In the fourth century, there were communities of Christians who fled the Roman empire and set up shop in the desert. They gave their life to prayer and forgiveness because they found that despite fleeing from the “sins” of Rome, they could not escape themselves. They were in the desert with a handful of other people, and yet their hearts still contained hatred. They did not have muscle memory oriented toward forgiveness.  

For others, hearing that they are forgiven forty times finally cracks through a self-defeating wall. 

And so, they relentlessly practiced forgiveness. They practiced it by stopping the incessant outward glance at other peoples’ faults. They asked forgiveness constantly, in a bold attempt to own their own culpability and blindness. And they ritualized this practice in a once-yearly “Forgiveness Sunday” which makes many of us squirm just to think of it. The Sunday before Lent, everyone in the community would extend a word of forgiveness to each person, and beg their forgiveness in turn.  

Forgiveness Sunday is still practiced annually in Eastern Christian churches (often Greek or Russian) where you can still wander in on the Sunday before Lent, and work on your F-word muscle memory. In case you find yourself in one of these churches, the script goes something like this: 

Person 1: Forgive me, sister. 

Person 2: God forgives you. And so do I. Forgive me brother. 

Person 1: God forgives you. And I forgive you. 

Of course, this exchange can be rote. But for some for whom there has been anything amiss, eyes well up with tears. Perhaps it is the letting go of an exhausting grudge. For others, hearing that they are forgiven forty times finally cracks through a self-defeating wall. And for everyone, it is a commitment to not constantly ruminate on the wrongs of others, reliving incidents to keep the anger going. If done rightly, it allows for the recognition of wrong, while not allowing it to perpetuate itself in you. In essence, it is the cheapest mental health shortcut, available at a church near you. 

Back in the fourth century, Forgiveness Sunday arose as a circumstantial necessity because these desert dwellers would retreat even further into the desert for Lent. Call it a detox camp. Call it a therapeutic immersion. Call it a technology fast. Regardless, due to the dangers of the desert (wild animals and a hostile environment), these Christians wanted to receive the forgiveness of their brothers and sisters (and offer it) in case they did not return to the community to celebrate Easter. For us, a modern equivalent might be simply to enter the liturgical time of confession and forgiveness on a regular Sunday. And to lean more deeply into the well-worn phrase to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” Would it be possible to treat these words with a whole new level of personal responsibility and vulnerability?   

Forgiveness Sunday is the humble declaration that we are both victims and perpetrators.

Forgiveness, when taken seriously, is a process that takes time. Forgiveness involves great courage, but also the great humble realisation that we could have just as easily done the very act that needed forgiving, under different circumstances. Forgiveness involves neither appeasement nor grovelling. For the church, the ritualised understanding of Forgiveness Sunday is the humble declaration that we are both victims and perpetrators. And that, somehow, Christ accompanies us in the grief of both. 

In the Christian tradition, Jesus founded his new order upon forgiveness. Jesus knew that the unforgiving heart is closed to not just giving forgiveness but to receiving it – it is sealed up like a tomb. That those who are least forgiving also live daily with the fiercest critic – themselves. In other sayings, Jesus highlights that forgiveness is not merely an interior disposition, but also one honours the integrity of the process of working through an injury. And finally, Christians believe that Jesus practiced what he preached: he forgave his enemies (and died for them) to secure divine forgiveness for everyone. For his followers, they had no choice but to forgive – and many of them ended up founding communities of forgiveness. 

6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  


The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.