Yesterday I wrote about how the #partygate scandal gets us to think about truth. Today, I want to pick up on another word that has been banded around a lot over the past week, particular by Conservative MPs and right leaning journalists. That word is “forgiveness.”
Some people have even linked the theme of forgiveness for Boris Johnson to Christian faith. Ther argument made has been that yes the Prime Minister was in the wrong in attending parties during lockdown. Yes, this put him in breach of the letter and the spirit of his regulations but we need to move on and forgive, especially because the Prime Minister has said sorry. I’m not sure that they grasp exactly what forgiveness is about when they make those claims.
In the Bible, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray that God would forgive them their debts. Jesus also tells a parable to illustrate this. A man is massively in debt to the king. The king lets him off of his debt but then the man sees another person who owes him a small amount. Unlike the king to him, the man refuses to forgive and insists on full payment.
So, it is important when we think about forgiveness to begin by thinking about debt. The primary point of full forgiveness is that I am relieved from an obligation that I am under. This means in terms of our relationship with God that we are no longer subject to the penalty for sin because Jesus has paid that price for us. Now, the deeper result of this forgiveness is that there is reconciliation to God. Our relationship to him is restored.
This helps us to think about what goes on in terms of human forgiveness. If someone wrongs me, then there is a sense in which they are now in my debt. They have attacked my honour and so they need to “make it up.” When I forgive them, then I release them from any obligation to me. I hold nothing over them. This also paves the way for reconciliation and the restoration of friendship with them.
We sometimes talk about whether repentance is necessary in such circumstances and clearly it is for a full reconciliation otherwise any ongoing relationship is dangerous. However, it is possible for me to choose not to hold a person’s wrong against them and over them. I can let go of my grievance and indeed that can be something important and healthy if I’m going to avoid the corrosive affect of bitterness.
Now, let’s come back to the question of forgiveness for Boris Johnson. My hope, my prayer is that he will find forgiveness. It’s something we should want for all. However, his MPs are seriously mistaken in the way they talk about forgiveness here.
First of all, they cannot talk of forgiveness here because it is not for them to do the forgiving. If you are owed £100 by a friend and I come up to you both as you are arguing about this and say “It’s okay, they are forgiven.” Then that’s pretty much meaningless. It is not my place to forgive. The debt is not to me Now incidentally, there may be times when the obligation is to multiple parties. So, for example I may choose to forgive the person who assaulted me. The person has wronged me. However, they also have wronged the state by breaking its laws and so they still will be prosecuted and convicted. Incidentally, I haven’t heard any Ms saying that we shouldn’t lock up murderers and terrorists providing they are truly sorry.
So, before people start stepping in to forgive Boris, they might want to stop and ask whether they are the wrong party. Is it their place to forgive at this point. Clearly, they cannot let him off the fines he has been given. But also, in terms of the Prime Minister’s failings in public office, well that’s really for the electorate to determine whether or not he should be forgiven.
Secondly because whilst forgiveness may release me from the debt/obligation I have, it may not always remove the consequences from us. We see this so often don’t we. A person may come to Christ and find forgiveness for their sin but they still live with the consequences. Repenting of adultery won’t necessarily put your marriage back together, finding forgiveness for your reckless lifestyle won’t repair your wrecked health. Furthermore, we recognise that wrongdoing has consequences when we realise that it raises challenges about a person’s fitness and competency to do certain things going forward. Supposing the adulterer in the case above was a pastor, he may find forgiveness in Christ, this may lead to great reconciliation within the church family but that does not mean that we are compelled to restore him to the pastorate. Similarly, we may not put the person caught embezzling back into the role of church treasurer.
So, we may chose to forgive Boris. We may decide not to think bitterly of him. We may even argue that he shouldn’t be subjected to further retrospective fines. However, we may also conclude that the Prime Ministers, words, actions and decisions over the past few years mean that we no longer consider him suited by way of character and competence to the role of Prime Minister.
Well, you may detect here my own personal opinion on what should happen politically. However, our primary concern on faithroots is to think about the implications for us in terms of our relationships as part of church families.
It is important that we both recognise the importance of being ready both to repent and to forgive. Our aim should be true reconciliation. However, we should not seek to step in to give forgiveness that is not ours to give on behalf of others. We must also recognise that there are often unavoidable long term effects from sin. Restoration and rehabilitation is about ensuring that a person’s relationship with God and with others is right. It isn’t about guaranteeing them their job/ministry.