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and the Justice of God
Lecture 5: Deliver Us From Evil
June 16 2003
In the first lecture I outlined the problem of evil, and argued that it was deeper and more serious than our culture, and sometimes our theology, has given it credit for. In the second lecture I laid out a way of looking at the Old Testament in which the story of Israel is presented as being itself the solution, or at least the key to the solution, precisely of the problem of evil, leaving us with a story in search of an ending. In the third lecture I proposed a reading of the gospels, in particular the story of Jesus’ death, in which what we have traditionally thought of as ‘atonement theology’ needs to be seen on a wider canvas, namely, the ultimate confrontation between God’s plan to rescue the world from evil and the forces of evil themselves, both the evil regimes of Caesar, Herod and the Sadducees and the dark, accusing powers that stand behind them. Then, in the fourth lecture, I proposed a way of looking at the future and imagining a world without evil, in order to see how we might conceive the Christian task in the present in terms not of waiting passively for that future to arrive but anticipating it in prayer, holiness and justice in the present. We now come, in this fifth (and, accidentally, final) lecture to the question which lies at the centre of it all. ‘Deliver us from Evil’, we pray several times a day in the Lord’s Prayer. How will this happen, not only to us as individuals – the place where the ‘problem of evil’ really bites, of course, is that it’s my problem, and yours, not just a big, floppy cosmic thing – but to God’s world as a whole?
The proposal I want to advance is at its heart a reflection on the nature of forgiveness. I am aware of three books in particular which have been of help to me as I’ve thought about this, and I commend them to you for your own further pondering. First is one of the finest works of Christian theology written in the last decade: Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (which this last year won the prestigious Gravemeyer Award). Volf found himself some years ago faced with the question: how could he, as a Croatian Baptist, love his Serbian Orthodox neighbour after all the terrible things which the Serbs had done to his country? He realised, not least because Jürgen Moltmann rubbed his nose in it, that if he couldn’t answer that question the whole authenticity of his theology was called into question; and those of us who haven’t had to live with that sort of issue close up ought to stand in awe as a powerful Christian intellect wrestles with such a hugely emotive and personally involving question, and in so doing faces some of the great cultural and philosophical, as well as theological, issues of our time. Basically, Volf argues that what has to happen, both in international relations and in personal ones, is that evil must be named and confronted; there must be no sliding around it, no attempt, for the sake of an easy life or a quick fix to the problem, to pretend it wasn’t so bad after all. Only when that has been done, when both evil and the evildoer have been identified as what and who they are – this is what Volf means by ‘exclusion’ – can there be the second move, towards ‘embrace’, the embrace of the one who has deeply hurt and wounded me. Of course, even then this may not happen, if the perpetrator of the evil refuses to see his or her action in that light; but if I have named the evil and done my best to offer genuine forgiveness and reconciliation, I am free to love the person even if they don’t want to respond.
I haven’t hereby done justice to Volf’s massive argument, which is both intellectually towering and personally deeply challenging. The second book is by the Dean of Duke Divinity School, L. Gregory Jones, and is called Embodying Forgiveness. Here Greg Jones delves into the pastoral and personal details of what forgiveness actually is and how, as Christians, we can live it out – something about which surprisingly little teaching seems to be given in the church, though the subject is clearly central in the New Testament. There is a wealth of pastoral and theological wisdom in here from which every Christian community as well as individual could learn a great deal.
The third book, at a much more up-front practical and indeed political level but with the theology firmly in place underneath, is Desmond Tutu’s breathtaking No Future Without Forgiveness. We all know what Desmond has achieved in South Africa with the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. I have no hesitation in saying that the fact of such a body even existing, let alone doing the work it has done, is the most extraordinary sign of the power of the Christian gospel in the world in my lifetime. We only have to think for a moment of how unthinkable such a thing would have been twenty-five years ago, or indeed how unthinkable such a thing would be in Beirut, Belfast or, God help us, Jerusalem today, to see that something truly remarkable has taken place for which we should thank God in fear and trembling. Though most of our western journalists have taken little notice of it, the fact of white security forces and black guerillas both confessing in public to their violent and often horrific crimes is itself an awesome thing. The fact, too, that with those confessions the families of the tortured and murdered were able for the first time to begin the process of true grieving, and with that to contemplate at least the possibility of being able to forgive, and so to pick up the threads of their lives instead of being themselves overwhelmed with continuing anger and hatred, is a sign not only of a way of being human which is different to the sub-Christian versions on offer in much of the western world, but, as I shall now try to argue, of the answer to the problem of evil itself, or at least such an answer as is open to us in this present age.
This dynamic of forgiveness is in fact close to the heart of what I want to say this evening. Many of you will be familiar with the point, though you will not, perhaps, have thought of it as part of the discussion of the problem of evil. The fact is that when we forgive someone we not only release them from the burden of our anger and its possible consequences; we release ourselves from the burden of whatever it was they had done to us. Forgiveness, then – both God’s forgiveness of us, our forgiveness of one another, and our forgiveness even of ourselves – is a key central part of deliverance from evil. What I want to do in this lecture is first to explore this point in relation to the larger problem of evil itself, that is, in relation to God and the world and the ultimate resolution of all things; and then to explore what it might mean for us to anticipate this final resolution in our own personal and communal lives.
To begin with, then, I want to look at the ultimate victory of God over evil. I have ruled out in previous lectures any possibility that the problem of evil can be solved in terms of a developmental progress or evolution. If the world gradually gets better and better until it turns into a Utopia – though we of all people should be cynical about such a possibility – that doesn’t solve the problem of all the evil that has happened up to that point. I have also ruled out, to the disappointment of some I fear, any immediate prospect of finding an answer to the question of where evil came from in the first place, what it’s doing in God’s good creation. Had I been able to continue this series through the rest of the year I might have addressed this further, though I have my doubts as to how far I would have got with it. But what I think we can and must address is the question of how, when God eventually makes the new heavens and new earth as in Revelation 21, when God eventually sets creation free from its bondage to decay to share the freedom of the glory of God’s children, as in Romans 8, when God is eventually ‘all in all’, having defeated all enemies including death itself, as in 1 Corinthians 15 – when all this comes to pass, how is it that in this new world there will not only be no evil but no residual anger or resentment, no burden of guilt still to bear, for all the evil that has happened down the long millennia to that point?
The answer, I suggest, lies in three places, one of which we looked at two lectures ago, the other two of which are our subject tonight. First, the death of Jesus himself is seen consistently, albeit multifacetedly, throughout the New Testament as the means whereby evil is confronted and dealt with. It is defeated, and its power exhausted, for all that it appears – as the early Christians were only too aware – to have a continuing virulence even after this heavy defeat. But, second, and based likewise on the death of Jesus, God will forgive; and with that forgiveness God will not only release the world from its burden of guilt but will also, so to speak, release himself from the burden of always having to be angry with a world gone wrong. And, third, in the full outworking of the victory of the cross God will win the final victory over the forces of evil, chaos and death, demonstrating them to be intruders into his good world and overthrowing all the power they have arrogated to themselves. I am thus taking Desmond Tutu’s title, No Future Without Forgiveness, and suggesting that not only is this true for human communities as they try to advance beyond the stalemate of mutual hostility and recrimination; it is also true at a cosmic level, true for God himself. And if this is so it makes it all the more urgent that we learn to live in this way as we seek in the present to anticipate God’s promised future.
It is only forgiveness, I suggest, that can make sense of the stunning future prospect held out to us in passages like those I’ve already mentioned (Revelation, Romans, 1 Corinthians), and picked up in the daring lines so well known both from Julian of Norwich and, echoing her, T. S. Eliot: all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. Out of context, that statement of hope can become part of the problem, not a glimpse of the solution; set within an easy-going liberal or progressive optimism, it’s a way of shrugging one’s shoulders and saying, well, it’ll all pan out somehow, so we don’t need to worry that much. Of course both for Julian and Eliot it couldn’t be like that. Julian was extremely down-to-earth and realistic about the actual world and its pains and puzzles; and Eliot only gets to Little Gidding, with that marvellous refrain, at the end of the Four Quartets in which there is so much doubt and death, and indeed towards the end of a career which had seen Ash Wednesday and The Waste Land among its highlights. There is there something of the rhythm of Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace; but we who grew up in the 60s, 70s and 80s learned all too easily to go straight for the embrace without bothering about the exclusion. It can’t be done. Volf’s book marks the final demolition of the older, soggy, easy-going liberal theology that thought it could say ‘all shall be well’ without going through the death of fire and water of which Eliot spoke earlier in the poem. The theological question which underlies this dilemma can be simply put: how can it be possible, let alone right, for God to bring about a situation where all is genuinely well, and all manner of thing is truly well, granted all that has happened and, God help us, continues to happen?
This is the problem faced by the author of the book of Revelation in the majestic throne-room scene in chapters 4 and 5. The four living creatures are singing ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’, and the elders are casting their crowns before the throne; but the one who sits on the throne holds a scroll written inside and outside, sealed with seven seals, and there is nobody found who is worthy to open it and break its seals. The way to God’s unfolding purposes, the purposes for a world put to rights, is blocked, because God has made the world in such a way that it must be looked after by human stewards, and no human being is capable of taking God’s plan forwards. This is Revelation’s statement of the problem of evil: God has a plan, but without unmaking creation itself, which is designed to function with God’s imagebearing creatures looking after it, it looks as though the plan cannot come to fruition. And this is Revelation’s statement of the answer: the Lamb has conquered, has defeated the powers of evil, and now (verses 9 and 10) the Lamb has ransomed people from every nation, who are to become a royal priesthood, serving God, and reigning upon the earth. This theme, so frequent in the New Testament and so widely ignored in Christian theology, is part of the solution to the problem: it isn’t just that the cross has won the victory so there’s nothing more to be done, but that the cross has won the victory as a result of which there are now redeemed human beings getting ready to act as God’s wise agents, his stewards, bringing his order to the world, putting the world to rights under his just and gentle rule. A truly biblical ecclesiology does not focus so much on the fact that the church is the community of the saved, but on the fact that the church is the community of those who, being redeemed through the cross, are now to be a kingdom and priests to serve God and to reign on the earth. Our fear of triumphalism on the one hand, and our flattening out of final destiny into simply ‘going to heaven’, have combined to rob us of this central biblical theme, but until we put it back where it belongs we won’t see how the New Testament ultimately offers a solution to the problem of evil.
God will, then, put the world to rights, and will do so in a manner consistent with the design and plan of creation from the beginning. And now it should become apparent that God’s action in Jesus, to redeem a people for himself and to set them in authority over the world, puts God in the clear. Having defeated evil on the cross, God has put evil in a position where it cannot for ever blackmail him. I first met this theme in C. S. Lewis’s remarkable book The Great Divorce, where he gives his hero George MacDonald a speaking part and has him explain how it cannot be the case that someone who ultimately rejects the love and mercy of God can hold God’s kingdom to ransom. Our culture has gone even further down the road of moral illiteracy since Lewis’s day, and the only moral high ground we have heard of is that occupied by the victim, or someone who claims to be a victim; so we instinctively feel sorry for someone who’s left out of the party, someone who doesn’t yet seem persuaded that there’s an answer to their problems, someone who hasn’t yet abandoned their pride and accepted the free forgiveness offered in the gospel. Grand-sounding statements of universalism are offered on this basis: it cannot be right, we are told, for the redeemed to enjoy their heaven as long as one soul is left in hell. Of course, by thus appealing to our sense of feeling sorry for the one outside we put that person in a position of peculiar power, able to exercise in perpetuity a veto on the triumph of grace.
The old phrase for that is dog-in-the-manger, someone who isn’t enjoying the party themselves but is determined to stop everyone else enjoying it. And my point in our present context is this: the apparent right of evil, evil of all sorts, evil past and present, to stand there in the corporate memory and declare that it is impossible for God’s new world to be perfectly good because this deficit, this outstanding moral debt, has not yet been paid – this apparent right is overthrown by the cross, which has defeated the powers of evil, and now by God’s creation of a new world which will bring healing, rather than obliteration, to the old one, under the stewardship of the redeemed. God’s offer of forgiveness, consequent upon his defeat of evil on the cross, means that God is, so to speak, in the clear. Just as when we offer genuine forgiveness to someone else we are no longer conditioned by the evil that they have done, even if they refuse to accept this forgiveness and so continue in a state of enmity, so when God offers genuine forgiveness to his sinful creatures he is no longer conditioned by the evil they have done, even if they refuse to accept his forgiveness. Otherwise the grouch, the sulker, the Prodigal Son’s older brother, occupies the implicit moral high ground for ever. This does not explain, as I said, the origin of evil, but I think it does help to explain how it will be that, when God makes the promised new world, there will be no shadow of past evil to darken the picture.
That’s all very well, you say. God may forgive evil done in the past; but the evil was done to me, to the Jews in the Holocaust, to the murdered man and his family, to the rape victim, the family decimated by a drunk driver, the relatives of those killed by an IRA bomb. What right has God to say that this evil can somehow be wiped away, so that it appears not to exist any more? Is this not simply another way of belittling evil, making it appear that it isn’t really as important as all that? And what right has God to say that he forgives the person when it is Joe Smith, not God, who has really been hurt?
No. This is where I have a further proposal to make, which needs to be understood in the light of the very precise meaning of forgiveness for which I am arguing throughout this lecture. Just as in God’s new world all his people will have passed beyond death, disease, decay and so forth, so that their new resurrection bodies will be incapable of any such thing, so their moral, thinking, cognitive, affective selves will also be renewed; and in that renewal they will be enabled fully and finally to forgive all the evil done to them, so that they, too, will no longer be affected or infected by it. This takes, of course, a pretty large leap of the imagination for most of us even in our own relatively uninjured lives; when we imagine some of the morally, physically and emotionally outrageous sufferings of people around the world over the last century, it may seem an impossible dream. Yet it is precisely the outworking of the promise of resurrection itself – which of course appears incredible to those who simply study the world of decay and death and forget the Lord of life who lived amongst us and died and rose again. Just as physical decay and death will have no power over our resurrection bodies, so the moral decay and dissolution threatened by the persistent presence of evil – the gnawing resentment, the unscratchable itch of jealousy or anger, which are the moral and spiritual equivalents of physical decay and disease – will have no power over our emotional or moral lives in the world to come. We are, in fact, called to be people of forgiveness in the present because that is the life we shall be living in the future; more about that anon. But the point, and this is really the central point of these lectures, the ultimate answer to this aspect at least of the problem of evil, is that in the new world not only will God be beyond the reach of the moral blackmail of unresolved evil, but so will we be as well. This is how we shall be delivered from evil, how the Lord’s Prayer will finally be answered.
I see something of a pointer in this direction in that powerful and poignant Psalm 73. The Psalmist begins by complaining against the wicked. They are always doing evil and getting away with it. He is envious of them (v. 3); they scoff at God and remain at ease (vv. 10–12); they make the righteous think that there’s no point in serving God after all (vv. 13f.). But then he goes into God’s sanctuary, into the place where heaven and earth meet, and he sees a different story. Ultimately, the wicked are not only not going to get away with it, in slippery places and facing sudden ruin (vv. 18f.); they are going to be like a dream when you wake up (v. 20). They will be a memory that no longer has any power to make us frightened, embittered, jealous or angry. Thus it will be, like the Psalmist in verses 21 and 22, when we look back from the future life and see our present one: we are still prey, in this life, to bitterness and anger, to jealousy and malice, and though as Christians we fight a running battle with them we know that they still dog our footsteps. But from the perspective of God’s temple, the place where heaven and earth meet and the future is disclosed, we see a different reality:
Nevertheless I am continually with you;
No doubt there is much more to be said than this, but this is at least a start. The biblical picture of God’s new world, a world without sin, injustice, death or any such thing, is not like the utopian dreams of those who think that by sheer progress the world will gradually become a better place, building their golden future on the bones of those who suffered in the past. That, it seems, is a gross parody of the biblical picture. The New Testament promises a world in which forgiveness will be offered not only by God but also by all God’s people. Part of the joy of the redeemed is that, through being able fully and finally to forgive all that was done against them, their lives, and their bliss, will have no shadow falling across them from all that they suffered in the past. This picture is cognate with another well-known biblical image, that used by Jesus in the Farewell Discourses about the contrast between the present and the future:
When a woman is in labour, she has pain because her hour has come.
And part of that joy, I am suggesting, is that not only physical pain
but also the mental pain of unresolved anger and bitterness will be done
away, as we are enabled fully and finally to forgive as we have been
I have argued so far, somewhat baldly I grant you, that the ultimate answer to the problem of evil is to be found in God’s creation of a new world, new heavens and new earth, with redeemed, renewed human beings ruling over it and bringing to it God’s wise, healing order. I have argued that the continuing presence and power of evil in this world cannot blackmail this new world and veto its creation, because the power of forgiveness, organically linked to the power of Jesus’ resurrection, is precisely that it enables both God and God’s people to avoid the entail of other people’s evil. This does not require that all human beings will come to repent and share the joy of God’s new world, wonderful though that would be; indeed, throughout the New Testament we are constantly warned that the choices we make in this life, especially the choices about what sort of a person to become, are real and have lasting consequences which God himself will honour. But we do not have the choice to sulk in such a way as to prevent God’s party going ahead without us. We have the right, like the older brother, to sit it out; God has the right to come and reason with us; but the fatted calf is going to be eaten whether we join in or not. Those who accept God’s invitation to God’s party on God’s terms will indeed celebrate the feast of deliverance from evil.
I now want to suggest that part of the Christian task in the present is to anticipate this eschatology, to borrow from God’s future in order to change the way things are in the present, to anticipate our eventual deliverance from evil by learning how to loose the bonds of evil in the present. Jesus taught us to pray, as one of the most extraordinary clauses in his special prayer, ‘forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’. In one terrifying parable Jesus warned that unless we forgive we shall not be forgiven: in Matthew 18, the servant who was forgiven a massive debt but who then refused to forgive a tiny one to a fellow-servant had the initial forgiveness revoked. This, of course, sounds harsh, and I shall come back to it presently. But first, some initial remarks to ward off a further charge regularly levelled against the proposal of forgiveness. I am here once more in line with Miroslav Volf’s argument in Exclusion and Embrace.
We can see the point writ large if we imagine mentioning the word ‘forgiveness’ in three contemporary contexts. Many of us have campaigned for years for the forgiveness of the massive and unpayable Third World debt; and one of the answers we regularly receive from politicians, bankers and others is that you can’t simply forgive debts. The world as they know it would come to a stop. People have to learn that they have to pay back what they borrow. Well, yes and no; but in terms of secular humanism or even sheer self-interest forgiveness of debts often makes good sense, as the debtors are thereupon free to enter into a more mature and co-operative relationship with the rest of the world. The bankers’ point is basically that forgiveness undermines the seriousness of debt.
You see the same thing if you tell people in Northern Ireland, or in the Middle East, that the way forward for them as a community is to forgive. Howls of protest follow any such proposal. When, famously, one man in Northern Ireland declared that he forgave those whose bomb had killed his daughter, many, including many Christians, accused him of going soft in the head. In the Middle East both the main protagonists embrace religions where forgiveness has never been seen as a duty, let alone a virtue, but is rather regarded as a kind of moral weakness – and by ‘moral weakness’ I don’t just mean a weakness of moral will, but an actual failure of morality. The main moral standard for them is justice; forgiveness, they believe, would mean forswearing the justice – i.e. full recompense, punishment, and so on – which both sides believe they are owed because of atrocities committed by the other. It’s not just that they don’t want to forgive or find it difficult. They believe passionately that it would be wrong, that it would belittle the evil that’s been done.
Thirdly, we see the same when we approach the thorny subject of criminal justice. We have seen various swings in public mood, treating the criminal as a victim of the system and then the victims as second-order victims, and so on. We have seen attempts at restorative justice, mostly alas half-hearted. Most of us would probably sign up to some kind of penal code whereby we admitted that there were some hardened criminals who were unlikely ever to be reformed and should probably spend most of their lives behind bars. And yet we put there, along with them, a great many people who have drifted into petty or near-petty crime and who, if other attempts to punish them were found, could be rescued from that life and enabled to put their past behind them and live as responsible and creative members of society. But whenever we try to do this it seems there are always plenty of people who accuse us of going soft on crime itself, of not taking evil seriously.
These three examples – the global economy, international and interracial tension, and criminal justice – function as litmus tests for the problem of forgiveness which we all meet at a much more personal and intimate level. When someone has done something hurtful to us, how are we to react? There are those who will say at once ‘you must forgive, of course’, and they have Jesus’ strict command in Matthew 18 and elsewhere to back them up. But when someone says that someone else will at once say ‘But that implies that you’re letting them get away with it’, or ‘but that means you’re not taking evil seriously’. This is the problem which Volf highlights, and addresses, in his book.
The central point is that forgiveness is not the same as tolerance. I am aware that this has been a major theme in much of my preaching here at the Abbey these last three years, and I am sorry if you think it’s a kind of King Charles’s Head of mine. We are told again and again that we must be inclusive; that Jesus welcomed all kinds of people just as they are; that the church believes in forgiveness and that therefore we should remarry divorcees without question, we should reinstate employees who were sacked for dishonesty, we should allow convicted paedophiles back into children’s work . . . actually, we don’t normally hear the last of these, which shows that we do have some common sense at least. But forgiveness is not the same as tolerance. It is not the same as inclusivity. It is not the same as indifference, whether personal or moral.
orgiveness doesn’t mean that we don’t take evil seriously after all; it means that we do. In fact, it means we take it doubly seriously; because, to begin with, we are determined to name it and shame it and, to follow that, we are equally determined that we will do everything we can to resume an appropriate relationship after evil has been dealt with, and that in any case we will not allow this evil to determine the question of the sort of people we shall then become. That is what forgiveness is all about. It is tough: tough to do, tough to receive – and tough also in the sense that, once it’s really happened, it’s strong, unlike a wimpish tolerance which is, effectively, simply taking the line of least resistance.
Let me develop the point a little further. Forgiveness doesn’t mean ‘I didn’t really mind’ or ‘it didn’t really matter’. I did mind, and it did matter, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything to forgive at all, merely something to adjust my attitudes about. (We hear a lot about that these days – about people needing to adjust their attitudes to things they formerly thought wrong; but that’s not forgiveness. If I have a wrong attitude towards someone, and if I need to adjust my attitude, that’s not forgiving them, it’s saying they don’t need forgiveness.) Nor is forgiveness the same as ‘I’m going to pretend it didn’t really happen.’ This is a little trickier, because part of the point of forgiveness is that I am committing myself to work towards the point where I can behave as if it hadn’t happened; but it did happen, and forgiveness itself isn’t pretending that it didn’t, it’s looking hard at the fact that it did and making a conscious choice, a moral decision, to set it aside so that it doesn’t come as a barrier between us. In other words, the presupposition of forgiveness is that whatever it was was indeed evil and cannot simply be set aside as irrelevant. That way lies suppressed anger, and a steady distancing of people who no longer trust one another. Much better to put things out on the table, as indeed the New Testament commands us to do, and deal with them.
All of which brings us to that most challenging of chapters, Matthew 18. Here Jesus takes the Jewish law about bringing charges against a neighbour and develops it to fit the situation among his own followers. We need to put verses 15 to 20 on the one hand alongside verses 21 and 22 on the other. There are, I suspect, all too many who will do the one and not the other, or the other and not the one.
Matthew 18.15–20 makes it quite clear what the command to forgive does not mean. It does not mean letting people get away with things. Here again is Volf’s ‘exclusion’. If someone has done something wrong, even at a personal level, the right thing to do is not to gossip about it, to tell everyone else, to allow resentment to build up and fester, and perhaps even to plot revenge. The right thing to do is to go and tell them, straight. Unfortunately the people who are best at doing this, in my experience, are the people who actually rather enjoy telling other people that they’re out of line. Perhaps the only real qualification for doing it is if you know, deep down, that you would much rather not have to, and you have to pray for grace to go and knock on the door in the first place. And it gets worse. If the person refuses to listen to you, won’t face up to the problem, you must take another Christian with you; and then, if you are still refused, you must tell the assembly of God’s people. This is hugely serious and I don’t think most of us have even begun to get to grips with it. We would, of course, if it were a financial irregularity or perhaps a sexual scandal. These days we have tightened up on such matters, though alas this has been mostly because it’s been forced on us from the outside rather than generated from within. But what Jesus is insisting is that we should keep short accounts with one another, should live as a family not prepared to go to bed at night if there is something unresolved between us. Tough stuff.
But the hard, high demand of looking one another in the eye and speaking the truth even when we know it will hurt is balanced at once by the equally hard, high demand of constant forgiveness. Here we glimpse the symbolic depth of what Jesus is asking for. Shall I forgive my brother seven times? asks Peter. No, says Jesus, not seven times, but seventy times seven. For any first-century Jew who knew the scriptures, the echo would be clear. Daniel, in chapter 9, asks the angel how long the exile in Babylon will go on for. Will it not be seventy years, as Jeremiah had foretold (9.2)? No, says the angel; not seventy years, but seventy times seven (9.24). This is how long it will take – note this – ‘to finish the transgression, to put and end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness’, and so on. The exile was the result of sin, and God has to deal not only with the exiled state of his people but with the root causes in their own wickedness. What Jesus is saying is that the new age is here, the age of forgiveness, and that his people are to embody it. Behind this, again, lies the Jubilee commandment, that when seven is multiplied by seven debts must be forgiven. All this stands behind the command to pray, in the Lord’s own Prayer, ‘forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’: Jesus is declaring, with every breath he takes, that the new covenant is being inaugurated in his own work, and that his followers are to live as returned-from-exile people, and hence forgiveness-of-sins people. The command to forgive is not simply a new and tougher piece of ethics for high-flying moralists to attempt. It follows directly from the situation Jesus has inaugurated in his own work and would seal in his death and resurrection. ‘This cup,’ he said, ‘is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins’. The atonement is not simply an abstract transaction, making forgiveness possible for individuals who want it. It was and is the stunning, towering achievement by which evil itself was defeated so that God’s new age could begin. And we who claim to follow Jesus can only make that claim good insofar as we live by the rule of forgiveness – serious forgiveness, not the cheap imitations I discussed above. Only so can we live out the proper Christian answer to the problem of evil, which is not a theory but a life, a life which will be vindicated or validated in the age to come when evil is finally abolished altogether.
All this enables us to approach the very difficult parable at the end of Matthew 18 with some hope of success. I have heard good Christian people say that we should not read this parable out loud at all, or that if we do we should laugh bitterly at the final line, obviously added by a legalistic redactor to what Jesus himself ‘must have’ said and meant. ‘So shall your heavenly Father do to each one of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart’; is God really that sort of a God? How can he decide to punish people after all when once he had forgiven them? But this objection fails to realise the logic of forgiveness. Jesus is not giving a kind of abstract commandment and then saying that if you fail to meet the test God will not forgive you. He is drawing attention to a fact about the moral universe and the nature of human beings.
t appears that the faculty for receiving forgiveness and the faculty for granting forgiveness within each of us are one and the same thing. If we open the one we shall open the other. If we slam the door on the one we slam the door on the other. God is not being arbitrary. If you are the sort of person who is going to accuse your neighbour over every small thing and keep him or her under your anger until each item has been dealt with, you are also the sort of person who will be incapable of opening your heart to receive God’s generous forgiveness – indeed, you will probably not admit that you need it in the first place.
Here we come back to the point I made earlier about forgiveness, that it releases not only the person who is being forgiven but the person who is doing the forgiving. We can probably all think of examples of this. When I forgive you for treading on my toe, literally and metaphorically, I release you from any burden of guilt, any sense that I might still be angry with you when we meet tomorrow; but I also release myself from having to go to bed cross, and toss and turn wondering how to get even with you. If things are more serious than that, forgiveness can mean actually that I not only release you from major trouble, but that I prevent myself from having the rest of my life consumed with anger, jealousy, or whatever it is.
Of course, that can sound very selfish, as though all I’m really doing in forgiving you is making my own emotional life a bit more comfortable; but here’s the catch. If we try to forgive someone else in order simply to clear off our own emotional overdraft, it doesn’t work. You only get the personal spin-off as a spin-off from the genuine forgiveness you have offered. Otherwise you are simply playing self-centred emotional games, and they will backfire. If you try to love someone simply in order to be loved in return, you will have to repent of your mistake or, when you are found out, you will be worse off than if you’d never tried in the first place.
The command to forgive one another, then, is the bringing into the present of the promise for the future, that in God’s new world all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. It will still be possible for people to refuse forgiveness – both to give it and to receive it; but they will no longer have the right or the chance thereby to hold God and God’s future world to ransom, to turn the moral universe around the fulcrum of their own sulk. Here is a call for the spiritual discipline necessary if we are genuinely to forgive. We need to learn how to do it; it doesn’t come naturally. It’s difficult, and all the more so because the church has not been teaching us how to do it, as Greg Jones rightly argues we should. Like many aspects of Christian living, it’s a matter of learning to live in the present in the light of the future; and this is always hard work, though infinitely worth while.
I would have liked, had there been more time, to develop further the three areas I spoke about briefly just now, the three areas to which I had intended to devote a lecture each. The tough, many-sided offer of forgiveness should be the ultimate aim as we think about the problems of global empire and third world debt, of criminal justice and the problem of punishment, and of war and international conflict. In each of these spheres there is a task of naming evil and finding appropriate ways of resisting it, and at the same time working towards remission, reconciliation, restitution and restoration. I urge you to think through these issues for yourselves in the light of what I’ve said, and see the many ways in which this central and vital element of the Christian gospel cries out to be put into practice not only in our personal lives and church fellowships but also in our public and political lives, not least at a global level. I am sorry I cannot say more here about all this.
But there is one more point which I must make, and it concerns the application to our own selves, at the personal and pastoral level, of the prayer that we be delivered from evil. I may believe that God has forgiven me through the death of Jesus. I may begin to learn how to forgive my neighbour. But can I forgive myself? That is a very different question.
Jesus (echoing the Old Testament) told us to love our neighbours as we loved ourselves. He wasn’t principally talking about feelings. Often in the Bible love is something you do, not something you feel. It means taking thought for, taking care of, looking ahead in advance for the needs of, your neighbour, the way you take thought and care and planning for your own life. Sometimes Christian moralists have drawn attention to the fact that it’s easy, when we find we are called to love one another, to push ourselves out of the picture, to imagine that we are no longer important, to develop a negative self-image; and they have rightly pointed out that in order to love our neighbour as ourselves we need to love ourselves so we know what the standard should be! This is quite a well known point; but the same applies, more subtly perhaps, to the question of forgiveness. Those of us with any pastoral experience will have met the person who says ‘Well, I know God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself.’ And we can probably understand what they mean. But it is precisely here, I suggest, that the prayer ‘Deliver us from evil’ comes right home into the human heart, imagination, and emotions – or if you like the soul, which as I’ve said before is really a metaphor for saying ‘who I am in the presence of God’. It takes spiritual discipline to forgive others, as I’ve said; it takes a different, though related, spiritual discipline to forgive myself, to echo within my own heart the glad and generous offer of forgiveness which God holds out to me, and, if I’m fortunate, which my neighbour holds out to me as well.
This is so central to mental, emotional and spiritual health that it’s perhaps a good place to conclude my final lecture here at the Abbey, with the hope and prayer that this will be even more in the future what it already is for so many who come here, a place where you can meet God in the stillness and amongst the history and the worship and the signs of faith and hope and love. Part of the discipline of receiving God’s forgiveness is that we open that same inner faculty as wide as it can go, and thus learn the secret not only of accepting ourselves – that’s one thing, recognising that I am the person I am and learning to be comfortable with that – but also of forgiving ourselves, which is quite another thing, recognising that I have done sinful, hurtful and damaging things to other people, to myself, and to God in whose image I’m made, and that because God forgives me I must learn, under his direction, to forgive myself. Of course, as with all the other forgiving we’ve been talking about, this does not mean pretending it wasn’t so bad after all, or that it didn’t really happen, or that it didn’t matter that much. It was bad, and it did happen, and it did matter. But if God has dealt with it and forgiven you – and, if it involved other people, if you have made amends as best you can – then it is part of living an authentically Christian life that you learn to forgive yourself as well. Of course, because it’s forgiveness we’re talking about, not tolerance or indifference, this will once more mean exclusion as well as embrace. It will mean saying No to whatever it was in order to say Yes to God and his forgiveness. This may take – will take – prayer and worship and perhaps the assistance of a wise counsellor, but it’s the way we are called to go, the way to spiritual health. Those who insist on clinging on to a sense of guilt all too easily become, alas, those who then pass on that sense to others as the burden becomes too great to bear. Part of the answer to the prayer, Deliver Us From Evil, is that we learn to forgive ourselves, both for our own sake and for the sake of those around us.
Where has all this taken us with the problem of evil, which has been our theme for this year? I have argued that the problem of evil, as classically conceived within philosophy, is not soluble as it stands, not least because it tends to postulate a God other than the God revealed in scripture and in Jesus. When we factor in the Bible, not least the gospel accounts of Jesus, the picture becomes more complicated but also ultimately richer; and the problem becomes relocated. We are not told, I think, how and why there is evil, radical evil, within God’s wonderful, beautiful and essentially good creation. One day I think we shall find out, but I don’t think we are capable of understanding it at the moment. What we are promised, however, is that God will make a world in which all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well, a world in which forgiveness is one of the foundation stones and reconciliation is the cement which holds everything together. And when we understand forgiveness as the strange, powerful thing it is we begin to realise that this – God’s forgiveness of us, and our forgiveness of others – is the thing which cuts the chain by which sin, anger, fear, recrimination and death are still attached to us. Evil will have nothing to say at the last, because the victory of the cross will be fully implemented. In the new heavens and the new earth there will be no more sea, no more chaos, no more monsters coming up from the abyss. And, as with all Christian eschatology, the best news of all is that we don’t have to wait for the future to start experiencing our deliverance from evil. We are invited, summoned, bidden to start living this way right now. I suspect that the problems this poses for us, the immediate problems of forgiving ourselves and forgiving our neighbours, are the real problems, and the philosophical ones the smokescreen behind which we hide from them. And I suspect, therefore, that the more we learn the meaning of forgiveness in our own lives, the more we shall glimpse the deep theological truth that all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.