Recently, the youth group at my church was looking at forgiveness. It is such a big issue for everyone: How can we find forgiveness for the things we feel guilt for? And how can we forgive others who have hurt us?
One of the other leaders had just returned from South Africa and we talked about the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Desmond Tutu, which granted amnesty to those who gave a full and public confession of crimes committed during the apartheid regime.
Of course, South Africa continues to face many challenges, but rather than brush the issues under the carpet, the process of forgiveness did the opposite: It helped the country face up to the horrors of what had gone on.
Tutu once said: “Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering – remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.”
Then, closer to home, we looked at how Margaret Mizen has coped with the murder of her son, Jimmy Mizen, who died five years ago following an attack in a bakery in Lee, South London.
Mizen said in a recent interview: “I can say that unless I had God in my life, we would not have coped. Prayer got us through. I don’t feel anger because it was anger that killed my Jimmy. Anger breeds anger. I won’t let bitterness ruin my family.
“My understanding of forgiveness doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter,” Mizen said. “I forgive because it helps me; I let go of the anger because it helps me.”
The examples of these two brave people of faith spoke to our young people. We talked about the everyday conflicts that break out at school, at home or at church; leaders shared similar stories from work.
Everyone could see the trap created by retribution, bitterness and our tendency to be drawn to a form of justice that perpetuates conflict.
Our discussion showed that everyone – whether young or old, Christian or not – has a deep need for the grace that can break cycles of bitterness and discord.
The words and wisdom of Tutu and Mizen show that forgiveness is not about ignoring what has happened or offering a “cheap grace” that skirts over reality.
Rather, true forgiveness faces what has happened but refuses to allow a burden of bitterness and corrosive anger to grow. Forgiveness liberates the forgiver as much as the forgiven.
When we do forgive others, we are following the example of the One whom, even when being executed, prayed for the forgiveness of those who were killing him.
This is the heart of the Christian message and the awesome power of God’s grace and forgiveness.
Jon Kuhrt is the executive director of social work at West London Mission and is a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Resistance and Renewal, and is used with permission. His Twitter feed is @jonkuhrt.
Jon Kuhrt is chief executive of West London Mission and a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London.