Forgiveness is a problem to us all. Let me tell you about some of my experiences.
Imagine an old-fashioned schoolyard with an enclosed, wooden kissing-gate. Trapped on the ground in that gate, in a trembling little heap, lies a seven-year-old boy, while towering over him, stands a hard-faced, muscular, thirteen-year-old farmer’s boy. I was that little boy and the big one was called Hayden, who’d informed me that he was going to “cut on” me, as they did with male lambs, cruelly in those days. Naturally, I believed him and I felt such terror as I’d never felt before and haven’t felt since, as he placed his opened penknife on the gate and reached down and grabbed me; so I did the only thing I could do: I kicked and screamed loud and long. I made such a commotion that Miss Hooper, the landlady at the Beehive Inn across the road, ran out to see what was happening. She spoke sharply to Hayden, and he, hands in britches pockets, sloped darkly away.
I’ve found it hard to forgive Haydn, because I’ve been dominated by the mind of a seven-year-old. The last time I saw him was soon after he’d left school at the age of fourteen. The children were playing in the yard, when they suddenly ran to the wall to witness, in silence, the macho display on the road before them. Hayden had appeared, driving slowly round the corner, standing erect on a rattling flat cart and looking straight ahead – a real man now, as he carelessly held the reins of a heavy horse. I wanted to throw a sharp stone at the horse’s rump, because I knew nothing of forgiveness at that age – just fear and blind hatred. I threw no stone.
Fast-forward six years. I was now thirteen and in grammar school, where I was often pushed around and threatened by an older boy called Grilly, who, with an equally malevolent friend, tried hard to make my life unbearable. They did nothing serious – a bit of shoving and thumping – but their sneering persistence made me nervous and depressed. I feared them and hated them, especially Grilly.
Fast forward, this time thirty-odd years. I’d just taken a service somewhere (far away from Newcastle) and was waiting for the congregation to come out. Suddenly the church door was flung wide and my friend David stepped out. He swept aside my proffered hand, angrily barked, “Sentimental, old-fashioned rubbish!” and hurried away. I was a bit miffed but not really hurt; the sad reason for this was that I expected nothing better from David – it was his “way” – but I liked him. My spirits were lifted when a lady came out, flung her arms round my neck, kissed me and said, “Thank you, Roger. Thank you!” Such is life.
In an ideal world, the sinner says that he or she is sorry and you forgive them. You might shake hands or embrace – almost certainly smile – and everyone is happy again. But without an apology, what then? And what if that person has died? What if that person has suffered and died? Different story. Can I be sure that Haydn didn’t suffer during his life? Most people do. And for that suffering, if not love, at least sympathy, or at the very least, pity may be felt. Anything is better than fear and hatred festering inside us. And if we can’t even feel pity, then I suggest that we do as Hamlet does regarding his mother, when he says, “Leave her to heaven.” (Or God – or cause and effect, if you must.)
Sooner or later, such a bully will meet someone like himself; then sparks will fly and there’ll be suffering. Call it fate if you don’t like the G-word, or call it the logic of the person’s disposition. But whatever you call it, it helps on the road to forgiveness. Lance Murrow said of forgiveness: “It helps you to escape from their nightmare.” We don’t have to sob on each other’s breast: we’re not all like that. Forgiveness can come from calm, spiritual maturity and understanding, as well as from deep emotion. How can I not forgive Hayden now? It’s a release and a blessing to be able to forgive.
But I didn’t have to work all that out with Grilly. The situation had its own awful impetus, because that child of God was killed in Korea. On learning this, at first I felt nothing, then guilt for that lack of feeling; forgiveness came in the end. The episode with David was different, because understanding was present as it happened. It is understanding that makes forgiveness possible. David, too, died young, and I was sad – and I thank God for my friendly feelings towards him. An elderly lady, who had suffered much, once gave me three words: understanding, forgiveness, peace. These may be our life’s work.
Yours sincerely, Roger Tarbuck