I have no doubt that, like many folk reading this article, I have offended people at various times throughout my life. As far as I can judge my own heart (a difficult thing) I have never set out deliberately to do so. Nevertheless, it has been made clear to me on a number of occasions both by word, reaction and the subsequent distancing of erstwhile friends that I have done so.
Just to be clear I am not addressing here our new national pass-time and obsession – the game of ‘Offence’ – where everyone tries to be as offended as possible with everyone and everything else that does not adhere to their own worldview – that is a different subject altogether. What I am addressing is the much more insidious disease of ‘Offence’ which hides in the corners of our lives and churches.
Offence is, I believe, the proverbial elephant in the room and on the pew, that few want to talk about (as far as I can see) and even fewer want to deal with. Indeed, for some, offence becomes a righteous moral high ground responsible for many a church split and the reason so many people hop from one church to another – never realising that they carry their disease with them as they go.
Beyond almost anything else, I am thinking of more open and public ‘sins’ or failures (I need not name them), offence and the other side of the same coin – un-forgiveness is the greatest destroyer and the greatest impediment to growth in the spiritual life. It is also the worst of displays by the church to a watching world. And yet, as I have suggested, it is the hidden poison seeping through the veins of many a life and of many a church or fellowship.
I have long made it a principle in life that if I become aware that I have caused someone offence I will, if at all possible, go as quickly as I can to that person in order to try and discover the reason for their offence, attempt to clarify any misunderstanding and ask for forgiveness – even at times when I know in my heart I have done nothing to warrant their offence. Of course this is a biblical principle so I am doing nothing that any Christian should not do (Matthew 5:23-25). However, I mention this for a couple of practical reasons.
First of all, you can, and I have experienced this, do all that I have said and even have the person accept your apology and agree to forgive and move on – and yet, in the days months and years that follow it becomes very clear that your apology has made little or no difference – true forgiveness and reconciliation has not taken place. I have even had (Christian) people accept my explanation of a misunderstanding and/or apology – only to make it clear that there would still be consequences. This is painful and certainly not in keeping with true forgivness. In such circumstances all that one can do is leave the matter with God and move on. Despite attempting, with a pure heart, to resolve such a situation it is not always possible – especially if grace and humility are not reciprocated. As I have suggested – sometimes this is a power game and some choose, and even appear to enjoy, living in offence. It makes them feel superior, the righteous one, even in respect of the one who has attempted to make peace. Unfortunately, the church is well populated with folk like this – as are many a family.
I have also discovered in life that there are people who thrive on offence. They actually look for opportunities to be offended. As a one-time preacher, I have been on the receiving end of this more than once. Someone once approached me at the end of a service and castigated me for praying for people with whom they had an issue politically and accused me of bringing politics into the church! I was flabbergasted! To enforce their point this person did not return – for a long time anyway.
Offence is also a generational and hereditary disease in many families in my community. I have been shocked many times to hear – ‘Oh so and so haven’t spoken for years’ – or ‘Such and such families have not communicated with each other since their grandparent’s time’. This is, very often, in our rural area, connected with who was and who was not the beneficiary of a relative’s will – or who got the croft (farm) instead of who should have. I have also lived long enough to see that what I can only call a ‘spirit of offence’ seems to run in certain families. I don’t honestly know how to account for this. However, it is all truly tragic.
And yet, for the Christian to live in offence is more than tragic – it is deadly. Jesus clearly says – ‘If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’ (Matthew 6 NKJV). Remember he has just taught his followers to pray – ‘And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’ The question is, do we? It is certainly expected of us. But Jesus goes even further when in Matthew 18, after telling the parable of the unjust servant who was handed over punishment because of his failure to forgive a fellow debtor – ‘So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.’
Again, this is brought into particularly sharp focus by Jesus when he says – ‘Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.’ (Matthew 5:NIV) What is such a gift today – worship, communion (the breaking of bread), prayer? Perhaps each one of them and more. I recall an extreme example of this many years ago in a large church in the Highlands. Moments before the communion service was about to begin I saw a man near the front stand up. He asked the presiding minister if he could speak. This was highly unusual, indeed unheard of in such a formal church setting. The shocked minister (who obviously knew and recognised the man as a fellow minister) consented. The visitor, who I did not know, went on to confess before a silent congregation that for many years he had held bitterness in his heart toward the minister about to serve communion and asked for his forgiveness. It went on to be a very memorable communion service and my admiration of the man in his boldness and humility has always remained with me.
For us, I believe, living in open offence and with a heart hardened to forgiveness is a denial of all Jesus teaches and a practical denial of the grace, acceptance and forgiveness he has poured on us. It should be our privilege to forgive (not that it is always easy) but it is also a duty – that is very clear. The consequences of failing to do so are of the utmost seriousness. I could give a number of examples known to me personally – but one in particular comes to mind.
Many years ago a man from a family of criminals was suddenly and unexpectedly transformed by the love and forgiveness of Jesus while in prison. A good friend of mine was his mentor. This person matured very quickly in his faith while still in jail. In his mentoring of the man my friend came to the subject of the forgiveness of those who had wronged him – and there were many on his list. Some he was just about able to come to terms with as far as forgiveness was concerned – but there were others who he adamantly declared he would never forgive. My friend stressed the importance of dealing with this issue – but he refused. From that moment on he began to regress and soon abandoned his faith altogether, subsequently returning to his life of crime. There is no doubt he had had an incredible encounter with Jesus – but he fell on the issue of forgiving others as he had been forgiven – choosing rather to live with the destructive effects of living in offence. And he is not alone in this.
Perhaps I should say here for the avoidance of any doubt that forgiving another person certainly does not mean, of necessity, that we return to the relationship under which the violence, abuse, hurt, control, or whatever it might be, occurred. There is certainly nothing I can find in the Bible that would support such a view – in fact, the opposite is true. However, and it’s a big however – if we are to live in freedom and forgiveness ourselves we also must be people who are willing to forgive those who have offended and hurt us – and that to the extent of seventy times seven (Matthew 18).
Is all this hard? Of course, it is – and for some people, it almost seems impossible. But the alternative is even worse – and truly with God, all things are possible.
One of the most powerful examples of just how hard it can be came from the late Corrie ten Boom who had seen her sister perish in Ravensbrück concentration camp during WW2. Returning to Germany in 1947 to speak about forgiveness she describes how, at the end of one meeting, she saw in the audience one of her former Prison Guards. She went on to describe what happened at the end of the meeting –
‘And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. My blood seemed to freeze. “You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” He did not remember me. “But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein” – the hand came out – “will you forgive me?” It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me, it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do. For I had to do it – I knew that. And still, I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion – I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.” And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, and sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!” For a long moment, we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.’
But powerful although this story most certainly is – I can hear someone ask a question – ‘The former guard repented and sought forgiveness – my abuser never did so why should I forgive?’ It is at this moment we must stand before the cross – the most unjust event that ever occurred in the history of our world – The Holy and Pure One abused – The Healer and Grace Giver despised – the Life Giver killed in the cruellest and most painful way imaginable – and yet, and yet, his words as he suffers are – ‘Father, forgive them.’ (Luke 23 – NKJV). They have not repented – in fact, they were in the middle of their careers of abuse and evil – committing the most terrible of crimes – yet they are forgiven. I know this raises some serious theological questions – but that is not the issue here – outrageous grace is. And it is that outrageous grace and forgiveness we are called to emulate if we are truly to be followers of the One who is himself Outrageous Grace.