The old saying is as true as they come. Screwing up is the easiest thing in the world, some of us are naturals at it. Forgiving, however, is nigh on impossible at times. Especially if the person you need to forgive is yourself.
The issue of forgiveness came up in Cole Moreton’s recent interview with Chris Langham for the Independant. Langham, a successful comedy actor and writer, was jailed in 2006 for downloading indecent images of children. He went from having a career which was at its height (he’d won two BAFTAs just days before his arrest for his role in the political satire The Thick Of It) to being, understandably, a total pariah.
Despite the judge in the case ruling that Langham was not a paedophile (his defence was that he was researching a role) there is no doubt that his crime helped to perpetuate the abuse of very young children. For this, and his self-professed “arrogance” in thinking he could get away with it, he appears to be extremely repentant. His wife and children have, admirably in my opinion, stood by him and he is now trying to raise money to make a film about the remarkable Lifeline Nehemiah project in Sierrs Leone.
He appears to be trying to rebuild his life, yet one very telling line from the interview betrays an awful truth,
“I am not to be forgiven. That has been made clear to me.”
Not to be forgiven. He has committed a crime so heinous, so unspeakable, that forgiveness just isn’t possible.
In the case of those who commit sexual crimes against children the offences are, in our society, pretty much the worst you can commit. Few other crimes would lead to virtual unemployability, threats of violence, vandalism to property or the possibility of being chased by the press in the same way paedophiles or others convicted of offences similar to Langham go through. Even murderers can find redemption sometimes, just look at the career convicted murderer Leslie Grantham managed to have.
Is any crime, however, unforgivable? Is there anything one person can do which means that they can never take place in society, be rehabilitated or accepted by their fellow human being? Is anybody beyond salvation?
It’s so easy for us to hear that question and answer that there is. After all, how could there be forgiveness for Hitler, Jimmy Savile, Pol Pot, Myra Hindley or Fred West? Surely they have all committed acts so horrific that there is no way back.
““He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:46-47 NIV)
““So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”” (Luke 17:3-4 NIV)
““If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”” (1 John 1:8-10 NIV)
These are just a snapshot of the mentions forgiveness gets in the New Testament and, if you look closely, you’ll see that the only condition upon forgiveness is repentance. There’s no mention of being forgiven, unless you have committed certain crimes or sins. It’s simple, repentance and forgiveness, that’s it.
That even applies to what society views as the most awful of acts. John 8 tells the story of a woman who had committed adultery. In Jesus’ time this was almost as bad as it got, and was punishable by stoning. It led to Jesus famous piece of advice, when asked if she should be stoned,
““Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”” (John 8:7 NIV)
As the mob disappeared, Jesus picked her from the ground, asked her where her accusers had gone and told her that he does not condemn her. Again, his only caveat was his last command,
“Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”” (John 8:11 NIV)
Repentance. All she needed was repentance, to truly feel sorry for what she’d done and strive to turn from all her wrongdoings.
That is all any of us need. Even Chris Langham, despite his fears, can get forgiveness. Even the vilest of paedophiles, most violent of murderers, most ruthless of dictators, can gain forgiveness for their sins. All of their sins, no matter how bad. Maybe not from everybody, maybe not even from anybody on Earth, but definitely from the one who matters.
The tough thing is, we are called to be like Jesus who, in turn, reflected the nature of God the Father. So we are called, not just to be forgiven, but to forgive as well. It’s not an easy message to hear or carry out as our natural instinct is often for revenge and outrage. However, if we surrender ourselves to God’s will, let Him shape us, then we can forgive. We can bring hope to the hopeless and true beauty out of the ugliest of situations.
Sounds like something worth doing, to me.