Forgiveness

In the British publication Church Times a couple of weeks ago I saw an account of an interesting new poll done for the BBC.

The main focus of the article (it was a day or two before Easter) was that

only 46 per cent of respondents who identified as Christians agreed with the statement: “Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected at Easter so that you can be forgiven for your sins.”

The BBC website highlighted another take on the same question

One quarter of British adults agree that Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected at Easter so that they can be forgiven for their sins (26%).

From which you can deduce that just under half of the 2000 adult respondents self-identified as Christian.

And, given that degree of self-identification I was (frankly) a bit surprised that as many as 46 per cent assented to that articulation of what it was that was done through the cross and resurrection.   After all, in the Church Times article, even the Bishop of Manchester was lamenting that the question was a bit narrow, and that a “focus on sin” will “inevitably” have had an affect on how people answered.  In fairness, I guess, the church has never settled on a single interpretation of Christ’s death and resurrection.

But my surprise was less about the precise interpretation of God’s work that first Easter, than because that self-identification as Christian doesn’t spill over to participating in Christian worship.  Of the 954 self-identified Christians in the sample, only 10 per cent said they attended church (or rather a “religious service” at least weekly –  and only another 1 per cent said fortnightly).    Even if all those regular attenders assented to that atonement statement, it leaves a huge number of non-attenders who still claim to believe what is probably the central claim of the gospel.  Perhaps it is cause of hope….or perhaps not (words to a survey are cheap?).

Interestingly, the proportion of total respondents who said they attended a service at least once a week (7 per cent) was barely different from the proportion among those self-identifying as Christian.  Muslims were at 12 per cent, but they aren’t a large enough group to skew the numbers. Instead, it was the “nones” who reported service attendance almost as often (as little) as the self-reported Christians.

The second half of the survey built on the first.    Having asked respondents about their belief (or otherwise) in Christ making a way for the forgiveness of their own sins, they were then asked about how easy or hard they would find it to forgive the sins of others.  Implicit perhaps is “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”.

The survey asked about several specifics:

  • murder
  • child abuse,
  • sexual abuse (including rape)
  • infidelity
  • verbal abuse (including mockery)
  • abuse on social media
  • lying
  • stealing
  • swearing
  • discrimination

But the questions don’t distinguish between such acts committed against the respondents and such acts committed against other people; it simply reads “To what extent, if at all, would you be able to forgive someone who committed any of the following”.

I was staggered by the responses: in every category except swearing more than 50 per cent of respondents said “Impossible” or “Difficult” to forgive.  For the first three categories –  heinous offences in our criminal law – it was around 95 per cent (and around 80 per cent said “impossible”).

It is one of those times –  perhaps almost always with polls – when one really wishes more questions had been asked.  Do people think of forgiveness (in this context) as the remittance of any penalties or consequences of the action?  Were they mostly thinking of cases where there was, or was not, repentance?  And –  and this cross-tab must be possible (and a large enough sample of be meaningful) –  were the attitudes of regular church attenders materially different from those of the rest?   On the data that was presented, there seemed to be almost no material differences between responses of self-identified Christians and self-identified nones.

I don’t write this to criticise other people, but it doesn’t leave me astonished.  Take the first three or four offences.  I’ve not been a victim of any of them, so I certainly can’t pretend to know how I would react if I were.  But nor (fortunately) have most people, and if I’d been asked to participate in this survey, I can’t imagine answering “Impossible” for any of these actions.  Not because I think forgiveness would necesssarily be easy, but simply because of the imperative of the gospel.  How can I hope to lay hold of God’s forgiveness in Christ, unless I am willing and able to forgive others?  I tremble at the presumption of even thinking to answer Impossible.

And what a witness too when people –  the secular world around us –  see Christians living their faith and offering forgiveness to some one who has committed a grevious offence against them or their family.  As Jesus prayed on the cross, “Father, forgive them..”

Perhaps again it is the way the question is worded.   Could I say that it would be “Easy to forgive” many of those “more serious” offences on the list?  In that unconditional sense probably not –  it becomes much easier in the presence of the sort of serious repentance we see in, for example, the story of the Prodigal Son –  so I might have been stuck in the “difficult to forgive” category for want of a better concise option.

But I come away from the survey with a fresh sense of my own need for God’s mercy and grace, and with a renewed prayer for the grace to forgive others as I have myself been forgiven.  That was a lesson the unforgiving servant learned too late.

32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; 33 and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers,[d] till he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

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