When I was a Chaplain in the Remand Centre where prisoners wait for the legal system to deal with them, the questions I was most often asked were about how God could help. “Where is God for me now?” was an often asked question. Another one was, “Why did I leave God out of my life? Look at the mess I’m in now.”
When I moved to a gaol where people have been sentenced, the questions became more about the issue of forgiveness. Several inmates spoke to me about their guilt. They were fully aware of the trauma they had caused other people and found that this weighed heavily on their conscience.
Our justice system has a very good process of Restorative Justice where the perpetrator and the victim are brought together in a structured meeting. The criminal is able to see the impact of his crime. The victim, or the victim’s family, gain some insight into how one human being could inflict suffering on another. Both perpetrator and victim must be willing to participate in this process. When they do, a lot of healing takes place on both sides.
On one or two occasions an inmate asked the simple question, “How can God forgive me?” Now you might think that this question is the one every chaplain is wanting an inmate to ask, but I found it the hardest question to answer. I would talk about the completed work of Christ and God’s unconditional love. The inmate would respond with, “I know that. But how can I forgive myself?”
I have reflected on this question long and hard. A person can know the gospel in their head, but sometimes can’t feel it as a reality. How can a person who has murdered another human being feel the reality of God’s forgiveness?
I think the problem here is that we tend to believe that knowing I’m forgiven means that the sin doesn’t matter. A murderer can’t feel forgiven because he thinks if he does, it will mean that the life of the person he has killed doesn’t matter. But being forgiven doesn’t mean the crime doesn’t matter. If an action “doesn’t matter”, there’s nothing to forgive. The very act of forgiveness comes after an action that has caused damage and suffering.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean, “It never happened.” Forgiveness means, “You did this, but the relationship is restored.” This is why Restorative Justice works so well. The parties talk about very hard things and each begins to see the impact on the other and, to some extent, relationships are restored, despite the crime.
But relationships are not restored just by talking things through. Crime has consequences. There is a price to be paid, a punishment to be given and undertaken. That’s why in our society criminals serve time in prison.
Unlike our justice system, when I offend against God (and every offence is against God) it’s not me who is punished. The Bible reveals to us an amazing paradox. God, whom I have offended against, carries my punishment. This paradox actually makes no rational sense. It seems to be foolishness, but in fact, if you know God, it’s his power at work. (1 Corinthians 1:18) Here is a divine love that bears the unbearable. God bears what cannot be borne by human beings. And even more amazingly, he takes human depravity into his own being which is the ultimate act of reconciliation and forgiveness.