FORGIVENESS: A Lenten Study. By Marjorie J. Thompson. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014. X + 97 pages.
Forgiveness is central to the Christian faith. Jesus was known to offer forgiveness. He told parables about it. Depending on how you translate the passage, Jesus tells Peter that one must forgive anywhere from seventy-seven times to seventy times seven times. Yes, it is central, but my sense is that for most Christians offering and receiving forgiveness is difficult.
With Lent drawing near, a season of reflection and spiritual housecleaning, a study of forgiveness would seem appropriate. Westminster John Knox Press would agree with this idea and has brought to publication this study guide on forgiveness written by Marjorie Thompson, author of Soul Feast: An Introduction to the Christian Spiritual Life, (WJK, 2005). The book offers six brief chapters (sixty-six pages of text), together with a study guide. This guide is based on an earlier study guide that was offered as a downloadable PDF from Thoughtful Christian, but has been fleshed out and reissued in its expanded form.
For those who have read Thompson’s book Soul Feast, you will know that she is a thoughtful writer with deep spiritual insight. There is a strong commitment to rooting the conversation in Scripture, so that one might be attentive to a word from God. In this study book, participants will engage scripture and spend time in prayer. The guide begins with a prayer, moves to a time of exploring, which includes a time of Bible study, moves then to responding (this might take place in the days following the study), and then close with prayer.
The Introduction to the book begins with a quote from Desmond Tutu: “There is “no future without forgiveness’.” But, a page later she adds that “there is also no Christianity without forgiveness” (pp. vii – viii). Forgiveness allows us to move forward in life, beyond the limits of ego, and it offers a way of healing that this world desperately needs.
The book comprises six chapters, opening with a chapter entitled “Beginnings.” In this chapter/session she raises the basic issues, including the question of whether forgiveness is communal or individual. Her answer is that it is ultimately a communal reality – one that starts with God, who in Trinitarian understandings is a community of persons. She writes that “forgiveness is an outpouring of love from the inner life of the Trinity and an only be fully understood when experienced as a transforming power in the life of a human community that mirrors God’s being” (p. 7). To understand forgiveness we must understand it in the context of community.
From this beginning, Thompson takes us to the act of self-examination. Whereas in the first session, we’re called on to reflect on the Parable of the Prodigal, in this chapter it is Psalm 51 and Psalm 139 that offers us guidance. Our difficulty in experiencing forgiveness or offering it is rooted in our resistance to engage in self-examination, but this is a necessary step. Psalm 51, which is linked to David’s repentance after the affair with Bathsheba, invites us to examine our conscience. Psalm 139, on the other hand, is a celebration of God’s consideration of us. That God knows and loves us. Our ability to experience forgiveness must begin with the recognition that we need forgiveness.
Moving on we come to a session concerned with honesty – not only with others but with ourselves. Part of this act of honesty is admitting we have enemies, and as we admit this truth, then we can recognize the two modes of response that are common here – flight or fight. Thompson offers a third vision: discernment. Honesty leads to repentance, the fourth session. Repentance is that act of extricating ourselves from self absorption and joining with God in the project of redemption. Repentance leads us on the act of forgiving. Jesus commands us to forgive others as we have been forgiven by God. Of course, it’s not always that simple. There may be reasons why we won’t or can’t forgive, at least at the moment.
The final chapter/session, entitled “Beginning Again” reminds us that the goal of this process of forgiveness is reconciliation. The cultural norm is sin, repentance, and forgiveness, and while this satisfies our sense of justice, Thompson calls for us to recognize that Jesus’ conception of forgiveness goes beyond this – that God is able to forgive prior to our repentance. The point being – we are able to repent because of God’s prior forgiveness. Recognizing this act of grace leads to repentance and forgiveness, and ultimately to reconciliation or restoration of relationships. That is the goal. Thompson writes: “God is far more interested in making new beginnings than in satisfying penal codes” (p. 66).
Packaged as a Lenten study, the topic covered in the book/study guide is one that can be engaged at any time. In fact it is a topic that requires our engagement if we are to overcome the polarization present in our culture. So, if you already have a Lenten study picked out; then make this your next study.