Without forgiveness human relationships cannot hope to flourish

The need to give and receive forgiveness is common to us all

The need to give and receive forgiveness is common to us all - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In a speech to the General Dental Council more than 50 years ago, Prince Philip reportedly remarked that: “Dontopedalogy is the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it, which I’ve practiced for many years.”

The Duke of Edinburgh isn’t alone in being guilty of talking before putting one’s brain in gear; most of us have made verbal observations towards or about others which, on reflection, we wish we hadn’t, and have learned that hastily spoken remarks have consequences.

I referred the other week to the new film Tenet, and it’s time-bending narrative, which got me thinking about the plot of my all-time favourite time-travelling film from the mid-1980s, Back to the Future.

What a difference it would make if I could take a weekly journey back in time to undo the harm my careless words and deeds have caused to friends and family.

‘Regrets, I’ve had a few’, Frank Sinatra famously sang; but most of us, if we’re honest, harbour more than a few regrets, about misdeeds and misspoken words, some of which continue on occasions to give us sleepless nights.

The Muslim speaker Nouman Ali-Khan once observed that ‘regret is a form of punishment itself’; and Christian pastor and author Charles Price recalls listening to a radio interview where the head of a psychiatric hospital in Scotland stated that an enormous number of mental breakdowns, perhaps as much as 50 per cent, are as a result of guilt that has never been dealt with.

“If my patients could be assured of forgiveness,” he claimed, “half of them could go home tomorrow.”

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The need to give and receive forgiveness is common to us all. The comedian Peter Kay says: “When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bike. Then I realised that God doesn’t work that way, so I stole one and asked him to forgive me!”

Forgiveness is also an integral theme at the heart of the message of the Bible.

We’re repeatedly reminded in the historical stories that are told, such as the merciful treatment of his brothers by Joseph in the Old Testament, as well as the consistent teaching of the apostle Paul in his New Testament letters to Christian communities, that without a forgiving attitude towards one another, human relationships cannot hope to flourish.

Jesus emphasises the necessity of a forgiving spirit when, in the Lord’s Prayer, he asks his disciples to pray, ‘forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’, giving us a sober reminder that we shouldn’t expect to receive divine clemency, while refusing to extend the hand of forgiveness to those who have wronged us.

The American novelist Ernest Hemingway underlines the universal need for forgiveness in a short story called The Capital of the World, that tells of the fractured relationship between a Spanish father and his estranged teenage son called Paco.

The boy had wronged his father and, ashamed and regretful, had ran away from home. The father travels all over the country searching for his son and finally, arriving in Madrid, he places an ad in the daily newspaper in a last desperate attempt to locate his wayward child. The ad read, ‘Paco, meet me at the Hotel Montana, noon Tuesday. All is forgiven, Papa’.

A few days later, the father arrives at the stated location just before midday, hoping and praying to be reunited with his son. However, Paco is a common name in Spain, and he was confronted with the unbelievable sight of 800 teenage boys, all named Paco, all hoping to be forgiven and reunited with their father.

The Bible tells me in 2 Corinthians 7:10 that, because of the sacrifice of Jesus, the forgiveness our Heavenly Father freely offers to every penitent person who asks for it, is life changing, because it gives us ‘salvation that leaves no regret’.