Strengthening the Forgiveness Muscle
08 January 2007

I had an unusual experience recently, unusual because it introduced me to a new technology, revealed the courage of an individual, and left me with a memorable phrase. From the remoteness of a North Devon village I participated for an hour on a San Francisco radio station in a programme on forgiveness that was broadcast not over the airwaves but to the individual computers of listeners anywhere in the world they happened to be. The host, Victoria Post is blind, a fact that she was not emphasizing and indeed was only hinted at when she said at one point, ‘I am having trouble reading with one hand while talking to you.’ Several times she used the phrase ‘strengthening the forgiveness muscle’.

I like that idea. It reinforces the fact that forgiveness is not just a one-off event but a decision for a way of life. One can perhaps carry the physical analogy too far. I have an arm that is weak. And I am told that no amount of exercise will strengthen it because the nerves are dead. But whatever the deficiencies in our spiritual lives, I suspect that the forgiveness muscle is not too far gone to benefit from a little strengthening.

I am grateful to Victoria for that reminder. It doesn’t require regular visits to an expensive health club, though a personal trainer, a chaplain say, might sometimes be a help, but it can be worked on right where you are, alone. Just as the companionship of fellow health chasers on the next treadmills are a help to keeping at it, so fellowship with others on the journey of forgiveness are an encouragement when you are tempted to give up.

The attitudes of the Amish people after the terrible tragedy that befell their community, the callous and premeditated murder of five young girls, are testament to that encouragement. The event was shocking to all, the response of the community to some almost beyond belief. From the first moment it seemed that they were disposed to forgive.

The Charlotte Observer had a headline summing it up: ‘Amish forgiveness the result of a lifetime of nonviolence’. L Gregory Jones, the Dean of Duke Divinity School and the author of Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis, describes how the grandfather of one of the slain Amish girls, less than 48 hours after the killings, urged a group of young boys to forgive the killer, who had taken his own life as well. ‘We must not think evil of this man,’ he writes. ‘Such words may sound bizarre to many of us. What we miss is how this grandfather’s life has been formed by non-violence, by patterns of prayer and worship and peaceful resolution of differences with others.

‘Our task is to hope even against hope for communities and practices of forgiveness and repentance that can cultivate a future not bound by the destructiveness of the past.’

Similarly, the Philadelphia Inquirer had the headline: ‘Forgiveness is woven into the life of Amish’. It carried an article by Donald Kraybill, whose books include The Riddle of Amish Culture. He believes that the Amish are better equipped to process grief than are many other Americans. They see even tragic events under the canopy of divine providence, having a higher sense of meaning hidden from human sight at first glance and their historic habits of mutual aid arise from their understanding that Christian teaching compels them to care for one another in time of disaster. ‘The Amish don’t argue with God,’ he writes. ‘They have an enormous capacity to absorb adversity – a willingness to yield to divine providence in the face of hostility. Such religious resolve enables them to move forward without the endless paralysis that asks why, letting the analysis rest in the hands of God.’

The Amish do not ask if forgiveness works; they simply seek to practise it as the Jesus way of responding to adversaries, even enemies. ‘Forgiveness is woven into the fabric of Amish faith. And that is why words of forgiveness were sent to the killer’s family before the blood had dried on the schoolhouse floor. Such courage to forgive has jolted the watching world as much as the killing itself.’

The Amish forgiveness muscle had been strengthened through a lifetime’s exercise of the faculty. But just how do you strengthen it? In some ways one does it best by following the example of others. Another way to do it is to associate with those who would help strengthen that muscle for you and not with those who would prefer to let it atrophy. Certainly I have been helped by associating with and having the chance to meet and tell the stories of people of faith who have had the courage to forgive.

I heard our top BBC news interviewer, John Humphreys, recently say that perhaps his inability to believe in God came from the fact that he had spent a lifetime covering humankind at its worst. He asked, ‘How is faith possible in a world of suffering, much of it arguably caused by religion or religious extremism and to which God seems to have turned a blind eye.’ On the BBC he said, ‘I believed once (that God existed) but for nearly 50 years I’ve been a journalist and I’ve seen perhaps too much suffering, too many children dying, too much wanton savagery to continue to believe it. A God of mercy, any God, seems out of the question.’

Humphreys embarked on a public search for something that would make him believe in God through interviews with leaders of Britain’s Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities. I found the exchanges rather theoretical or cerebral, lacking in stories of God at work. One reason that I as a journalist over 50 years believe is the positive developments in people’s lives I have witnessed, some of them in the same kind of terrible settings that Humphrey described.

I was grateful for some of the words of Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks. He said, ‘I’ll tell you very simply John, if I wanted to persuade you to become Jewish. The first thing I would do is take you to our old age homes, to our schools, to the ways that we really do try and make life better for people here on earth in simple non religious physical ways. Now if at the end of the day you said to me now what drives people to do that, I’d say okay lets now move to the second stage and I'd show you our prayer book. And I would show you that three times a day we remind ourselves that God lifts the foreman (sic), heals the sick and asks us to do what he does and become his partners. And then slowly we would move inward, and maybe you would never get to a point where you could say “yeah I really hear that presence speaking to me”. But I think you would have learned a little bit of a mystery that turned this very tiny people into people that made a disproportionate impact on the world.’

Reprinted with permission from


An excellent thought-provoking article. One has to wonder what the alternative to forgiveness is. What does it do to me if I refuse to forgive? Is there any way that society can move forward until there is forgiveness? (But you need justice, too, which is where society has to make some difficult choices.)
K. Noble, 19 February 2007