Thinking Anew – Guilt, forgiveness and redemption

Even the best of us will get things wrong given the wrong set of circumstances

One of the striking features of the New Testament documents is the open and honest way in which the failings of individual disciples are acknowledged. There is no effort, for example, to spare Peter over his denial of Jesus with his “I know not the man” when challenged. There are similar instances recorded elsewhere which point to the objectivity of the authors. It’s hard to imagine someone writing a CV today listing their shortcomings in that way. Incidentally, in tomorrow’s Gospel reading ,Peter’s threefold denial gives place to his threefold declaration of loyalty to the Risen Christ.

We have another example of honest speaking in tomorrow's reading from the Book of Acts (probably written by St Luke) stating that Saul (later Paul) is on the road to Damascus "breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord . . . " . This could be as little as four years after the Resurrection. Saul is determined to destroy the church, not something to be proud of as he would later admit in his letter to the Galatians: "For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it."

This prayer recognises that even the best of us will get things wrong given the wrong set of circumstances: “Lord, on the way of goodness, when we stumble, hold us; When we fall, lift us up. When we are hard pressed by evil, deliver us. When we turn from what is good, turn us back.”

There was an example of this reported recently in this newspaper in the case of a Ukrainian Presbyterian minister based in Kyiv. Atheism was the state religion when he was young but in later years, he became a committed Christian and was ordained. At the time of the newspaper report, Kyiv was under attack and he, frustrated by the mindless destruction of lives said, “When I see children’s toys in the ruins, I just want to kill Putin.” It’s an understandable human reaction but hardly Christ-like. Evil is surely contagious.


Christabel Bielenberg, who was born in England, had strong family connections to Ireland and in later years came to live here. However, as a young woman, she turned down a scholarship to Oxford University, choosing instead to study music in Germany where she met and married Peter Bielenberg in 1934. They became active anti-Nazis and during the war helped people hiding from the Nazis. In an interview in the TV series The World at War, she recalled one evening how a Jewish couple, hiding nearby, asked her for shelter. She asked them to wait and sought advice from a friend who strongly advised against because it would place her and her children in extreme danger. She decided to let them stay but told them it could only be for two nights. They left as requested but were captured nearby and later killed. Describing her reaction to the news of their deaths, Christabel Bielenberg said that she realised in that moment that Hitler had made her a murderer. Of course she wasn't a murderer or anything like it but nonetheless she felt guilty.

In The Shaping of Prophecy, Fr Adrian Hastings suggests that Dr Bielenberg’s sense of guilt could be positive: “Maybe it is only when someone recognises that he or she personally participates in a community of guilt that the gospel analysis of sin, a divine Saviour, and the offer of forgiveness none of us can merit, begins to make sense. We may then be empowered to help others discover another community far beyond guilt, a community of the genuinely humane, of hope, of forgiveness, of love. Theologically the universality of guilt is but the backdrop to the universality of forgiveness. Perhaps in practice it is when we recognise convincingly the reality of the first that we can become credible guides to the reality of the second.”