Forgiveness is tough. We talk about it on the Sycamore Tree course. I use examples of people who have forgiven such as Auschwitz survivor Eva Kor and Nelson Mandela. We hear from victims of crime who are going through their own journeys of forgiveness. Learners on the Sycamore Tree programme include people who have had upbringings with no parental love or care; people whose parents have neglected them or, worse, treated them badly. Some have been betrayed by partners and friends. It is hard to forgive when we have been wronged. People also come with their own guilt and cannot forgive themselves.
What does God have to say about forgiveness? I have been looking at Leviticus – please don’t stop reading! – where God instructs His people to bring animals without blemish – a costly commitment. After placing their hands on them as a symbol of transferring their guilt, they slaughter the animal in the place where they met with Him. The blood was poured out as a symbol of the life given to make the worshipper right with the Lord.
Throughout the description of these sacrifices in Leviticus 4 there is a common refrain: If the whole community sins then the priest offers a sacrifice ‘and they will be forgiven’ (v20). If a leader sins then, if they make a sacrifice, ‘they will be forgiven’ (v26). If any member of the community does anything that is against the Lord’s commands then, if they make a sacrifice, ‘they will be forgiven’ (v31). ‘They will be forgiven!’ The same words are repeated like a clock striking the hour – ‘They will be forgiven!’ (See 4:35, 5:10,13,16, 6:7, and 19:22).
We do not need to offer animal sacrifices to God today. Is that because we are better than the ancient Israelites? Absolutely not! We are all sinners. We break God’s commands either deliberately or unintentionally. So what has changed? We no longer need to make a sacrifice because God has come to earth and given Himself as a sacrifice in our place. Jesus went to the cross and shed His own blood as the penalty for our sins and to make us right with God so that we can be made worthy to serve Him. (See Hebrews 9:12-14).
The Israelites were told that if they made a sacrifice then ‘they will be forgiven.’ We look back at Jesus’ sacrifice which ‘purifies us from all sin’ (1 John 1:7) and we are told that ‘if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:9). We will be forgiven!
This is the message we take with us when we go into prison. As we meet with people, as we pray for them, as we support those who look after them, we must always remember the power of forgiveness. Whatever they have done, they too can be forgiven.
Recently I talked with a man who was full of guilt for what he had done. We talked about forgiveness and I told him that he can be forgiven. On the Sycamore Tree course, we give out a book with stories of forgiveness. One of the men who attended a recent course told me that he was using this book to talk to his grandmother about forgiving a family member!
The message that we can be forgiven is powerful! Let’s remember it as we pray for our prisons this month.
David Cooke is a Sycamore Tree Tutor and also serves on the Prison Fellowship Board of Trustees.
Download the July Prayer Diary, with a prompt each day for how we can pray for our prisons and our ministries.
Did you know you can receive the monthly devotional and Prayer Diary by email? Use this link to sign up.