Against The Odds: True Stories of Forgiveness and Healing

"As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison." - Nelson Mandela.

Why is it that some people who have suffered terrible tragedy still see the goodness in life, when so many of us, who never experience such pain, live in fear and bitterness created by a reluctance or an inability to let go of hurt?

The answer lies in their capacity to forgive, and whenever we see forgiveness in action it always inspires. That is why men like Nelson Mandela are so admired. He lived out the Christian message, and yet Jesus' message was for everyone not just a chosen few. Thinking about forgiveness on a grand scale, as something that only amazing and selfless people are able to do, makes it easier to ignore the many areas in life where we could learn to be more forgiving every day. Yes, God's grace is in forgiveness but what about our part? What practical actions can we take to bring us to a point at which the leap of grace that is forgiveness can occur?

It's a challenge we all face to a greater or lesser extent, but one we often don't think about deeply until something major happens in our life. Often the act of forgiveness in our lives goes barely unnoticed, seen simply as a normal part of life's roller-coaster. At other times forgiveness becomes so difficult that it seems impossible. At such times we don't want to become trapped in a cycle of resentment and bitterness, but neither do we always know how to escape it.

Carrying around baggage like that is tiring, isn't it? We can speculate forever about why things happen or why some people do terrible things, but we rarely find the answers we seek. Wouldn't it be so much better if we could hand that heavy load over to God and feel free to enjoy our lives?

Easier said than done, I know, which is why I went to people who have had huge trials to overcome, and asked how they did it. What I learned has changed my life and my relationships for the better, and inspired me to write a book so that others can benefit from these experiences too. I hope that you will discover that while some of their circumstances may be outside of your experience, these are ordinary people who have found the strength to forgive. What they have done is amazing, but you can do it too.

The book is split into two parts with reflections and questions after each story to help start a conversation about what you've just read. The testimonies in part one help us to explore the personal face of society's ills: war, crime, and terrorism. The broad social issues covered in the first four stories are thankfully only something most of us read about or hear on the news. For many, these things happen to someone else, somewhere else. Yet, behind each news item are individuals who feel they have lost everything, broken people who need to find a way to rebuild their lives. In part two we hear everyday stories of forgiveness which help us hold up a mirror to ourselves and ask, where are we keeping a record of wrongs against those we love or have loved, or even against ourselves?

After reading these testimonies the book then invites us to think about our own experience of forgiveness. Sometimes it is hard for us to see the bigger picture in our own life. When we are hurting it is difficult to imagine how we will ever recover from life's pain and setbacks. Often it is easier to see from the outside where help might come from, where hope is burning and where God is working, however silently, in other people's lives. As each of the testimonies given in the book demonstrate, help does not always come from where we expect it, and sometimes it is only with hindsight that we are able to recognise the positive significance of events or people in our lives. Being open to forgiveness means being open to love, wherever it appears. This is never easy, particularly not after we have been hurt badly, but if we are not open to love in all its forms then we may not always recognise the support that could eventually help us to heal. Each of the people who shared their stories for this book felt like they were stuck in a cycle of pain. Healing takes time and there is no magic number for how long that might take. However, at some point in each testimony there was a leap of grace and their lives were restored through the power of forgiveness. That leap of grace can happen for you too.

Writing the book certainly made me think about my own life and how many opportunities I have each day to either forgive or not, to let go of pain or to let it weigh heavy in my heart. Do I need to focus on a throwaway remark from a stranger so that it spoils the rest of my day? Am I open to accept help even when it doesn't come from where I might expect it? Can I be more loving, grateful and less critical? Can I focus on the good in people? What I've learned is that life can be messy, but we are all given choices every day. In choosing to forgive we are choosing to love, and to live the best life we can today.

Against the Odds: True Stories of Forgiveness and Healing is published by BRF priced £8.99 

Available at St Denys' bookshop in Manchester, Cathedral Centre Books, Salford or online at Amazon, Eden and  Church House Bookshop.


As a journalist I meet all kinds of people. Despite the stereotypical view, I usually want to make people look their best. Sometimes it's harder than others, because some people don't help themselves. They've already decided all journalists are sour people who want to tell the worst of life. There are people who make it clear that they don't want to talk to me in case I write about them, and then take umbrage when I do what they want and ignore them. Usually these are people who have nothing interesting to say anyway. And then there are people who have such an amazing story to tell that meeting them has changed my view of the world.

 

Ray Rossiter is one of those people. I first met Ray when I called him about an exhibition that the Imperial War Museum North was hosting about the experiences of prisoners of the Japanese during World War II. Lots of men were interviewed for that exhibition. They all had fascinating tales to tell, but there was something about Ray that stuck with me. It was in the small things. For example, some men understandably said that they could never eat rice again after their experience. Ray said: "I love rice, it kept me alive."

When I spoke to Ray he asked if I was going to visit him. Given the time constraints of my news desk I couldn't. Then he told me that his wife had dementia and he was the sole carer. I realised that he probably wasn't getting out of the house much at all, so I said that while I couldn't visit him in work time, I would go to see him. I suppose I went to his house the first time because I felt sorry for him and his situation, but as time went on Ray was to touch my heart in a way that I could never have expected.

As a journalist I was used to people calling me to ask me to fight their corner, seek justice for a wrong done to them, even if it was simply to expose it. I'd hear people describe anything from a cross word between friends to the most heinous of crimes as unforgiveable. Yet, here was a man who had suffered unimaginable wrongs and he carried no bitterness. As Christians we talk about forgiveness all the time, but it can feel quite abstract. When we actually witness it lived out, as Ray is doing, it is life-changing.
When Ray talks about the war he says: 'I felt that God was there all the time, his love shining through the actions of men, one for another. He was there in every kindness, every act of compassion - it is how we survived. It was often said: "It's every man for himself in here," but in reality nothing was further from the truth. We depended so much on one another for encouragement, morale-boosting and in numerous instances for our very survival.'

The friendships Ray forged in those adverse times were ones which were to last a lifetime. The men he knew then, men who could be cheerful under the most appalling circumstances, were not men who could let bitterness eat into their souls and he didn't like to see hatred consuming them in this way. It was a big ask, Ray more than anyone knew that, but he wanted to encourage them, for their own sake, to forgive.

'Even years later it was a taboo subject among our fellows and it wasn't an easy thing to get across because it's hard to comprehend just how much there was to forgive,' he says. 'We came out of captivity breathing fire and vengeance against the whole Japanese race - all of us believed at that time that it would be impossible ever to forgive them. Yet while every instinct may be screaming at us to hate them for what they did, we have to stifle this natural impulse. We can't go on hating forever. The happiest people are those who can find it in their hearts to forgive.

'Peace within a person is where it all starts, because the actions of nations are merely the actions of men writ large. No-one who has personal experience of world war ever wants to see another one. While there is life, strength and breath in our bodies we should be striving for a better world and our better world will come if the common people of the world wish for it and work for it hard enough'.

We can speculate forever about why things happen or why some people do terrible things, but we rarely find the answers we seek. Jesus showed us another way and people like Ray are showing it is possible. Thankfully, he's not alone. Since meeting Ray I've met many people who have made forgiveness in a reality in their life. All of them share a desire to make the world a better place, one in which these huge wrongs might never happen in the first place.

It's a vision that is shared by the Restorative Justice Council, which give victims the chance to tell offenders the real impact of their crime, and holds offenders to account for what they have done, enabling everyone affected by a particular incident to play a part in repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward.

It was through the Restorative Justice Process that Joanne Nodding was able to meet and forgive the man who raped her. She says: 'Did I hate him? For a while afterwards you could probably say that I did, but you can't go on living with hate in your heart forever. Well, I can't anyway. I'm not a person who feels hatred. That feeling isn't me, or it's not the me I recognise, and it's not the me I want to be. Besides, hating him is not going to change what happened. 'I could sit here, thinking, "God, why has this person done this to me?" Or I could say, "God help me to forgive and help him to have a better life". Everyone can change and everyone deserves a chance to change. As I see it, I could either hate him for the rest of my life or I could forgive him'.

I can't begin to understand what Ray and Joanne went through, but the goodness they reflect through their capacity for forgiveness makes me want to live a better life. They've made me think about how many opportunities I have each day to either forgive or not, to let go of pain or to let it weigh heavy in my heart. Do I need to focus on a throwaway remark from a stranger so that it spoils the rest of my day? Am I open to accept help even when it doesn't come from where I might expect it? Can I be more loving, grateful and less critical? Can I focus on the good in people? What I've learned is that life can be messy, but we are all given choices every day. In choosing to forgive we are choosing to love, and to live the best life we can today.