Pulling up to the curb, the bus parked in front of an odd looking building. I was tired and unenthused about yet another stop on a 10-day tour of England. All of the churches and historic sites were starting to blend together as we climbed on and off the bus under the cold, grey skies. I was in college participating in a study abroad program and although I was enjoying the trip, jet lag and being constantly on the move were starting to wear on me. I was tempted to skip this stop and just stay on the bus. Thankfully, I didn’t.
Stepping onto the sidewalk, I was confused by the building that stood before me. One half looked like a 1950’s era cinderblock church, the other half was the shell of a 14th century gothic cathedral. The two didn’t match at all and the cynical part of me assumed someone with poor taste had designed this strange site.
An enthusiastic tour guide welcomed our group of forty students and ushered us inside the newer half of Coventry Cathedral. From the moment he began to speak, I knew this was not going to be another typical tour. The church was filled with objects and symbols with meaningful stories behind them. Everything in the building had been designed to point visitors to different truths about God, His Word and what it meant to be an authentic follower of Christ.
I could have lingered in that massive building all afternoon contemplating the significance of each symbolic object and space. Still reveling in its beauty, I was not prepared for the most profound part of the tour as the guide led us out of the modern building and into the old gothic cathedral. Although the exterior walls were intact, German bombs had obliterated the roof and interior during World War II.
The tour guide explained that shortly after it was destroyed, the cathedral stonemason discovered that two charred medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up in the ruins and eventually they were placed on the altar amidst the rubble. The words “Father Forgive” were later inscribed on the wall behind the cross.
Seeing the blackened cross and the words behind it brought a lump to my throat. The people of Coventry Cathedral had grasped the magnitude of God’s love when He allowed His son to die on the cross so that the sins of the world could be forgiven. They knew their only option was to offer forgiveness to the very enemies who had destroyed their cathedral.
Their choice to forgive perfectly exemplifies Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:
“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15, NIV)
There are some powerful lessons we can learn from the example set by Coventry Cathedral.
Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling.
The morning after the cathedral was bombed on November 14, 1940, the decision was made to rebuild a new cathedral that would lead the people of Coventry away from bitterness and hatred. My guess is that if they had waited until they “felt” like forgiving the Germans, the church would still be in ruins (spiritually and physically).
Forgiveness is a process, not a one-time event.
It took over a decade for the new cathedral to be built. The rebuilding process enabled the people to examine their hearts and create a new building that was a physical manifestation of God’s grace and forgiveness. The new cathedral was built at a perpendicular angle to the original one so that the two buildings form the shape of a cross when viewed from above.
Forgiveness allows God to work in you and others.
The bombing of the cathedral ultimately led the congregation to begin a ministry of peace and reconciliation that continues to provide spiritual and practical support in areas of conflict throughout the world. Forgiving their enemies brought emotional and spiritual healing that freed them to help others on their own journeys of forgiveness.
Forgiveness doesn’t require an apology first.
The decision to rebuild the cathedral and to use it as a symbol of God’s forgiveness was made while the war with the Germans raged on. The people of Coventry didn’t wait in defiant pride until restitution was paid. They didn’t demand to have the atrocity committed against them be rectified before they forgave. They chose to forgive and they trusted God to bring justice in His perfect timing.
While Coventry Cathedral provides tangible examples about the keys to forgiveness, the four points I’ve listed come from my personal experiences. I know first hand how hard it is and have spent much time wrestling with God and His Word as I’ve worked through my pain in the process of forgiving others. If forgiveness were easy, we wouldn’t have needed Jesus to die on the cross to make it possible. Because He did that, we have no choice but to follow His example. How could we ever withhold from others the forgiveness that God so freely gives to us?
Click on the link to hear further wisdom on this topic with Matthew West’s song “Forgiveness” and to access other helpful resources.
For further reading on forgiveness, I highly recommend Lewis Smedes’ book Forgive and Forget.
To learn more about Coventry Cathedral, click on the link: