In the aftermath of the shooting at the AME Church in Charleston, S.C. a couple weeks ago, I was amazed when I read that several victims and family members of those who were shot, spoke a word of forgiveness to Dylan Roof at his first court hearing.
“One by one, those who chose to speak at a bond hearing did not turn to anger. Instead, while he remained impassive, they offered him forgiveness and said they were praying for his soul, even as they described the pain of their losses. ‘I forgive you,’ Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, said at the hearing, her voice breaking with emotion. ‘You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.’” For the full story copy and paste the following link into your web browser: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2015/06/19/i-forgive-you-relatives-of-charleston-church-victims-address-dylann-roof/
In some ways their response shouldn’t amaze us. Forgiveness is at the heart of our Christian faith. God in Jesus Christ went to the cross to forgive us of our sins, we say time and time again and therefore, in response, we are called by Jesus to forgive one another, even our enemies.
Yet, truthfully, many of us struggle with this whole notion of forgiveness, especially when it comes to our enemies. We are generally more than willing to accept God’s forgiveness of us but offer forgiveness to another, especially one who has done something so heinous. Surely God doesn’t mean us to forgive someone like that! Does he?
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus cries from the cross—asking God to forgive those who have scourged him, beaten him and are literally killing him by crucifying him on the cross.
Now, I’m not saying that I would have been able to do what those who offered forgiveness to Dylan Roof did, especially so soon after the shooting, (though I’d like to think that eventually I would get to that point) but I think Jesus’ words are pretty clear—forgiveness is a part and parcel of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
How having said that, however, I think it’s important to make a distinction when we talk about forgiveness. There are, if you will, 2 types of forgiveness. First, there is forgiveness that is given to restore a relationship, such forgiveness is necessary for any human relationship to survive. Without forgiveness, no human relationship could withstand the anger and bitterness that would build up.
But there is also forgiveness which is given, not so much so that a relationship may be restored, but so that the anger and bitterness caused by another person’s sinfulness, does not consume and destroy us. Because if we hold on to our anger against that other person, it will begin to do harm, not necessarily to the other person (who may or may not care that we harbor anger against them) but to ourselves. For make no mistake, unforgiveness, i.e., anger and bitterness, is like a festering wound that infects the whole body if it is not treated—and forgiveness is the only treatment that can remove such a festering wound from our souls.
Such forgiveness, of course, is not easy for most of us, which is why we need God’s help. If you find yourself unable to forgive someone, confess that to God and then ask God for his help in forgiving. Sometimes, I have found that actually saying the words out loud, “God, I forgive (name). They hurt me deeply but I am choosing to forgive them. Help me to let go of my anger and bitterness towards them.” Sometimes I have to say this several times over a series of days. Sometimes, once is enough and I feel an almost immediate release of anger, followed by a feeling of peace and joy. Sometimes, if I have to continue to deal with this person on an ongoing basis, I have to go through the whole process again and again. But being free of the poison that unforgiveness brings, is always worth it!