(Published in The Christian Leader, 12 September 1989, as "I Decided To Forgive")
"Love Your Enemies" - Does God Really Mean It?
It was shortly before Christmas, 1988. The phone was ringing.
"Hello." then my mother's voice came through the receiver: "Son... your sister's been murdered."
Shock. I'm stunned. "How? Who? What happened?" Over the next few days the details emerged. Alcohol, cocaine, adultery, separation, and finally, a clearly premeditated attack by her jealous husband. (I'll call him Greg.) He ran, then called the police and told what he'd done and where to find her body. A few days later they captured him in another state.
Concerns of course. How are her kids? What about my parents, and the rest of my family? Shock and stress are certainly present, and will be for a long time. But those things are part of another story.
As a Christian, I know God's grace has come to me. And I know because of that that I must love my enemies. Biblically, I'm not allowed any other option. Yet when I express this, others react strangely. It's as if God must not really mean it. I hear a great deal of hatred and bitterness expressed. But I also hear from my mother "Greg has a soul too." God's Holy Spirit is at work there.
Greg is sent to prison. I only met him once, but I write to extend my forgiveness, and to invite him to seek God's forgiveness. He responds with a barely literate letter thanking me for my forgiveness and expressing his sorrow. It's unclear if there's really repentance or just sorrow, but it's the Holy Spirit's job to draw him in. It's my responsibility to maintain this link and give him the opportunity to repent. At this point I don't know what the outcome will eventually be in Greg's life.
What basis do I have for forgiving Greg? What kind of pilgrimage did it take to do so?
It doesn't make an exciting article, but there was no big struggle with forgiveness, no painful pilgrimage. It was a theological decision: I MUST forgive. Obedience to God and to His word is not optional. My will must be brought into conformance to God's will. Yes, this may require prayer for a changed heart to be willing to forgive. It may require asking others for prayer too.
Since this is a theological decision, based on Scripture, we need to examine the Scriptures. Here are a few that I recalled.
"Vengeance is mine - I will repay, says the LORD." (Dt. 32:35; Rom. 12:19). For many of us, this is a very satisfying passage. Not because we are forbidden to take vengeance - we tend to ignore that - but because we picture God on our side, taking vengeance on our enemies. Yes, they're going to get it!
Our mistake is that we put ourselves on the wrong side. WE are the sinners in the hands of an angry God, deserving His judgment! Whoa!! That changes the picture. We don't like that so much.
But God doesn't leave it there - "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). Not AFTER we repented, or AFTER we showed remorse, but WHILE we were STILL sinners. "While(we)were dead in (our) sins, ... he forgave us all our sins, ... nailing (them) to the cross" (Col. 2:13-14). That's where God's vengeance was played out - against Jesus Himself, Almighty God nailed to the cross. And there, He cried out in forgiveness (Lk. 23:34).
The word we use for this is GRACE - God's GIFT to us without our deserving it. Intellectually, we tend to accept this, while emotionally still believing we somehow deserve His Grace. But we are "not deserving of any leniency" in today's legal terms.
Because we have experienced God's grace in forgiving our sins, we can forgive others, no matter what their offense. But more than that - we MUST forgive others. Jesus illustrated this with the parable of the unmerciful servant (Mt. 18:21-35) and taught it explicitly when He taught on prayer (Mt. 6:12-15): "If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."
No, this isn't a matter of earning salvation by good works. It's a matter of discipleship - if we are forgiven, we have no choice but to forgive. We are to live as Jesus lived! (1 Jn. 2:6). This life is lived by faith (Heb. 10:38).
Of course, this often runs counter to our deepest instincts. We don't want to forgive.
As I said before, my decision was based on study of the Scriptures. Obedience to God and to His word is not optional. Our will must be brought into conformance to God's will.
Once we are willing to forgive, we must act. Go ahead and forgive. This may mean writing or calling someone to express forgiveness to them. This should not, however, be done to open old wounds or just to make yourself feel good.
It may be that the person you need to forgive cannot be contacted. You may not know where they are, or they may be dead. In that case, you may want to speak with your pastor or another Christian to express your forgiveness. Deep-seated unforgiveness may require extended counselling.
Eventually the feelings of forgiveness may follow, but that's not the essence of forgiveness. What's essential is the act of the will, acting in obedience to God's word. That's how we may know the freedom of forgiveness.