By Karen Wingate
I remember the sick feeling in my stomach when I heard about the brutal shooting of 10 Amish girls at a rural school near Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania in October, 2006. Five girls died and, to this day, one survivor still remains semi-comatose in her parents’ home. How could anyone be so vicious? News reports validated that I wasn’t the only one who felt horror—and yes, a tinge of anger—at this unfair and evil act.
Shock turned to wonder when the nation observed the reaction of those closest to the tragedy—the Amish community. One of the murdered girls’ grandfathers warned young relatives, “We must not think evil of this man.” Amish neighbors shared gifts, hugs, and tears with the family of murderer Charles Roberts who concluded his violent act by killing himself. In spite of their own losses, damaged emotions, and overwhelming medical bills, the community started a fund for the killer’s family and willingly suffered more emotional trauma by attending Roberts’ funeral.
As a parent and Sunday school teacher, I’ve taught children to say the magic words: “Please,” “Thank you,” “I’m sorry,” and “I forgive you.” While it’s important to teach children these concepts, in the case of forgiveness, we need to go a few steps further. I’m afraid we’ve given children the mistaken idea that simply saying the words “I forgive you” solves the problem. Whenever we confront such evil, however, words simply aren’t enough. We’re led to wonder: how do I know when I’ve really forgiven?
Through their actions, the Amish community showed that forgiveness is more than a three-word phrase. Forgiveness is expressed in the way we choose to respond toward the one who offended us. It is an agreement to bear the consequences caused by the offense and a commitment to the mending of a relationship we didn’t break. This is possible because we trust God will take care of us and that he delights to weave the adversity of our experience into his beautiful plan for our lives.
Before we can experience the healing forgiveness brings, we have to admit to ourselves there is a debt to be reconciled.
The Bottom Line
I’ve often heard others suggest that we should “forgive and forget.” It’s not that simple. Our souls cry for justice. How can we forget when we’re living with the results of sin and selfishness?
The truth is, sin has consequences. Selfish and irresponsible choices can shatter the dreams and alter the life direction of innocent bystanders. Even small acts of rudeness or selfishness can affect our day.
Suppose you purchased the car of your dreams. You park the sleek beauty in your driveway. Five minutes later, distracted while talking on my cell phone, I plow into your beautiful new car. Your insurance company assesses the damage at $8,000. Guess what? I have no insurance. I don’t even have a driver’s license.
You now have a choice. You can insist I pay for the damaged car. You can file criminal charges against me. Or you could be really nice and say, “It’s OK. Just forget about it.” But as I gratefully drive away, you turn and face your shattered dream. Your beautiful new car is damaged and you‘re stuck with an $8,000 repair bill.
That is what amazes me about Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23-35. In one swift act the master canceled the huge debt the servant owed. I have to hit the pause button when I read that part of the story. The debt still existed. Someone, most likely the master, had to cover the debt. Even if the master declared bankruptcy, someone was out a lot of money.
God did not smooth over our sin with a beneficent “I forgive you.” Our sin cost Jesus his life. He didn’t deserve to die. Yet he was willing to pay the highest price to restore us to a right relationship with his Father.
Forgiveness, then, is choosing to take over the payment of a debt, making it possible for restoration to occur. In our humanness, however, can we afford to do for others what Christ did for us?
Benchmarks of Forgiveness
Accepting a debt we shouldn’t have to pay seems unfair. Colossians 3:13 shows us how we can do this. We forgive others as Christ forgave us. Jesus was able to forgive because he knew God had the power to rescue him from death. In turn, we don’t have to be concerned over how much someone’s sin will mess up our lives. God has the power to rescue us from anything.
Choosing to forgive becomes easier when we trust God’s power and desire to take care of us. God can help us pay any debt an offender thrusts upon us. He has promised to provide whatever we need (Philippians 4:19). If we can trust God to take care of our daily needs, we can also trust him to help us bear the loss caused by someone’s offense.
God delights to use the hardships in our lives to build our character, making us strong and useful for him. Clay can be fashioned into useful vessels if it is pliable. God can mold me into a vessel useful for kingdom service if I am not hardened by bitterness over how someone has offended me. If I hold on to my resentment, I miss opportunities to move forward in my walk with him and to reflect his character to those I am trying to influence.
The Old Testament character Joseph forgave his brothers because he trusted God to do great things with the events of his life. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good,” he told them (Genesis 50:20).
Forgiveness restores relationships. Restoration takes time and may not happen at all. Joseph had to wait many years before he was reconciled with his brothers. Even so, as we see in the context of Genesis 50, their relationship remained strained as Joseph’s brothers never fully trusted his willingness to forgive. The important thing is that, for our part, we leave the door open to the possibility of reconciliation.
When we suffer the consequences of another’s sinful behavior, we have a marvelous opportunity to mirror the grace Christ so freely offers to us. Our forgiving spirit reflects the spirit of Christ who paid the debt for our sins on the cross. The third school shooting that week and the 24th in our nation in the year 2006, the Amish school shooting gained worldwide attention because the Amish community was willing to put feet on their forgiveness. God’s grace went on parade that week when neighbors were willing to hold the hands of the killer’s widow.
We forgive when we stop fighting the compulsion to balance the scales of justice, relinquish our loss into the hands of our capable Lord, and care more about someone’s relationship with God than how they have hurt us. It is through our active choice to forgive that others will taste and long for the ultimate forgiveness found only in Jesus Christ.
Karen Wingate is a freelance writer in Roseville, Illinois.
What Will You Choose?
Consider how you can apply these concepts:
“Forgiveness . . . is choosing to take over the payment of a debt, making it possible for restoration to occur.”
• What do you think about the picture of forgiveness as a debt? What debt have you taken over by forgiving someone else’s offense?
“If I hold on to my resentment, I miss an opportunity to move forward in my walk with [God] and to reflect his character to those I am trying to influence.”
• Are you withholding forgiveness? How has that affected your relationship with God? What do you think other people are observing about you?
“The important thing is that, for our part, we leave the door open to the possibility of reconciliation.”
• Even if the relationship is never restored, are you open to the process of reconciliation?
“Our forgiving behavior becomes a microcosm of what Christ did on the cross when he paid the debt for our sin.”
• Pray that you become more like Christ.