Have you forgiven them yet?

This question was asked by someone in the audience after a dear woman shared her story about how her daughter was raped and murdered by two men.

“Have you forgiven them yet? ”

The question seemed ridiculously insensitive.  It made me angry that anyone could ask this grieving mother such a question.  It sounded as if she needed to grow up or be more of a true Christian or something.

I was amazed at this woman’s strength in telling her story in the first place.

Now I was further impressed by her poise and grace in answering this question.

“Sir,” she began, “I’m not sure you really understand what forgiveness is.”

“You see,” she continued, “ It is impossible for me to forgive them.”

“I don’t have the authority to do that; I can’t forgive them.  Only God can truly forgive.”

What she was saying was so profound!

We can’t remove anyone’s guilt by ‘letting them off the hook.’

In God’s judgment, they will be accountable.  We can’t take that away.  They will answer to Him inevitably.  They will reap what they have sown.  They will have this on their conscience and have to put up some pretty strong denial defenses to drown out the voice of accusation that is ringing in their ears.  Not only that, but there will also be consequences that fall on them for what they have done.  We can’t remove their guilt or free them from the awful evils they have set in motion.

So what do we mean when we forgive others as God, in Christ, has forgiven us?

For one thing, let me point out the Jewish Old Testament word for forgiveness which is nawsaw, meaning ‘to bear or to carry.’  Isn’t it interesting that the suffering Messiah would carry our sins on Himself on the cross in order to forgive us.  He took the load that was due to fall upon us.  If we receive Him as God’s merciful substitute, then his death counts in place of ours and instead, we receive His very life.  That life within will entirely re-shape us into His image or character.  Because we have been forgiven of all, we can forgive others.

This is still not quite the same as what Christ did for us, because since He was without sin, he could die in our place.  We would have to die for ourselves, for our own sins, so how could we stand in for anybody else?  What then can we do, humanly weak as we are, that God would call forgiveness?

I think it means that we release the offending person from having to satisfy any debt to us.  We leave them to God alone to be judged by Him or to be forgiven by Him if they turn to Him for that.  We let go.  To release another from the obligation they might have toward us.  As though it were a financial debt, we would say, ‘You don’t owe me anymore; as far as I’m concerned, the debt is paid in full.’  The fact that the other person cheated us still remains true.  But now we have disconnected ourselves from the crime.  It is still on them but we are somehow free from the weight of it that we have been carrying.  The intrusive thoughts that plague us when we remember when and how they did what they did, those thoughts that renewed the old pain, are now quieted.

The mother of the victim of unspeakable criminal violence continued her story:

“You see, for me to entertain the anger or bitterness toward these two men would make me a second victim of their crime.  They would now have ruined two lives.  I would be letting them kill me slowly the rest of my life.”

She went on to say that she had actually written them letters in prison, that she had prayed for them often, that they would get themselves right with God.  She told them that they shouldn’t think of her as someone on the outside who hated them, wished them evil or would like to get her hands on them.  They were released to account for themselves to God alone.  She was done.  She would move on.

Don’t imagine for a even a fleeting second that this mother who lost her daughter did not suffer.  She grieved tremendously the tragic loss of her precious girl.  There was a wound there that would only heal with time and rest.  But the poison, the festering disease of hatred was not complicating matters any longer.  She could gradually be restored to health and live the rest of her life.

To forgive, we must carry the offense to God and let it go, trusting Him to deal with the offender as He chooses.  In so doing, we honor Him who gave His only Son to take our own guilt on Himself.  As we trust Him to give us all we truly need, we begin to hope and we rest in Him while He completes the work that we could never accomplish no matter how much striving we might do.  We release the matter to Him.  It isn’t simplistic and it doesn’t minimize the gravity of the offense at all.  It just leaves it in the right hands.  We let it go.

This takes a conscious act on our part.  It may also involve giving a message to the offender if that is possible, much like this mother did in writing her daughter’s murderers in prison.  It may not be possible to send such a message or perhaps the other person will not “receive” the message even if we can send it.  Possibly, the only one who knows the real power of the forgiveness will be the one who knows the relief of release, of letting go.  After all, that is the true goal of forgiveness, to be free of hatred, anger and bitterness.

Must there be reconciliation?  Certainly this mom never had a relationship with these perpetrators in the first place.  She didn’t need to develop some closeness with them now.  In other cases, a close relationship is severed by some offense; in those cases reconciliation may be possible, but it isn’t necessary in all cases.  Sometimes the person forgiven and released does not have the maturity or the freedom to reconcile from their end.  They won’t, or they can’t.

After all, Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, yet not all will be reconciled to God.  Yet, His act of love glorified His Father in heaven. May our forgiveness of others be energized by that same power of Divine love. May His love in us release life through forgiveness of others. May our walking in His life make us truly free.

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