The Dreadful Duty of Forgiveness

One of the most unpopular and difficult virtues of Christianity is forgiveness.  As C.S. Lewis put it, “[e]very one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”  Sadly, our personal lives recently have been an exercise in forgiving the unforgivable.

On May 4 of this year, while cycling near his home, my father-in-law David was struck and killed by an impaired (alcohol and drugs) hit-and-run motorist.  David was a beloved man.  He was a husband, a father of four, and a grandfather of 11.  He was also a kind and caring brother to four siblings and a loving son to his parents, all of whom survive him.  David was lovingly and intimately involved in each of these lives.  He was also a pastor, counselor, and middle school teacher at a Christian academy.  He was 64 years old and in very good health (which cycling helped him maintain).

David was especially involved in our lives.  For over 14 years, we’ve attended the church where he pastored.  Our four children attend the Christian homeschool academy where he taught.  My oldest son Caleb (13 years old), David’s oldest grandchild, was in his papa’s class.  Thus, David was Caleb’s teacher, his pastor, and his papa.  My wife Michelle is the administrator at the same homeschool academy.  Including church on Sundays, she spent at least four days a week with her dad.

I spoke at David’s funeral.  Much of what I said about his amazing life is here.  A wonderful video testimony is here.  Michelle wrote a blog post about her dad here.

Such a loss can certainly leave one angry.  This is especially the case when the death occurs at the hands of a remorseless criminal during the commission of a crime.  Our ability to forgive has been tested like never before.

We understand well what the families of those slain in Charleston, the family of New Orleans police officer Gary Flot, the families of those slaughtered by ISIS, and the like are going through.  The sad truth is, if we live long enough, each of us will have dire things to forgive.  What’s more, live just a few short years in this fallen world, and we will all do plenty that will require the forgiveness of others.

As Lewis implied in Mere Christianity, the notion of forgiveness is about as popular as the Christian teaching on sexual morality.  In fact, if a man were on trial for his Christian faith (an event that many alive today may get to witness), his thoughts on forgiveness would certainly be a line of questioning the prosecutor would pursue.

Such thinking has long been a part of evangelical America.  During the first “Great Awakening,” which occurred during the early to middle part of the 18th century, powerful Spirit-inspired preaching by men like Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennent, and George Whitefield produced a tremendous evangelical harvest in colonial America.

As noted in A Wonderful Work of God: Puritanism and the Great Awakening, in order to distinguish between the counterfeit works of Satan and the authentic works of the Holy Spirit, one of the “marks” that was considered a “major test” was “the capacity to forgive one’s enemies.”

The recent events in Charleston offer a great example of how followers of Jesus are different from those still lost in the darkness of this world.  After Dylann Roof’s heinous act of violence took the lives of nine Christians at a Bible study in Charleston, and after his capture the morning after the attack, the next event that garnered the most attention happened two days after the murders.  At Roof’s bond hearing, one by one, the friends and family of Roof’s victims, were given the chance to speak.  For the most part, the media was aghast, for each of these followers of Christ did the unthinkable for those who are guided by a liberal worldview: they offered forgiveness to Dylann Roof.

“We already forgive him for what he’s done, and there’s nothing but love from our side of the family,” said Chris, the teenage son of victim Sharonda Coleman-Singleton.  Anthony Thompson, the grandson of victim Myra Thompson, told Roof, “I forgive you, my family forgives you.”  The daughter of Ethel Lance said, “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never hold her ever again. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you. I forgive you.”

On forgiveness, Lewis also noted that “to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. ‘That sort of talk makes them sick,’ they say.”  After the terrible events in Charleston, several pundits corrupted by liberalism proved Lewis correct.

“Black America should stop forgiving white racists” was the title of a piece by Stacey Patton in the Washington Post.  Patton declared that such forgiveness was “disconcerting.”  Seeking to keep the fires of racism stoked, she added, “The almost reflexive demand for forgiveness, especially for those dealing with death by racism, is about protecting whiteness, and America as a whole.”

“I do not forgive Dylann Roof,” began Roxane Gay in The New York Times.  She later added, “I do not foresee ever forgiving his crimes, and I am wholly at ease with that choice[.] … My lack of forgiveness serves as a reminder that there are some acts that are so terrible that we should recognize them as such. We should recognize them as beyond forgiving.”

Gay’s refusal to forgive is also tied to her desire to perpetuate the racism meme so loved by today’s liberals.  She wrote, “The call for forgiveness is a painfully familiar refrain when black people suffer. White people embrace narratives about forgiveness so they can pretend the world is a fairer place than it actually is, and that racism is merely a vestige of a painful past instead of this indelible part of our present.”

An LA Times op-ed says that we should put conditions on forgiveness.  Edward E. Baptist writes, “It's one thing for a survivor of trauma to tell a handcuffed and doomed perpetrator that you forgive him. It's another thing to forgive those who can still harm you. You don't do that without a good reason to believe that the person who harmed you has changed into someone who will not do so again.”

Of course, this is not what Jesus taught. When Peter famously asked Jesus if we should forgive up to seven times, Jesus replied, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”  In other words, as often as is necessary.  One of the last lessons Jesus taught us was on forgiveness.  In agony, as He was mercilessly and unjustly dying on the cross, Jesus asked His heavenly Father to forgive His executioners.

In February 1944, because they were hiding Jews from the Nazis, the ten Boom home was raided by German police.  Corrie, along with her father, her brother, two sisters, and several other family members, was arrested.  Shortly after the arrest, all of the family was released except Corrie, her father Casper, and her sister Betsie.  Casper got sick and died within ten days of arrest.  Corrie and Betsie remained in prison and were later transferred to the Ravensbrueck concentration camp in Germany.  Betsie would die there, while Corrie was accidently released.

The ten Booms were devoted Christians who believed what the Bible taught, not only about the Jewish people, but also about forgiveness.  Corrie had a long career after WWII, ministering to the mentally disabled, foster children, and the like, along with speaking and writing on the Christian faith.  She was especially noted for her forgiveness of the Nazis who imprisoned her and her family.

On forgiveness, ten Boom wrote, “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.”  In other words, as we have been taught about love, forgiveness does not depend on how we feel about any particular person or situation.

Therefore, and thankfully, we do not have to have pleasant feelings about those who have wronged us.  Neither must we “think them nice.”  We are simply to do and say the things that forgiveness requires.  We are also not to reduce by even the slightest measure our contempt for wicked things such as murder, racism, lust, greed, and the like.  And we must hate such things in ourselves as much as we hate them in others.

Lastly, and “one step further,” showing true love and forgiveness does not mean that we can’t punish – even unto death – those who have done wrong.  Christianity teaches that we all live forever (somewhere); thus, if justice requires death in this life, so be it.  What ultimately matters most is that the condemned be presented with the opportunity to accept the final forgiveness and atonement offered by the final Judge Whom we all will face and Whom we all have offended.

Trevor Grant Thomas: At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason.  Trevor and his wife Michelle are the authors of Debt Free Living in a Debt Filled World.;

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