Thursday, July 23, 2015

Forgiveness: The Gift You Give Yourself

The response by some family members and friends of the victims of the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, along with members of the congregation, has heartened many, confused some, and confounded others.

The response of grieving friends
and family members of Emanuel
AME Church has added another
chapter to its rich story of faith.
One day after the shooter (whom I won’t name, since he’s already gotten enough notoriety) killed nine men and women, despite sitting among them for about an hour at a prayer meeting at the historic church, some surviving family members stated they had forgiven the assailant, despite his merciless and horrendous acts.

A spirited and sometimes agitated discussion and debate resulted, with some people hailing the expressions of forgiveness and other observers commenting it’s too early or perhaps even unwarranted for numerous reasons.

How can you forgive someone who for no cause at all has taken the life of a loved one? How do you forgive the unjustified hatred that would motivate such mayhem? And how can you forgive someone when he has not even shown any evidence of remorse or repentance?

From a purely human standpoint, it’s difficult if not impossible to do. One’s honest, natural response is for justice or vengeance. For some, forgiveness in the face of unthinkable evil seems like repaying the vicious with kindness. And for some it borders precipitously on condoning or excusing the heinous crime.

I can’t say how I would respond – and hope I’ll never have to find out. But I’d like to think my reaction would mirror that of the grieving men and women at that noble African-American church. Because as followers of Jesus Christ, that’s what we’re instructed to do.

For one reason, if we’re to be like Christ, we should act as He did. On the cross, enduring the most excruciating form of execution mankind has ever conceived, He said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). I won’t delve into the theology behind that statement, but not long before His crucifixion Jesus gave His followers a veiled reference when He said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

The apostle Peter elaborated on this, stating, To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).

Also, when Jesus made the statement people often quote, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” (Luke 6:37), in the same breath He continued by saying, “Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

Our heads may shouting, “No, I can’t!” along with our hearts. But to that He simply replies, “Do it – because I said so.”

But there’s another good reason for forgiving even the most egregious wrongs. We can do it for ourselves. We talk a lot about the “pursuit of happiness,” and no one has ever found unrestrained anger and bitterness and wrath to be effective paths for becoming happy. All those emotions achieve is misery and multiplied pain. 

The apostle Paul wisely wrote, “In your anger, do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are angry” (Ephesians 4:26). He was not saying we don’t have a right to feel angry when wronged, whether the offense is minor or of unimaginable magnitude. He was telling us not to allow our ire – no matter how justified – to control us and fester, like an emotional cancer day after day.

You want to know courage and bravery? We saw in the faces of those men and women in Charleston, looking at the monster who had killed their beloved family members and friends, expressing forgiveness and essentially telling the shooter, “We will not allow you to cause any more death by stealing our joy and peace and hope. Your hatred will not govern our hearts.”

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