Like many of you I saw the video footage on television of the response of that congregation in North Carolina (US) that lost nine members to a fatal shooting. It seemed to me that the response of the congregation made bolder headlines in the newspapers than the actual tragedy itself. What blew people away was the ability of the family members of the deceased to extend forgiveness to the alleged gunman. In court they testified to their pain but they also showed the kind of grace that is rare in our get-even culture.
There is certainly something commendable in extending forgiveness. But offering forgiveness to someone who just dispatched your loved one into eternity with a bullet is not natural. Justice demands otherwise. There’s a penalty to be paid for such a serious crime. When everything in us is crying out for revenge extending forgiveness is counter-intuitive. It’s not at all surprising that the extending of forgiveness under these circumstances made such bold headlines.
You could even argue that there is a sense in which this kind of forgiveness is Christlike. When Jesus was crucified did He not pray to the Father that the sin of His unjust execution not be held against the soldiers who did this vile deed? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”
And yet…! There is something about this kind of forgiveness in North Carolina that doesn’t sit right with me.
Many years ago, in quite a different context I was confronted with this issue in a very vivid way. It involved a very complicated marital issue and a mother in law who just couldn’t forgive the estranged husband for some alleged inappropriate behaviour. I counselled her on a number of occasions to let the matter go since nothing she said or did made any difference. At one visit I suggested that maybe she needed to just forgive him for what he had allegedly done and “move on”. She asked, “Should we forgive someone when they have neither asked for our forgiveness nor ever shown any remorse for their actions?” Good question! Is it not true that God only forgives the repentant?
Her question came back to me as I watched the video-clip of the accused gunman in North Carolina being charged with nine counts of murder. He showed not the slightest emotion and there was no evidence of remorse. Should we extend forgiveness in such situations?
Jesus told a parable about an unforgiving servant. His master had forgiven him a huge debt. However, he was unwilling to forgive the relatively minor debt of a fellow servant – and for that the master condemned him. Yet in that parable the fellow servant at least pleaded for forgiveness. What if the guilty do not ask for that?
It seems to me that it is possible to forgive too soon. We may even give the impression by our extending forgiveness that the crime is less serious than it really is. And if we want to base our speedy forgiveness on that of Jesus’ prayer for his executioners then we need to remember that the soldier who did that dirty deed were simply ordinary soldiers obeying orders. It was Pilate who condemned Jesus to death. The soldiers just carried out the sentence that Pilate pronounced.
Should we then – as it were – hold on to the wrongdoing of others and not forgive them? It seems to me that we need to distinguish between two things that are often confused. On the one hand there is forgiving someone – which means that from our perspective at least we are letting them off the hook. On the other hand there is surrendering the matter to the Lord and letting Him deal with it in His way and in His good time.
In my books that mother-in-law had a valid point. We can forgive too soon. There are issues of justice that need to be settled. But in my opinion that mother-in-law also made a big mistake because she carried an ongoing grudge against her son-in-law. That grudge prevented her from “moving on”. In retrospect I see that her issue was not so much that she couldn’t forgive but that she couldn’t hand the matter over to the Lord and leave it up to Him to work out a problem that she was ultimately powerless to resolve.
Yes… Jesus made clear that we need to have a forgiving spirit. But maybe we can forgive too quickly.