Recently I spent several hours in a courtroom sitting behind the man who murdered my sister. An unlikely time to reflect upon forgiveness.
He confessed. He had savagely beaten Grace to death and strangled her. My 85 year old sister had given him a little yard work. That was the way he repaid her—breaking into her house and killing her.
A very inappropriate time for me to reflect upon forgiveness. But I did.
The definition of forgiveness is elusive, but—as was famously said about pornography—“I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.” Maybe as simple as giving up my right to hurt someone who has hurt me.
Numerous studies have demonstrated rather conclusively that forgiveness—forgiving, sincerely, the offender– has a beneficial effect, promptly, upon blood pressure and heart rate. There are improvements in the rate of substance abuse. Depression is less common. Anxiety is no longer so much a factor. Digestion is better. Now, mind you, these are reported benefits to the offendee—the person offended—if he or she sincerely forgives the offense. Think what it could do for the offender, to know that he or she had been forgiven. I should think that potential improvement in physical and/or mental health might be an infrequent prime objective, but it’s real and achievable.
Must repentance always precede forgiveness? (Luke 17:3) That can be logically derived from scripture. “Repent and your sins will be forgiven.” You mean that the offended person cannot forgive unless the offender repents? Suppose the offender is dead? Or doesn’t speak English? Or if he—or she—just isn’t (yet) in the mood? One theologian holds that forgiveness can be withheld, sort of like a trophy, until repentance occurs. But who said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do?” They didn’t have a clue, but He forgave them anyway. The great Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, went so far as to say, “the only true forgiveness is that which was offered and extended even before the offender has apologised and sought it.”
Apology? That seems to be step 2 of repentance. I understand that in the Jewish faith an apology is required. Also, if the offender sincerely apologizes three times, he must be forgiven. We didn’t get an apology from the killer. But he spoke of how he had shamed himself before his grandmother, and how he would ”man up” to the crime.
Then there’s the “I forgive, but I can’t forget.” That bothers me. It’s obvious—but the reiteration of it makes me a little uncertain that the speaker really forgives.
Forgiveness may require a lot of work. It has been said that only the brave can forgive. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has powerfully written “No Future Without Forgiveness”, describing the heroic work of the process of reconciliation in South Africa. That took bravery. Commitment. Determination to be reconciled, to forgive.
Unforgiven offenses weigh heavily. They rankle. They pollute our memory. They interfere with graciousness. They keep us enthralled to the offender and the offense. The spiritual benefit to be derived from forgiving is real, but the benefit to our physical health has been well established, also. A persistent unwillingness to forgive can become an offense in itself.
Another good reason—the best—is that we are told to. C. S. Lewis expresses it with his usual pungent phraseology:
“To excuse what can really produce good excuses is not Christian charity; it is only fairness. To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.. This is hard….How can we do it? Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say in our prayers each night, ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse it means to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves. There is no hint of exceptions and God means what He says.”
I sat behind the man who murdered my sister. A not-inappropriate time to reflect upon forgiveness.