How often do you find yourself in need of asking for, or extending forgiveness? It happens in my life on a weekly, and often daily, basis.
Today, Abingdon Press officially releases my latest book, based upon a sermon series I preached two years ago called simply, Forgiveness. I am hopeful that this little book might bring healing and help to many people.
I, like most of you, have followed with sorrow and sympathy the horrible shooting event and its aftermath a couple of weeks ago at a Colorado movie theater.
One particular story has stood out to me—that of Pierce O’Farrill, one of the fifty-eight people wounded, who says he’s forgiven James Holmes of his shooting spree.
When we’ve been offended in a minor way—such as being cut off in traffic—it’s important to routinely forgive even when the offending person does not repent and/or does not understand he or she has hurt us.
But when the offense is a serious wrong and the other has not displayed an awareness of his or her actions, expressed regret, asked for forgiveness, or expressed a willingness to change, are we to offer forgiveness, as O’Farrill is to Holmes?
Here, it is important to remember that there are two dimensions to forgiveness: there is your internal release of bitterness, anger, or desire for revenge, and there is the extension of mercy toward the one who has wronged you.
Regarding your release of anger, bitterness, and desire for revenge, you must forgive. The more serious the wound, the longer the process may take. But failure to forgive in this sense gives power to the one who wronged you. It is you, not they, who are hurt by your unwillingness to forgive.
But in the second dimension of forgiveness—extending mercy to those who have wronged us—we may actually harm wrongdoers if we extend mercy too quickly.
Wrestling with the hurt they have caused is a part of their redemptive process, and for Christians, redemption should always be the goal.
As I consider the recent Colorado shooting, I am reminded of the December 1997 scene when fourteen-year-old Michael Carneal walked into the lobby of his high school in Paducah, Kentucky, and began shooting at a group of teenagers who had gathered early to pray. He killed three of those classmates and wounded four.
A day or two later, some students there did something they thought Jesus wanted them to do. With the national spotlight on them, they made up a sign that said, “Michael, we forgive you.”
Yes, Jesus tells us to forgive, but at that point, Michael wasn’t asking for anybody’s forgiveness. Offering him mercy did not help. Of course, those students would eventually need to let go of the hate and bitterness in their hearts, but extending mercy so quickly to one who had not asked for it, who had not repented, who had done something so terrible was surely not what Jesus had in mind. In fact, their actions could well have stopped the redemption process.
Michael needed to come to terms with the terrible weight of what he had done. He needed to feel the horror of it, to confess and be changed because of it. Once that happened, it might have been appropriate to show mercy to him, although even mercy would not have waived the consequences of such an act.
So, some of you may be surprised to hear me say that, though I’m sure shooting victim Pierce O’Farrill’s heart is in the right place, I’d caution him that his quick offer of mercy to Holmes may not accomplish what he intends.
Extending mercy before a person understands the need for it can diminish the gravity of the act. It gets in the way of the true goal of forgiveness, which is the redemption of the other person.
Repentance is the first step in reaching this goal. A repentant person is able to receive forgiveness.
While it is generally true that we don’t extend the gift of mercy before earnest repentance happens, there are exceptions to this rule. There are times when extending mercy before repentance actually leads to shame and guilt on the part of the one who has wronged us, and moves them toward genuine repentance. The greatest example of this is Jesus and his death on the cross. From the cross, he prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Such a magnificent act of mercy would haunt those who heard his prayer for the rest of their lives. Even now, two thousand years later, we look at this scene and it moves us to repentance.
This post features excerpts from my brand-new book, Forgiveness.