The talk show guest didn’t intend to question the sincerity of those offering the Charleston gunman forgiveness, but his words spilled out that way. What he said was, “Just saying that you forgive someone doesn’t mean that you’ve actually forgiven them.”
The anchorwoman sitting next to him quickly helped him clarify what he meant, “You aren’t questioning the sincerity of those offering the gunman forgiveness – right?”
“No. No. Of course not. I am asking the question for myself.” After a long pause, he still choked back tears, “Someone hurt me badly and I told them that I forgave them. But I know they haven’t changed. And I don’t want them near me or my kids ever again. Have I really forgiven someone if I want them out of my life forever?”
The talk show’s guest’s question is an important one – especially for followers of Christ. But let me explain Jesus’s teaching on forgiveness before giving my answer to his question…
Christians do believe that our relationship with God hinges on God forgiving us. But what many of us may not realize is that Jesus taught that giving forgiveness happens before getting forgiveness:
Jesus said, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Mat 6:14-15 NRS).
By the way, in all of those uncomfortable years of my youth spent in evangelical churches never once did I hear an altar call start with, “Come on down and get saved if you are willing to forgive everyone who has offended you.” Being willing to stop drinking, gambling, and carousing was more important in that venue. Nonetheless, Jesus taught his followers that forgiveness was a condition of following him.
Jesus also gave his followers the responsibility to set others free by forgiving them:
Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Joh 20:22-23 NRS)
This wasn’t Jesus saying, “My followers get to choose who God forgives and who God doesn’t forgive.” This was Jesus telling his followers to forgive others and in doing so they would set relationships between both God and humanity right.
So knowing that, how do we make forgiveness more than just words? How do we know we have actually forgiven?
Jesus set the perfect example for us:
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luk 23:33-34 NRS)
As Jesus demonstrated, we know that we have forgiven others when we can sincerely and earnestly pray for their well-being just as Jesus did for the Roman soldiers who had tortured him, nailed his hands and feet to a tree, and left him to suffer for hours before dying. But even though Jesus required that his followers practice forgiveness, he never required that his followers stay in harm’s way. In fact, he taught his followers to remove themselves from the path of the abuser.
“And any place that does not receive you or listen to you, as you go out from there, shake off the dust from the soles of your feet for a testimony against them.”(Mar 6:11 NAS)
“Have I really forgiven someone if I want them out of my life forever?” “Have I forgiven the gunman if I want to see him locked away forever?” This is the same question that I have heard many times from abused women who have come to me for counseling. So often, other pastors and counselors have told them that forgiveness means that they need to continue a relationship with the offender – especially if it is a relative or husband. Yet, rarely is an abuser able to stop – rarely are they truly repentant even though they may swear they are. God knew this. And staying in relationship with an abuser or offender is not what God requires. Jesus taught that we should pray for the offender’s well-being, but “shake the dust from our feet” – in other words, get away from someone who is refusing to respect you.
For the Charleston gunman, the victims will know they have forgiven when they can pray for his well-being. And it is okay if that takes time – for some it will come easily and others it will take a lot of prayer. But forgiveness does not require that we welcome the unrepentant offender back into our lives any more than it requires that we cancel their prison time. Instead, forgiveness means that we are sincerely able to pray for their well-being: “Father, forgive them.”
April describes herself as a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs: The Disorderly Parable of the Epistle of James. Great for an individual read or group Bible studies!