Few recent tragedies have affected me as deeply as the horrific murders at the Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pa. It seems that each day brings more mayhem in our blood-soaked country. But this one–this image of 10 little girls bound and lined up against a wall for their mass violation and murder–I have not been able to get out of my mind.
And yet already from the Amish of Lancaster comes talk of forgiveness for the sadly twisted man who shattered the peace of their Christian community and took the lives of so many innocent children.
Such talk is not unexpected. But it is almost incomprehensible.
I will just admit right off that I have trouble forgiving people for things they have said about me that I don't like. I still remember wrongs done to me when I was 15 years old. How then can I even imagine forgiving someone who would shoot 10 children? How can the Amish father and mother consider forgiving the man who murdered their beloved daughter?
For Christians, the journey to forgiveness begins with a commitment to Jesus Christ, and therefore a commitment to obey his teachings and follow his example. It is simply a decision that, among many competing loyalties and lords, Jesus will be the one who sets the direction of our lives. (He is not just our religious totem to whom we nod in symbolic obeisance, but he is actually the Lord of our lives.)
This Jesus commanded that his followers forgive. In the Lord's Prayer he taught us to pray for God's forgiveness even as we forgive those who harm us. He linked the two quite explicitly: “For if you forgive people for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions”Ó (Mt. 6:14-15). When he was asked how many times we are required to forgive, he said “70 times seven,” which goes far beyond the limits we humans can comfortably imagine. On the cross, he asked his Father to forgive those who nailed him there.
There are clues in these teachings that can help us understand why we should forgive–not that it makes it much easier. Many who hurt and offend us “do not know what they are doing.” They are unaware of the pain their actions cause. They are driven by forces that they do not understand. They have fallen prey to temptation. Satan has control of them. They are human beings gone wrong, which should not be so hard for us to understand because we also are human beings gone wrong.
This latter note reminds us of why Jesus so often emphasizes humility. We are told to “take the log out of our own eye” before we try to take the speck out of someone else's eye. This is to say that there is plenty of sin and wrong in us, plenty of hurt that we dish out, so that when we are wounded by someone it is a very good idea to remember the wounds that we have inflicted on others. This empties us of our towering (wounded) pride and enables us to look with a degree of mercy on the one who has thrown the hurt our way this time.
These observations are all true as far as they go, but ultimately Jesus appeals to the character of God as the ultimate reason why we should forgive. Forgive–as the Father forgives you. As is true throughout the Bible, command follows grace. God liberates the Jews from slavery and then offers commands as to how they should live. Jesus reminds us that God forgives repentant sinners and then commands us to forgive. Our actions are to imitate God's actions. God loves those who do not love him. God forgives those who offend against him. We are to do the same.
Yet one more thing is true. God's commands are an expression of God's grace because, in the end, they are for our own good. God knows what causes human life to flourish–and what causes it to wither. Those who have wrestled seriously with the issue of forgiveness usually come to realize that forgiveness is necessary for our own well-being. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but in the end we are the ones who get the heartburn from eating the ashes of past resentments.
Failure to forgive doesn't just destroy others; it can destroy us. We also saw that in Lancaster County.