I’m convinced that Christianity is different from all other religions.
I was reminded of this distinction when I read the cover story of the June 2016 issue of Christianity Today: “A Fragile Forgiveness” which gives a snapshot of the people who lost loved ones in the Charleston church shooting a year ago.
I’m not saying that people of other religions or of no religion at all can’t forgive. It’s just that they don’t have a reason to forgive. Society doesn’t blame anyone for holding grudges any more, and certain segments of society even look down on those who forgive as if that’s a weakness.
For example, take a look at the comments to a YouTube video about an African American who was falsely accused by a white police officer, went to prison, and came out with intent to get even—until he became a Christian, and until the repentant and punished former officer became his best friend. Here’s a small sampling:
- This man must not love and respect himself.
- Slave forgave his master
- He’s just thankful the cop didn’t murder him
- this black guy must be SETTING THIS WHITE GUY UP! AINT NO WAY IN HELL I’ll BE FRIENDS WITH THIS GUY.
- I swear I am ashamed of this stupid a[_ _] coon!
- The first thing I would’ve done is make that pig suffer. In a slow and torturous way
There are many, many more such comments.
The families of the Christians gunned down in church by a racist killer stand in sharp contrast.
They aren’t alone. Other believers have extended forgiveness to people in ways and at times that make their actions seem almost unbelievable. Here’s one such individual I wrote about a few years ago. It seems appropriate to reprise the article to illustrate what the love of Jesus Christ can do in a person’s life.
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I heard another story of incredible forgiveness today. A well-known Christian writer and speaker and apologist, it turns out, had a horrific childhood. His father was an alcoholic and in his between sober and drunk stages, was violent. His mother had a medical condition that necessitated the family bring in outside help. The man they hired began to sexually abuse this boy between the age of 6 to 13. When he finally worked up the courage to tell his mother, she didn’t believe him and whipped him for lying.
I’m referring to Josh McDowell, the author of Evidence That Demands a Verdict, and over a hundred other titles. This man who has been so vocal and passionate about the truth of God’s good news—His love and forgiveness—once considered Christianity worthless and identified himself as an agnostic.
Josh McDowell met Jesus Christ.
Apparently his radical change came because of a college paper. He set out to examine the historical evidence for Christianity in order to disprove it, but instead he found compelling proof of its veracity.
He embraced Christianity, was discipled by a pastor for six months, enrolled in Wheaton College, and eventually attended Talbot Theological Seminary here in SoCal.
But the key turning point in his life, he said, was when he forgave the man who abused him. His was not a secret “in the heart” forgiveness. He actually tracked the man down, went to his home, and told him that what he’d done was wrong and hurtful, but because of Josh’s new life in Christ, he forgave him.
Of all the powerful forgiveness stories I’ve heard–Christ forgiving His crucifiers, Stephen forgiving those who stoned him, Corrie ten Boom forgiving the Nazi concentration guard, Elizabeth Elliott forgiving the indigenous people who killed her husband and four other missionaries with him, Kent Whitaker who forgave the person who murdered his wife and son–this one ranks right up there toward the top.
In all honestly, apart from Christ, this kind of forgiveness seems next to impossible. It doesn’t even seem all that desirable. Our culture wires us to be much more inclined toward revenge than forgiveness. Maybe it’s more than our culture. It’s probably wired into our nature. We want pay back.
If the guilty person is remorseful, then forgiveness doesn’t seem quite so hard. But if they remain hardened and unrepentant, forgiveness seems like an unacceptable concession.
The thing is, it’s not our job to play judge. God is the One who is ready to judge, according to 1 Peter. He is the Judge who is right at the door according to James.
For us to step back and refuse to do what isn’t our job in the first place, helps us, and it doesn’t change the fact that God will take care of the other party—either by covering them with the blood of His Son or by meting out judgment at the end of the age.
Let me reiterate what Josh McDowell experienced. Forgiving the man who hurt him, and his parents for allowing it, removed a weight he’d been carrying. It freed him to love.
Paul identifies an unforgiving attitude as a scheme of the devil.
for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes. (2 Cor. 2:10b-11)
Wow! Part of Satan’s plan of attack has to do with taking advantage of our lack of forgiveness.
That alone is sobering enough, but of course Jesus also taught extensively on our need to forgive our brothers. Understanding our own forgiven state seems to have a residual effect–it turns us into forgivers.
It makes sense. When we get the immensity of what we’ve been forgiven, we understand how cheap and petty we are to hold something against someone else.
The person Jesus died for, I’m going to squeeze a little more? To accomplish what? If that person is redeemed by the blood of Christ, am I asking Christ to do more than die for his sins? If he is not redeemed, am I saying I can punish him more adequately than God can?
My lack of forgiveness accomplishes nothing, but its negative effects on my life don’t end. A lack of forgiveness calcifies and turns into bitterness, resentment, hatred. Those things eat at our souls.
Josh McDowell is living proof that forgiving others made a great deal of difference in his life. God saved him and taught him what he needed so that he could be free and could heal from the hurt of his childhood. It wasn’t instantaneous, and God continues to heal all these years later. He healed and He is healing. And forgiveness is at the center of it all.
For more about Josh McDowell’s story you might be interested in Undaunted:
For the first time, Josh fully reveals the dramatic spiritual transformation that occurred when he faced his past head-on and put everything entirely in God’s hands. It’s a story of overcoming shame, grief, and despair and embracing real love for the first time. It’s a tale of divine grace: when the worst that life can throw at you happens, you can come out on the other side with a faith that is full, free—and undaunted.