By the time you read this, the heart-breaking story of a young man shooting a small group of black Christians during their prayer meeting in a church in Charleston will be old news. For most of us, everyday life will have carried on as normal- getting up, going to work, making dinner, doing the washing, watching TV, going to church (without fear of a shooting most likely). But for the families and friends of those shot that terrible day, life looks different now.
They have every right to be angry, to curse the one who murdered their mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter or friend. They could hate, could pour out words of despair and destruction in retaliation for what was so painfully taken from them. And yet the sound that has come from that community has been remarkable. Not words of hate but words of love. Not demands for justice and retribution but grace and forgiveness. There has been a powerful acknowledgement of the pain and suffering caused, but in the same breath mercy and grace have flowed.
It is a true reflection of the heart of God and is a powerful witness to His command to ‘…forgive and you will be forgiven.’ (Luke 6:37)
Forgiveness is part of God’s heart towards us. It’s in His nature to forgive. His desire, in fact, His commandment, is that we forgive also. It’s a clear direction, clear instruction, but is it easy? No. Is it right? Yes, and not just because Jesus said so. It’s right because there is a divine power in releasing forgiveness that not only heals us, but liberates us from the bonds of bitterness and anger.
This is why without forgiveness, true freedom is impossible to attain. Unforgiveness opens a doorway for bitterness, anger, regret, pain and hatred to take up residence in our hearts and begin to eat us up from the inside out, like a parasite. It destroys our ability to trust, to move on and in so doing we stay trapped in the very pain and hurt that we want to be free from.
Forgiveness is the mechanism whereby we say: ‘It’s not okay what you did, but the judgement of your behaviour belongs to God, not to me.’ Forgiveness fully accepts and acknowledges the hurt and pain that has been caused; it does not belittle it, nor does it justify the behaviour of those who have hurt us.
You see, when someone sins against us, it is a debt but all sin is against God. So when we choose to forgive, we are transferring the debt of sin from our ‘accounts ledger’ to God’s, leaving the judging for Him to do. Forgiveness equals freedom from a burden that is not ours to carry.
Romans 12:17-19 says: ‘Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.” (The Message)
Forgiveness starts with a decision; but it is more than simply deciding. Forgiveness is a choice to begin a process that may take time. Forgiveness rarely comes from feelings. In fact, our feelings will often work against us during the process of forgiveness.
Our feelings may tell us that forgiving is weak; that there is a kind of protective power in the anger and resentment towards a person; that somehow our bitterness against them keeps us separate and protected from them. In fact, the very opposite is true; our unforgiveness actually ties us to that person or situation, spiritually and emotionally. Forgiveness is little to do with offering freedom to the perpetrator instead forgiveness is everything to do with freedom in our own hearts and souls.
And so, when the world hears the sound of forgiveness flowing from a community that has every right to anger, the sound of love from hearts that have every right to hate, it creates a ripple effect beyond the immediate. Their response carries a message that the world needs to hear. A message we all need to hear. Their message is powerful in its simplicity; love always wins.
In the face of the ultimate act of violence and terror, we have a choice to make. We choose love over hate. We choose life over death. We choose forgiveness over anger. We choose right over wrong.