Redemption should always be goal of forgiveness
Like many of you, I have followed various news stories about the horrible mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio a few weeks ago. One story that stood out to me was about one of the injured survivors of the shooting in El Paso, Octavio Ramiro Lizarde, who said he hopes his faith will allow him to forgive.
I don’t know what Mr. Lizarde’s faith is, but it got me thinking about my own faith as a Christian. How does Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness apply to this type of situation? When we’ve been offended in a minor way by someone’s words or actions, it’s important to routinely forgive. But when the offense is a serious wrong, are we to offer forgiveness, as Mr. Lizarde hopes he can do?
It is important to recognize that there are two dimensions to forgiveness. The first dimension has an internal component. You may have feelings of bitterness, anger and a desire for revenge against the person that wronged you. In this sense, you must forgive and release those feelings. Holding onto these emotions has the power to consume all aspects of our lives and destroy our relationship with God and others. In this sense, we must forgive, although it might not be easy. The more serious the hurt, 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 will continue to hurt by your unwillingness to forgive.
But there is a second dimension to forgiveness that has an external component, which is extending mercy to those who have wronged us. What is important to remember with this dimension of forgiveness is that it may not actually be in the best interest of the wrongdoers if we extend mercy too quickly. The person who wronged you needs time to wrestle with the hurt they have caused. This is part of their redemptive process, and for Christians, redemption should always be the goal. Yes, Jesus tells us to forgive, but the true goal of forgiveness is redemption of the other person.
The first step in reaching the goal of redemption is repentance. The New Testament calls people to repentance so they may receive forgiveness. When it comes to repentance there are four basic components:
■ Awareness of the wrong done
■ Regret for the pain and harm caused
■ Confession and request for forgiveness
■ Restoration and change or a real effort to avoid committing the wrong again
After a person truly repents, then it is appropriate to show mercy toward the wrongdoer. But offering mercy before a person truly understands this can diminish the seriousness of their offense.
You see this sometimes with domestic abuse. After an abuser beats their spouse, they apologize and say it won’t happen again. The spouse takes them back, often, if the abused is a Christian, believing that this is what Christians are supposed to do. However, in many cases the abuse happens again. The cycle of violence, remorse, and mercy develops a pattern. That’s what can happen when mercy is extended when it should not have been.
In general, we should not extend the gift of mercy before the effort of repentance happens. There are exceptions to that 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, Jesus cried out to God, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This unbelievable act of mercy would affect those who heard his prayer for the rest of their lives. Even now, 2,000 years later, we look at Jesus’ actions and it moves us to repentance.
The practice of offering mercy and kindness to those who don’t deserve it, and the power this has to change others, is a primary teaching of Jesus. Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We are called to forgive because we have been forgiven.
The Rev. Eric Yeakel is senior pastor of Asbury Church, a United Methodist Church in South Whitehall Township. www.asburylv.org