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One of the most gripping news stories of 2006 was the murderous assault on ten Amish girls at the West Nickel Mines School in Pennsylvania. Five of the girls died from their wounds, and the murderer, Charles Roberts, killed himself.

What was most dramatic about this senseless slaughter was the reaction of the Amish community. Dozens of Amish neighbors attended Charles Roberts’ funeral on October 7, 2006. They hugged the killer’s widow and other members of his family. Later, they donated money to the widow and her three children.

This demonstration of Christian forgiveness was inspired by Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44-45), and to forgive as we wish to be forgiven (Matthew 6:12). Their attitude was shaped by the command to forgive seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22) and by the words of Jesus on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Their refusal to retaliate or seek revenge came also from the teaching of Paul who wrote in Romans 12:19-21, “Never avenge yourselves but leave it to the wrath of God.” “To the contrary,” Paul continued, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” Their willingness to forgive moved the watching world as much as the tragedy itself.

Contrast this with a recent statement by presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to the effect that Iranians who harass American warships in the Persian Gulf should be prepared to see the gates of Hell. What relation does that statement have to the teaching of Jesus? I suspect that those who fear Huckabee will let his religion determine his thinking are, in reality, quite wrong. Would that true Christianity did influence his thinking!

Forgiveness, in a real sense, is refusing to harm someone who has harmed you. It is impossible to forget a major offense, but it is possible to do no harm in return. As my friend Rusty McLen says, “Forgiveness means I am going to trust God to deal with that person.”

Sadly, those who don’t believe in God are basically forced either to retaliate themselves, to somehow reconcile with the offender, or to ignore the offense (that is, if offense is such that the law won’t intervene on their behalf). They have no God to relieve or rescue them from the pain of rage, resentment, and recrimination.

From a Christian point of view, to forgive and forget is telling the devil, “I am not taking that hurt back. I am not giving you a foothold in my heart.” Forgiveness understands that what someone does to us is not the ultimate issue. What hatred, anger, and bitterness do to the human heart is the big issue.

“Hatred and anger are bonding emotions just like love,” McLen explains. “They form a chain that is attached to a stake of offense. That chain of bitter resentment limits your range of motion if it is wrapped around your neck. Forgiveness is cutting the chain as close to the neck as possible.”

Forgiving does not mean we won’t try to protect ourselves against further hurt, just as “forgetting“ an offense is not really the absence of memory. But forgiveness does recognize that, long-term, an unforgiving spirit within us typically creates more risk of further hurt than did the original source of harm. As someone has said, “Refusing to forgive is like taking poison and waiting for someone else to die.”

The Amish community suffered grievously from that unprovoked attack, but it understood the wisdom of Jesus. To the extent the Amish Christians internalized the teaching and example of Jesus, to forgive and comfort was the natural thing for them to do. As Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:9, "Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing."

Forgiveness is the only remedy for human history; it is a blessing to which Christians are called.

Comments (1)

A powerful essay, sir. Would that all Christians -- no, all humans -- felt the same. Because it does seem to be Christ's most human message.

Thank you for reminding us of that.

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