With the recent shootings in California it’s natural people ask me, someone who writes about forgiveness, these kinds of questions: “How can you suggest forgiveness is still an option for the survivors of this horrific act?. In the midst of all of this, how can we talk about being forgiving people, particularly toward killers?” Trust me, I understand and I’m not suggesting forgiveness should be our first reaction but eventually, at some level, we have to get there. Yes, Grieving, coming to to terms with our pain , and making sure we are safe, whatever that means for each of us, is our first priority. Yet we must understand forgiveness is not the acceptance of bad things as if we don’t matter, it’s a way to free ourselves from being trapped by evil acts. How can we eventually get to a place where we can consider forgiveness a path we need to follow after experiencing such acts of terror? Let me try to answer that question.
First, we have to understand forgiveness is not something we naturally embrace. It takes work to be forgiving because our natural response to being hurt is to strike back. It takes God’s grace to be a forgiving person. This happens for a number of reasons, but the root of this reaction is our desire for justice. When we or someone we care about has been treated unjustly it stirs up strong emotions demanding satisfaction. While being angry about unjust behavior is acceptable, how we respond has to be tempered with grace. In fact, feeling angry toward unjust acts demonstrates our connection to God’s revelation of justice. Jesus himself became angry at unjust acts. In Mark 11:15 Jesus is angry with the systematized style of worship emerging in the temple during his life. He knew those profiting from the system were acting unjustly toward God and other Jewish worshipers. Jesus turned over the tables of the money changers and rebuked them for their unjust behaviors:
“Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
Jesus shows anger at the Jews who kept the law rather than living the law which demands helping those in need. They ignored the heart of the law using it to support their unjust behaviors. We read in Mark 3:4-6 the following example:
“Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”
When someone hurts us or those we care about we get angry. Too often people think being a forgiving person means giving up anger. Anger, when directed at unjust acts is one way we reflect the image of God. He places in our hearts a rudimentary understanding and desire for justice. As our faith matures we come to understand the nature of justice and as we experience its absence it bothers us. The desire for justice is part of the Christian experience of knowing a just God. We seek justice because being just reflects the Holy Spirit working in us. Here are a few examples regarding God’s desire for us to be just:
“Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
“Happy are those who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times.” (Psalm 106:3)
Our desire for justice and our anger toward what is unjust is part of who we are. Yet, we must be careful when seeking justice. Like all the sentiments and feelings in our heart, our sense of justice is distorted. Just as sin distorts our understanding of love it also distorts our understanding of justice. That’s why we need forgiveness. Forgiveness gives our imperfect sense of justice a chance to be tempered through a grace filled act initiated by God. We must allow God to administer justice while we embrace forgiveness. Because we are finite creatures we can only understand justice from a finite perspective. Only God understands perfect justice and perfect mercy. God is all powerful, all knowing, and all loving. He is not trapped by being insufficiently resourceful, limited in knowledge, and conditionally loving. We are limited in all these ways and therefore cannot perfectly execute justice or show perfect mercy. Only God can be truly merciful and just at the same time. We often seek revenge masked as justice. This is why scripture teaches us: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:9).
If we need to avoid vengeance and find other ways to cope with feelings of anger, what can we do? We can forgive! Anger is an emotion and when we’re treated unjustly it rises up in us as the sun in the eastern sky. Acting on these feelings can be a mistake because we don’t fully understand why someone did what they did nor can we perfectly love the one who committed the action that hurt us. Perfect love and knowledge is required to learn the motives and reasons behind someone’s hurtful acts. Perfect love motivates us to care enough to understand the pain and sin people carry around in their hearts causing them to act in unjust ways. Perfect love and knowledge is able to explore the imperfect causes behind someone’s hurtful actions and inflames the desire to help them heal from whatever is affecting them. Only God can act in such a perfect way. But God asks us to respond in a forgiving way. This may not be our immediate response, but if we can extend forgiveness we can begin to reverse the evil consuming the world with each unjust act inflicted upon one another.
By no means am I saying the evil acts of the mass shootings we’ve experienced over the past few years are justified. I am not suggesting God doesn’t condemn evil acts. I am merely saying we can get lost in the desert of anger, frustration, and pain if we attempt to fully understand and justly act on our own in a manner we believe meets the criteria of divine satisfaction. Our immediate need is to mourn our loss, memorialize the good souls we’ve lost, and heal. To accomplish the healing and to keep from being trapped in a cycle of pain and hurt we need to find a way to trust God will act in an eternal and just way. Forgiveness is not a weak response, it’s a response of strength in which we say “No!” to the hate and evil it wants to embed in our hearts.