In 2006, a gunman went into a small Amish school in Pennsylvania. Within minutes he killed 5 young girls and critically wounded another 5. The shooter then killed himself before police could intervene. What happened next stunned the nation: The Amish community immediately forgave the shooter. That very day they went to the shooter’s wife and parents to be with them, to mourn with them, and to say that they forgave them. A few days later, many from the Amish community attended the burial of the shooter. They insisted that forgiveness was the only way forward.
A similar event happened in Charleston in 2015. A gunman with racist motivations entered a prayer service at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and killed nine people. The survivors and family members of the victims forgave him, drawing praise from around the world. Even more recently in Egypt, after two ISIS suicide bombers killed 47 people at two separate Coptic churches on Palm Sunday, the survivors insisted on forgiving their attackers. All of Egypt was stunned.
What unites all of these tragic stories is the response they received from the Christian community: not threats of revenge, but the offer of forgiveness. Forgiveness is at the very heart of Christianity, a practice that unites Christians from different backgrounds and countries. Yet for many today, forgiveness seems a strange or even foolish decision to make in an unforgiving world. Before we talk about what forgiveness is, let’s look at why Christians are all about forgiveness.
Being honest about our brokenness
In order to understand why it is so important, we have to see the problem that Christianity says the world has: sin. Yes, that is not a popular word today, but if you give it a chance, it can actually explain so much. Christianity demands that we all be honest and recognize that we hurt and do evil things toward our fellow human beings more than we want to admit. See if you recognize any of the behavior here. Do you do any of it—even in small ways? Do you know people who do?
- Lying, cheating, stealing, and then laughing at people when we don’t get caught.
- Not caring about others—even killing each other over petty things.
- Abusing God’s beautiful creation, the earth, for our own gain.
- Neglecting people who are poor and needy.
- Ultimately, caring only for ourselves.
Christianity says that all of this evil comes out of our hearts—we are broken deep down inside. What’s more, it’s a pattern—a disease—that we are stuck in and we can’t free ourselves from.
Think of it this way: you are in an art gallery in front of an amazing but fragile work—an incredible chalk sketching on a chalkboard. But there’s this one tiny detail where you think you could improve things—you think you could do better than the artist…so you start to shade and erase things on the chalkboard. Yet the more you work, the worse and worse you make things. What is that artist is going to do? Of course, they could demand that you fix it, but the more you work, the more you realize that you will never be able to fix it yourself. You created this mess, and even your best efforts are only making things worse. This is a hard thing to admit, but it is at the heart of the Christian message: we are all sinful and broken people who can’t free ourselves from evil inside.
The gift of God
So, back to the art gallery. What is the artist going to do? One option would be just arrest you for destruction of property and throw away the piece of art. Yet instead this artist refuses to punish you and insists upon repairing the artwork himself. After all, he is the only one who can fix the mess you have made. It will cost him countless hours of work, but he does it anyway.
That is a rough analogy, but it gets at what Christians think God has done for us. Instead of demanding that we fix ourselves, or throwing us into an eternal jail (hell), God came to seek us out and forgive us through his son, Jesus Christ. In dying on the cross, Jesus Christ took upon himself our sinful brokenness, absorbing it and destroying it when he was raised on the third day from the tomb. Instead of being stuck in our sin and its effects, we are set free, recreated through Jesus’ forgiveness. This is what Christians call grace: God seeks us out in the middle of our evil brokenness to forgive and heal us. The Apostle Paul put it this way: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).
Forgiveness is not something that is ever deserved or earned, because we are the problem in the first place. Instead, Christians insist that God forgives us through Jesus Christ without charge. And that is what makes Christians so big on forgiving: the more we recognize the wrong we have done, the sins we have committed, the evil inside, the more incredible it is that God has forgiven us completely.
Back to the artist one last time: now imagine that after the artist recreated the work of art that you destroyed, instead of returning it to the art gallery, he gave it to you as a personal gift. How incredible would that be? Could you ever keep such an amazing thing just to yourself? Probably not; you would likely tell everyone you knew!
That is exactly why passing on the forgiveness that one receives from God is at the center of Christianity: it is just too incredible to keep to yourself. In the prayer that he taught to his disciples, often called the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught his followers to constantly return to these words: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us” (Matthew 6). Another part of the Bible echoes this idea when it says, “Forgive as the Lord has forgiven you” (Col. 3). Being forgiven by God through Jesus Christ sets us free to forgive one another.
Forgiveness was Jesus’ way of life
Jesus did not just talk about forgiveness—he also lived forgiveness. There is no greater moment to see forgiveness than when Jesus was on the cross, dying. He had been unjustly arrested, condemned in a rigged trial, sentenced to die by an inept official, been mocked and abused by soldiers, and hung dying upon an instrument of torturous execution. And yet even then, in his darkest and most painful moment, he spoke these words: “Father, forgive them…” (Luke 23:34).
This event had meaning beyond the soldiers and officials involved in the execution. Jesus’ own words show that he believed his death would result in forgiveness for all of us broken, twisted people—that we would have peace with God again because Jesus died and came back to life.
For people who believe this, this is really the main thing that makes it possible for Christians to forgive other people at all. It’s the emotional fuel behind the process, the conviction that says, “Hey, God has forgiven me for so much, and so now I’m going to forgive him/her for this thing too.” Forgiving because you know it’s the right thing to do is hard; forgiving because you know that God has forgiven you—well, that’s a little easier.
Now that we have seen why forgiveness is at the heart of Christianity, we are in a better position to understand what forgiveness is, and what it is not.
Never ignoring the wrong
Some people say that forgiveness means we have to ignore wrongdoing. They see forgiveness as sweeping evil under the rug. For Christians, forgiveness actually begins with the opposite action: condemning the wrong that was done. To truly forgive, we first have to acknowledge the wrong that was done to us or to others.
In doing this we are naming it as an evil thing—as sin—and as something that has to be condemned and dealt with. Forgiveness allows us to be honest about our pain; we don’t have to ignore it. It is only in recognizing it that we can escape dwelling on it forever.
Not a loss of all consequences
Sometimes people think they can’t forgive because it will remove all the earthly consequences of a wrong. But actually, that is not what forgiveness does. It is impossible to undo the consequences of our actions on earth, both in the past and into the future. Cheating on your spouse breaks trust; murdering someone takes their life; lying to someone robs them of the truth and hurts your character. To forgive means that we no longer hold onto our right to hurt our wrongdoer or seek revenge against them. It is letting go of our ideas of how to get even. It is entrusting ourselves, and the other person, to God.
Forgiveness is not easy
As we noted above, God forgives us freely in Jesus Christ and calls us to freely forgive others. Yet we have to remember that we are broken and imperfect people. For us, our forgiveness for others will not always be as immediate as God’s is for us. Instead of being a one-time thing, for most people forgiveness is often an ongoing process of prayer and faith. We have to keep on forgiving our wrongdoer in our hearts and minds long after we have spoken the words “I forgive you” to their face. Miroslav Volf is a Christian thinker who has written a lot about forgiveness. In this video, he shares some of his own story and explains the process of forgiving others pretty well:
If You’re Skeptical
Of course we live in an unforgiving world, and sometimes it might be hard to see how forgiveness makes sense. Even people who seriously follow Jesus Christ struggle with this one. If it helps to look at forgiveness from another angle, there has been some interesting research done on forgiveness by psychologists lately. They’ve found it helps mental health by reducing depression, anxiety, and not surprisingly, anger. It also has pronounced positive effects on physical health: better sleep, less fatigue, and more. If you have a hard time taking Jesus at his word, then think also about the practical reasons to give forgiveness a chance.
Forgiving in an Unforgiving World
Let’s be honest—we all need forgiveness because we all do wrongs that we can’t undo. At times, we say things that hurt, we are careless in our actions, we are malicious with our intentions. To save our relationships, to have peace, we have to admit our mistakes and ask to be forgiven.
It’s probably getting harder to be forgiving. In our polarized age, we find it easier to attack others from behind the anonymity that our online world provides. Yet ultimately the path of vengeance is a dead end—it will only make us more isolated, more angry, and more stingy in all we do. Revenge is a circle that is unending—it is a path to death.
We need to forgive more, for that is what makes us all more human again. Forgiving allows us to condemn the wrongs and evil of this world without adding more wrongs to them in our response. Forgiving allows us to move past our anger and pain. Forgiving gives the person who did wrong the opportunity—whether or not they take it—to be restored to who they were meant to be. Forgiving keeps us from being defined by our worst moments or most regrettable mistakes.
What if you are laughed at, mocked, or ignored when you forgive someone? Was there any point? There certainly is for you, because you’re no longer holding a grudge. In some cases, the person you forgave might also have a change of heart later and realize they appreciated it.
It is only forgiveness that sets us on the path to a life filled with joy. Remember the family of that gunman in Pennsylvania? Through forgiveness, the shooter’s mother has now become close family friends with the Amish people who were affected. Even in the midst of the worst, forgiveness brings hope and healing.
“I forgive you”
These are some of the most powerful words we can speak to another human being. Christians proclaim that these are the very words that God speaks to us through his Son Jesus Christ. He forgives freely so that we can now be the freely forgiving people this world so desperately needs.