Pierce O’Farrill’s forgiveness of Aurora movie theater gunman James Holmes–within hours of Holmes shooting him–has us all thinking this month about what exactly we mean when we say that we forgive our enemies. As we shared in our previous post, Peacemaker Ministries’ Ken Sande commends four promises of forgiveness, while John Piper draws on three hundred year old wisdom to elucidate seven forgiveness principles. But we left off last time with the distinct sense that we were missing something very foundational.
The Scripture verses that come to mind are these:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. –Paul in Galatians 2:20 (NIV)
We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. –Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:20 (NIV)
And now a word from one of the truly remarkable contemporary voices on forgiveness, Rev. Chris Brauns, author of one of the truly remarkable contemporary books on forgiveness, Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds. In the aftermath of another of mass shooting tragedy, the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007, Rev. Brauns wrote wise words that remain at least as wise today. Let me quote at length while you simultaneously open a new browser window and order his book:
Automatic forgiveness on the part of Christians is common. From Oklahoma City to Columbine, some rush to forgive regardless of whether or not they were victims. And, some forgive even if the offender does not repent.
However, well intentioned, such automatic forgiveness is misguided. Not only is it inconsiderate of the families of victims, it also undermines a proper understanding of the justice of God and the integrity of grace.
Alternatively, Romans 12:17-21 summarizes three guidelines for a proper Christian response to evil. First, Paul admonishes his audience not to take revenge. He repeats this point three times (Romans 12:17, 19, 21). Virginia Tech victims cannot respond with vindictive hatred towards Cho Seung-Hui, his family, or others they believe are responsible. Revenge is not an option for Christians.
In a second guideline, Paul tells Christians to authentically love all people. “Let love be genuine . . . If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all (Romans 12:9,18).” Amish families exemplified genuine love when they offered financial assistance to the family of their daughters’ murderer. Overwhelmed by such love, the widow of the shooter, Marie Roberts responded, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world.” It would be an act of stunning beauty if Christian victims reached out lovingly to the family of Cho Seung-Hui.
But, the third guideline Paul offers is that Christians should, “Leave room for the wrath of God.” Indeed, this is why Paul argued that Christians should refrain from revenge. Christians can rest in the certain truth that God will accomplish perfect justice. Such a confidence in the justice of God guards Christians from the bitterness that poisons those who believe it is their job to retaliate.
Paul later shared with Timothy how he put this truth into practice. “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him . . . (2 Timothy 4:14-15a).” Paul does not say he forgave Alexander. Neither is he bitter. He trusts God for justice.
Baptist Press calls Pierce O’Farrill “a beacon of forgiveness.” No less a source than wikipedia defines a beacon as “an intentionally conspicuous device designed to attract attention to a specific location.”
If, as Paul notes in Galatians 2:20, it is no longer we who live, then have we not become intentionally conspicuous devices designed to attract attention to Christ Jesus? If, as Paul notes in 2 Corinthians 5:20, we are Christ’s ambassadors, then is not the forgiveness to which we are to attract attention the forgiveness of Christ? Which statement does that more fully, more Scripturally?
- “I forgive the man who shot me because I believe in Christ.”
- “I have prayed to God to forgive the man who shot me, and, as Christ commands, I stand ready to reconcile with my assailant at any time that he ask for my forgiveness.”
The fundamental principle of forgiveness, in other words–the principle preparatory to four promises, seven principles, and every feeling of pity, empathy or lack of anger we may feel toward those who wrong us–is that the most precious forgiveness to which we are to orient the world (and to which we are to continually re-orient ourselves) is Christ’s forgiveness, not our own. We are to join Jesus, Paul, and Stephen in praying publicly to God that he may forgive our enemies, and when we do so we are ambassadors not of our own reconciliation but of Christ’s. It is his alone to offer, and ours alone to publicly request.