Forgiveness in the Bible is a prominent theme. Yet, it's not uncommon for Christians to have questions about forgiveness. The act of forgiving does not come easy for most of us. Our natural instinct is to recoil in self-protection when we've been injured. We don't naturally overflow with mercy, grace and understanding when we've been wronged.
On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush spoke to a grieving nation: "The pictures of airplanes flying into buildings, fires burning, huge, huge structures collapsing have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness and a quiet, unyielding anger. None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world." Many Americans felt the need to retaliate after the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001. And ever since then, U.S. forces have waged a world-wide war against the Islamic extremists who claimed responsibility. But not all Americans seek retribution to ease their pain. Phyllis Rodriguez is one mother who expresses forgiveness, not hate, toward those who killed her son on September 11, 2001.
Phyllis Rodriguez's son Greg died in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. He was a computer specialist working on the 103rd floor of the north tower. She recalls how she found out that something terrible had happened that Tuesday morning.
"On our answering machine was a message from Greg, our son, that said, 'There's been a terrible accident at the World Trade Center. I'm OK, call (his wife) Elizabeth. But Greg Rodriguez was not OK and neither were nearly 3,000 others. "I was just hoping, hoping that he had survived, and not allowing myself to admit the worst," recalled Rodriguez. That came soon enough when Greg Rodriguez was declared dead. And with it came his parents' conscious decision to make a difference.
"The main thing that we realized very early the morning of the 12th is that our government given its history, was going to do something military and violent in retaliation in the name of our son and that that wasn't going to do any good and we didn't support it." Phyllis Rodriguez and her husband Orlando released an open letter to then President George W. Bush. "It ended up being circulated around the country and around the world. It was part of the way that helped us cope with the loss," Rodriguez explained. The couple wanted no part of revenge. They opposed the death penalty for the man who became known as the 20th highjacker, Zacarias Moussaoui. Phyllis befriended Zacarias' mother, Aicha el-Wafi. "I felt that this woman has to be very, very courageous because her son is the most hated person probably at the moment and here she was standing up for her son," said Rodriguez. "We realized what we had in common was our common humanity. We were human beings. It is a very valuable part of my life and my healing."
Rodriguez says she is at peace knowing she will never see her son again, but is not at peace with the state of the world. That is why, she says, she is trying to make a difference.
Refusing to forgive is a sin. If we receive forgiveness from God, we must give it to others who hurt us. We cannot hold grudges or seek revenge. We are to trust God for justice and forgive the person who offended us. That does not mean we must forget the offense, however; usually that's beyond our power. Forgiveness means releasing the other from blame, leaving the event in God's hands, and moving on. We may resume a relationship with the person if we had one, or we may not if one did not exist before. Certainly, the victim of a crime has no obligation to become friends with the criminal. We leave it to the courts and to God to judge them.
What is forgiveness? The entire Bible points to Jesus Christ and his divine mission to save us from our sins. The Apostle Peter summed it up like this:
We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen-by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. (NIV)
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. (NIV)
The relatives of people slain inside the historic African American church in Charleston, S.C., earlier this week were able to speak directly to the accused gunman Friday at his first court appearance. One by one, those who chose to speak at a bond hearing did not turn to anger. Instead, while he remained impassive, they offered him forgiveness and said they were praying for his soul, even as they described the pain of their losses. "I forgive you," Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, said at the hearing, her voice breaking with emotion. "You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul." These families of the victims offered forgiveness to the man, who did not deserve it. Why were they so quick to forgive? The families were simply exercising a fundamental Christian virtue. In so doing, they possibly changed the South forever in the process as Confederate flags and symbols are removed from state buildings across the South.
When we suffer injustice, the human heart craves revenge, vindication and retaliation. These are also desires Christ came to save us from. Christians are commanded to respond to injustice with forgiveness. This principle is central to Jesus' teaching in the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." (Matt 6:12). Immediately after this prayer, Jesus tells his disciples, "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (Matthew 6:14-15)
Later in the Gospel of Matthew, Peter asks Jesus, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answers, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." (Matthew 18:21-22) In other words, you cannot forgive someone enough.
The swift forgiveness offered by the victims' families, as hard as that must have been, is what Christianity is all about.
Forgiveness is an extension of love. Christians extend forgiving love to those who have wronged them - including their enemies - because this is God's disposition toward them. God is love, and he calls his people to love. God forgives first and expects his people to do the same.
The grace of forgiveness, in turn, empowers forgiven people to forgive others. The irony, of course, is that the very act of Emanuel AME members welcoming a white man into their Bible study showed their deep orientation toward love, given that the AME denomination was birthed from white Christians committing unloving and unwelcoming acts against African-Americans in majority-white congregations.
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (NIV)
It is my prayer that all of us, here at All Saints, will continue to be open to and seeking forgiveness of others and ourselves. May Gods peace abide in and through you.
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