A second look at forgiveness

Revisiting the aftermath of last year's shootings in an Amish community.

We're often drawn to starting points. Last October, one in particular caught the world by surprise. It began when the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa., forgave Charles Roberts and his family for the heinous crime he committed when he attacked a schoolhouse in that Lancaster County village.

As the shocking news spread, a grandfather of one of the children Roberts had killed was already reminding relatives in the community, "We must not think evil of this man." A short time later, another community member commented, "I don't think anybody here wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts."

It wasn't a matter of hours or days before there was forgiveness, as remarkable as that would have been, but it came immediately, as though it had no starting point – emanating from the Amish people's deep and unwavering love for another. A powerful, merciful love had already filled their hearts.

There's a lesson so profound it deserves another look.

When we're the ones who are hurt or wronged, we struggle with the demand for justice. But often there's an equally strong need for release from lingering cycles of torment over what has been done to us, so we can move forward with our lives. While forgiveness enables people to let go of past offenses, it isn't always easy. What if the wrong done is so bad, or has happened so frequently, that it seems the human heart just isn't strong enough or big enough to forgive?

Jesus' lesson is that forgiveness is without limits or conditions (see Matt. 18:21, 22). It isn't based on the size of an offense. Or the number of offenses. Or who the perpetrator is. Or public opinion. Or whether we think forgiveness is deserved.

Forgiveness has a spiritual foundation. As we draw closer to its source – to the God who is unvarying Love itself – forgiving becomes a natural impulse. Perhaps to the outright disbelief of the world, a person's compassion becomes broader, grows stronger, as he or she realizes the boundless love that God is always expressing in us and to us as His creation. In the words of the Monitor's founder, Mary Baker Eddy, "God expresses in man the infinite idea forever developing itself, broadening and rising higher and higher from a boundless basis" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," p. 258).

Forgiving doesn't mean letting the guilty party off the hook. Forgiveness isn't a substitute for justice or for whatever reformation may be needed to wipe away the ignorance or malice at the bottom of wrongdoing. Much to the contrary, reformation, justice, and forgiveness work together to change our own lives as forgivers, from focusing on anger, hurt, or retaliation to the all-good God who is unconditional Love.

Where to begin? How about with Jesus' instruction to love unconditionally? He says, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (Matt. 5:44). Hard to imagine how to do that without forgiving; it's that central to Christian living.

No one says loving enemies is easy. Some acts seem unpardonable. The point is, God has given us what it takes to forgive and to wash away hurt, as one Amish community showed the world. It helps to remember Jesus' conclusion about what makes this possible and so important: "That ye may be the children of your Father ..."

That's what forgiveness is about. It's about practicing what brings all of us closer to living as the sons and daughters of God, of Love, that we truly are. By being more loving, supporting justice and reformation, and refusing to accept any justification for withholding forgiveness, we take incredibly important steps of progress in that direction.

That's a lesson we should never forget.

Adapted from an editorial in the Christian Science Sentinel.

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