T WAS A BEAUTIFUL evening. Mark Brewster, 20 years old, and Debbie Cuevas, 16, were sitting in Mark's 78 Thunderbird just up from the river in Madisonville, Louisiana, enjoying their milk shakes. They'd been dating for eight months and were engaged in quiet conversation when two men approached their car and stuck guns to their heads. One of the men got in on Mark's side behind the steering wheel and pushed Mark into the center spot on the front bench seat. The other man climbed in the backseat and put his arm around Debbie's neck and nestled a sawed-off shotgun against her cheek.
The lead man, Robert Willie, said: "We're escapees from Angola Prison [Louisiana]. We've killed before and we'll kill again. Just do what we say, and everything will be all right." After driving for a few miles they stuffed Mark in the trunk of the car, and then Robert Willie raped Debbie on the backseat. They drove to a deserted spot and took Mark out of the car. Debbie heard a gunshot, and they returned without him.
They drove all of Friday night, Saturday, and Saturday night to different states and back again. In the process Robert Willie raped Debbie again, and the other man, Joe Vaccaro, also raped her. The pair picked up another man, who finally convinced them to let Debbie go free.
Robert and Joe were captured and sentenced--Joe to life imprisonment and Robert the death penalty. Debbie was called to testify at their various trials.
The sentencing of the men brought a certain kind of closure to Debbie, but her biggest struggle was only just beginning. She began to have terrible nightmares and would often wake up screaming and in a cold sweat. She knew she should forgive Robert Willie, but how could she? He was totally unrepentant and had openly mocked her at his trial. When the prosecutors asked her to describe the rape scene in detail, Willie kept smacking his lips and grinning, until he made the judge so furious that he threatened to have his mouth taped shut if he did not shut up.
How do you forgive someone like that?
Struggle Over Forgiveness
All of us struggle with issues of forgiveness. There are two parts to forgiveness: the relational and the legal. Relationally, forgiveness is the giving up of any resentments that we have toward the other person. It's releasing our anger, our rage, our bitterness. It's treating the other person as if they hadn't wronged us in the first place. This is why forgiveness is so difficult. We have been wronged. We have been hurt. Injustice has taken place.
Is forgiveness always unconditional? Am I always supposed to forgive the other person? And what happens to my salvation if I want to forgive, but can't?
There are Bible texts that suggest that some types of forgiveness are conditional. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).* In the Lord's Prayer we say to God: "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Matt. 6:12, KJV).
It seems that God is saying that His forgiveness is conditional on us confessing our sins, and forgiving anyone who might have sinned against us. If this is the case, then I doubt anyone could be saved. How can an unconverted person have the strength to put aside all resentments and bitterness as a condition to salvation?
The next passage presents a different picture: "Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity" (Col. 3:13, 14).
Notice that we are to forgive whatever grievances we might have against others. No limits are stated, no conditions given. We are to forgive in the same way that God forgives. If God only forgives when we confess, then we do not have to forgive unless the person who hurt us asks for forgiveness. Is this forgiving as Christ forgives? Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (tenth edition) defines forgiveness as "to cease to feel resentment against"; "to give up resentment of or claim to requital."
Does God hold resentment against us if we do not confess our sins? Does God have any bitterness toward us? No.
This dilemma occurs because there are two parts to forgiveness. What we have are two moral imperatives that are in opposition to each other. On the one hand, we have the demands of responsibility, justice, and fairness. On the other hand, we have the demands of empathy, compassion, and mercy. We are afraid that if we extend mercy, it will seem that we condone what has happened. If we come down on the side of justice and fairness, it will seem that we are heartless, cold, and unfeeling.
How Jesus Forgave
The two sides to forgiveness are the relational and the legal. We are always to forgive the relational hurt, but the legal side may or not be forgiven. For example, you own a store that extends credit to people. There are 10,000 people who owe you money. You are not obligated, even as a Christian, to forgive them all their debts. You may if you want to, or can afford to. But it's not a moral imperative. If someone steals your car, your forgiveness of their theft does not mean they get to keep the car.
Jesus shows us what it means to forgive relationally. He was unfairly arrested. He was condemned to death in an illegal trial. He was tortured by Roman soldiers under the command of Pilate. His closest friends deserted Him. He stood alone.
Pilate condemned Him to one of the cruelest deaths ever devised by humans: slow suffocation by being nailed to a cross by His hands so that He could not breathe easily. We find Him, on a Friday afternoon, enduring this terrible agony. Around Him His own religious leaders are mocking Him, telling Him to prove that He is the Messiah by coming down from the cross.
Would you want to forgive under those circumstances? Jesus utters these wonderful words: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).
Was Jesus asking God to spare these people punishment? Was He condoning their treatment of Him? Was He saying that they were innocent? No! Jesus was saying: "I hold no resentment against any of you for what you are doing to Me today. I am not bitter. I am not looking for revenge."
We could excuse Jesus if He felt angry and bitter. Anyone who suffers injustice should have feelings of outrage. But what do we do with those feelings? Do we let what the other person has done determine how we feel, what our emotions will be? Not one has ever been made happy by the emotions of resentment and bitterness. This is the message that Jesus is
driving home on the cross.
But there is another side to forgiveness, the legal side. Debts must still be paid. Those who helped put Jesus to death were guilty of murder, and there is a penalty for murder. But even on the legal side the penalty can be waived because of what Jesus did for us on the cross.
God forgave us legally on the cross: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus" (Rom. 3:23, 24). The word "justified" is a legal word used in the law courts of the Roman Empire when a person was declared innocent. Jesus' death became the substitute for the death we deserve. "For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died" (2 Cor. 5:14).
Now what does this have to do with the Lord's Prayer and confessing sins before God will forgive us? God forgave everyone at the cross. But we have to accept that forgiveness because God wants only people in His kingdom who are willing to forgive as He has forgiven.
Forgiveness Is Costly
Refusing to forgive is not a crime of such magnitude that it cannot be forgiven; God forgives the unmerciful also. The problem is that so long as we are unmerciful we refuse to enter again into the relationship with God and we are unable to accept our acceptance.
Remember that repentance is not a cause of God's forgiveness. Jesus forgave the soldiers when they had not repented. He forgave them relationally, although legally they were not forgiven until they accepted what God had done for them on the cross.
Forgiveness is extremely costly. It means acting toward the other person as if the problem had never existed in the first place. God's forgiveness is offered to us so that no matter what our sin, we are always free to come again into the relationship with Him. But how can we be in this relationship with God if our hearts are filled with a desire for revenge upon those whom God has also forgiven? "If anyone says, 'I love God,' yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen"
(1 John 4:20).
Forgiveness is a divine act. How else can I let go of the hurt, anger, resentment, and pain that I have received? No payment can atone--how many mink coats must a husband bring his wife to show sorrow for his affair? There is no payment that can be attached to a relational debt.
Giving Up Being a Victim
Forgiveness is a choice. If I refuse to forgive, then I am under the power of another person. I am letting that other person decide how I will feel. But with forgiveness I am in the driver's seat. I no longer need to be held captive by anyone.
But what happens if I want to forgive but can't? Forgiveness is a process. It takes time. God does not judge us on how well we have forgiven, but whether we want to forgive. He takes the desire for the deed. Forgiveness frees us to become whole and healthy.
Debbie Cuevas told her story about her experience with Robert Willie in a book called Forgiving the Dead Man Walking, in which she described her struggle with forgiveness. She discovered that much of her suppressed anger and resentment had been directed at God. Where was God when she was raped? Where was God when her boyfriend Mark was shot?
Debbie began to go back to church. She opened her heart to the gospel of grace, to how God forgives us when we do not deserve it. She quotes from Lewis Smedes' book Forgive and Forget: "If we say monsters are beyond forgiving, we give them a power they should never have. Monsters who are too evil to be forgiven get a stranglehold on their victims; they can sentence their victims to a lifetime of unhealed pain. If they are unforgivable monsters, they are given power to keep their evil alive in the hearts of those who suffered most" (p. 248).
Then Debbie writes: "I couldn't begin to articulate it at the time, but I understood that truth even before Robert Willie was executed. I knew I had to forgive him--not for his sake, but for mine. Until I did, there was no escaping the hold his evil had on my life. . . . The refusal to forgive him always meant that I hold on to all my Robert Willie-related stuff--my pain, my shame, my self-pity. That's what I gave up in forgiving him. And it wasn't until I did that real healing could even begin. I was the one who gained."
With God's help we can forgive and be healed of our emotional pain.
J. David Newman is the senior pastor of the New Hope Seventh-day Adventist Church in Burtonsville, Maryland.