Almost one year ago we were all rocked with the news that there had been another mass shooting. This time it was during a church’s Wednesday night Bible study, which seemed so unbelievable because we all were wondering if there was anywhere that was safe anymore. And what was always news coming to us from faraway places was now happening pretty close to home: Charleston.
Our state’s charming city famous for hospitality served as host for one of the most grisly crimes in recent memory. After sitting through an hour of Wednesday night Bible Study, a young man opened fire on 14 unsuspecting victims leaving nine dead at Emanuel A.M.E. Church.
What captured the attention of a watching world were the statements of forgiveness made by the victims’ families. “I forgive you,” said Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance. “You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. …You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”
Reflecting back on those words that garnered global acclaim as the first words spoken by a family member at the shooter’s bond hearing, Collier said she learned that forgiveness isn’t weak. Forgiveness is not a Christian duty done begrudgingly. Instead, she said, “Forgiveness is power.”
Do you believe that? Is there actually power in forgiveness? I believe forgiveness has the power to bring you freedom. I want to share four ways where learning to forgive has the power to give you freedom.
First of all, I believe you can experience freedom psychologically when you learn to forgive. Un-forgiveness inevitably plants seeds of bitterness and anger that only hurt you in the end. When you hold on to the wrongs that someone or something has caused you, those seeds of bitterness and anger tend to monopolize your thoughts. The writer of Proverbs has written, “For as he thinks within himself, so he is” (Prov. 23:5, NASB). Eventually those seeds of bitterness and anger take root, and you become an angry and bitter person. But there is psychological freedom when you can forgive someone who has done you wrong.
Second, there is physical freedom in forgiving. One New York Times reporter has indicated that, “Researchers have gathered a wealth of data lately suggesting that chronic anger is so damaging to the body that it ranks with—or even exceeds—cigarette smoking, obesity, and a high-fat diet as a powerful risk factor for early death.” By learning to forgive, the anger will not have its full effect on your body.
Third, forgiveness has the power to bring you relational freedom. CBS Evening News shared a story about Mary Johnson whose only son was murdered by a 16-year-old boy named Oshea Israel after an argument at a party. By the work of the Holy Spirit, Mary found away to forgive her son’s murderer and now, after serving time in prison, the young man lives next door to Mary. They have become close friends. “Un-forgiveness is like cancer,” Mary says. “It will eat you from the inside out. It’s not about that other person, me forgiving him does not diminish what he’s done. Yes, he murdered my son – but the forgiveness is for me. It’s for me.” Hatred writes people off, while forgiveness holds out hope. In Seeking The Kingdom, the authors write, “The one who treats us as our enemy today may become our brother or sister tomorrow. Jesus says to treat them today as our brother and sister.”
Finally, there is spiritual freedom when you learn to forgive. You cannot be filled with the Spirit, spiraling up into Christ’s likeness and be stubbornly unforgiving towards others. It cannot happen. Jesus was very straightforward about this. After teaching His disciples how to pray, he said, “But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions,” (Matt. 6:15, NASB). An ongoing relationship with God can become severely strained by a refusal to extend forgiveness to those who have inflicted harm. By forgiving others we find ourselves living as God would have us live.
Are you having trouble forgiving someone? Begin with prayer, both for the power to be able to forgive and for the person who you need to forgive. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian leader who suffered under the Nazis and was eventually executed, wrote, “This is the supreme demand. Through the medium of prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God.”
Jesus is our great example. John Stott wrote, “Jesus seems to have prayed for his tormentors actually while the iron spikes were being driven through his hands and feet; indeed, the imperfect tense [of the biblical account] suggests that he kept praying, kept repeating his entreaty, ‘Father forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ If the cruel torture of crucifixion could not silence our Lord’s prayer for his enemies, what pain, pride, prejudice, or sloth could justify the silencing of ours?”
Forgiveness is powerful. It holds the keys to freedom for you and your life. Who are you holding a grudge against? Start to forgive and find freedom today.
Minister of Discipleship