On June 17, 2015, a senseless mass shooting occurred at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. During a prayer meeting at this church, a young Caucasian man, Dylann Roof, took the lives of nine innocent African Americans, including the senior pastor, state Senator Clementa Pinckney.
Police arrested Roof the following day in North Carolina, and he later confessed to the murders, saying he had intended to start a race riot. The lone survivor of the shooting explained how the prayer group openly welcomed the young man into their prayer meeting that night. Genuine love has no limitations or prejudice.
Another mass shooting—our nation was shocked, confused, and angered again. In the midst of this tragedy, the church and family members of the victims expressed forgiveness on a scale that few of us have known, or perhaps thought possible. Children of a slain mother said to Roof at his arraignment, “You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you, may God have mercy on your soul. I forgive you.” Only a heart transformed by God’s love could forgive like this—the depths of God’s mercy and grace is beyond words.
Forgiveness is a Choice We Must Make
Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling. Forgiveness doesn’t excuse the perpetrator of the wrong they have done, but forgiveness releases you from a prison of unforgiveness and bitterness. When you choose to forgive those who have wronged you, you free yourself from judgment and enable God’s grace to operate in your life unhindered.
The Charleston families and church of the victims understand forgiveness is foundational to the Christian faith. On the cross, suffering a horrific death, Jesus forgave those who crucified him, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 NLT). The religious leaders and soldiers were ignorant, and from their ignorance, they killed Jesus.
God demonstrates the depth of his love for us through forgiveness—He expects us to do the same toward others who wrong us. Had the Charleston families responded in hate, a race riot could have erupted in our nation. Mercy triumphs over judgement. Their choice to forgive, in the midst of their grief and loss, freed them from the detrimental effects of bitterness. Further, they gave us an example of love and forgiveness that is profound, one that demonstrates the depths of the mercy and forgiveness of God. We have no room for hate; we must live in forgiveness.
Forgiveness is Essential
We should live and love through a filter of forgiveness. True love for others is expressed by extending forgiveness as a lifestyle. We are “truly free” when we choose to forgive—it is a choice—the feelings will eventually follow.
The Apostle John describes love as the primary attribute of God’s nature, “God is love … he who loves abides in God’s Love” (1 John 4:8 NKJV). However, we live in a fallen world, people will and do hurt us. Some intentionally, others unintentionally and often unknowingly. Sincerely loving others and abiding in God’s love hinges upon your ability to forgive others when they have wronged you. How you handle hurt and offenses by others is crucial to your life in God, personal wellness, and health. You will not realize the fullness of your future harboring unforgiveness toward others.
Jesus made a profound statement in Luke 17:1, “It is impossible that no offenses should come…” (NKJV). In the context of the passage, Jesus is explaining that others will hurt and offend us in life—our response is to forgive. The English word “offenses” derives from the Greek word skándalon, which can mean a “stumbling block” or a “trap.” Skándalon denotes the act of placing a trap in someone’s way or represents the bait stick of an old-fashioned mousetrap.
In the NT, skándalon describes entrapment used by the enemy. In the NT, as in the OT, the issue in skándalon is one’s relation to God. The skándalon is an obstacle to faith and hence a cause of falling and destruction. Jesus was describing to his followers in Luke 17:1 that obstacles to our faith and traps by the enemy will occur in this life.
How are traps of offense placed in front of you? Primarily through others who wrong you—the enemy will attempt to trap you (skándalon) through unforgiveness. When you hold onto unforgiveness, you have taken the “bait” of his trap, which is offense, and you are stuck. The only way out of his trap and the bondage it places you in is to forgive the offender sincerely.
Forgiveness Releases God’s Grace
And whenever you stand up to pray, if you have something against anyone, forgive so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your wrongdoings” (Mark 11:25 CEB).
Unforgiveness affects your relationship with God and hinders your prayers from being answered. Grace is restricted when unforgiveness is operative.
Paul explains in his writings that the law was our teacher to bring us into grace. Grace is a free gift that frees you from the just punishment of the law. Grace is a better way. When you choose not to forgive, you move from grace back into the law. Forgiveness is not optional for a Christian—it provides an avenue for the flow of God’s grace in your life.
Most people want grace, but when someone wrongs them, they want justice. They move from grace back into the law and the effects of the law of sowing and reaping come into play. If you sow grace and mercy, you reap grace and mercy. If you sow judgment, usually because of unforgiveness, you reap judgment. God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (Jam. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). Unforgiveness is related to pride; God opposes the proud. Grace is released to those who humble themselves, forgive others, and walk in God’s love, grace and mercy. Grace is a better way.
Your prayers will be more effective when prayed with a heart of forgiveness toward others. As you forgive others, you abide in the overflow of God’s marvelous grace and forgiveness. Time is not a healer; it merely masks the pain that many carry deep in their hearts. Healing begins with forgiving those who have hurt you. Your wellness and destiny depend on your ability to forgive others unconditionally.
Next week I’ll continue this important discussion, looking at the Way of Forgiveness.