I am ashamed to admit this, but when I hear news stories about people forgiving others immediately after serious offenses, there’s a cynical part of me that judges them.
It happened again last month after the Charleston, South Carolina church shootings. Less than 24 hours after that horrible event, I was reading news reports describing how the victims’ family members had already offered forgiveness to shooter Dylann Roof.
How naïve! Are you kidding me? How can anyone possibly do that?
They couldn’t have even begun to process their grief, so any gesture of forgiveness at this point had to be premature. In order to truly forgive, you have to fully understand the nature and impact of the grievance. How could that possibly have happened in so short a time?
Sadly, there was a part of me that would not accept absolution offered this spontaneously, like it was quick or free.
Then, two days after the shooting, I heard the voice of a young girl from Charleston tearfully speaking words of forgiveness to the killer in the courtroom.
And I began to understand.
There was something about the innocence and urgency of her words that struck me. It was as though she had to get the forgiveness out, like she had no choice. In order for her to be whole again, to be free of the terrible weight of hatred and scorn, she had to forgive the shooter as quickly as possible! And so she did.
There was something about her tone that rung so true; it was so human. It was as though she was echoing the voice of God and imaging her Maker’s way-too-quick-to-forgive heart.
While we were yet sinners
Could it be God is that innocent and pure? That he is unable to hold anger and scorn and hatred toward others? That he’s prone to forgive just as quickly, so that he can remain whole?
If anyone has reason to withhold or delay forgiveness it’s God. Our sins, relative to God’s holiness and perfection, are far more heinous than any murderer’s. Yet God forgives. He forgives again and again. And all of his forgiving happens in the context of very fleeting human lifetimes. Our eternal God forgives human beings for serious sins within hours, days, months, years or decades. Relatively speaking, how is this any different than a young girl spontaneously forgiving a man who’s just murdered someone in her family?
Which makes me think that maybe quick forgiveness isn’t the enemy of long-term forgiveness at all. What if it’s a necessary first step to a deeper, more considered forgiveness?
Jesus once told Peter that he needed to forgive those who sin against him 70 times seven times. What if a few of those forgiving moments were meant to be experienced in relation to the same grievance – an early, childlike because-the-Bible tells-me-so forgiveness, followed by a two-months-later more considered forgiveness, then followed by a five-years-later, now fully resolved, final letting go?
The more I think about it, the more I believe that that young girl in Charleston had it right.
True forgiveness is always ridiculously unmerited, out of order and “too soon.” This is what grace is all about, isn’t it? While we were yet sinners Christ died for us!
From God’s perspective, no forgiveness comes too soon. He forgives us before we even have a chance to ask for it!