Forgiving Serious Offences

In 1984 Ruth Pelke was stabbed to death by four teenage girls. She was was a 78 year old Bible teacher. The four girls were arrested. Three got long prison sentences. But the ringleader Paula Cooper got death. At the time this felt right to Bill Pelke, Ruth’s grandson. But 18 months later he changed his mind. He had seen the tears of Paula’s grandfather when her sentence was read out. It made no sense that after one family had suffered so much, another should begin to suffer too. More than this, Bill said he knew that Ruth would not have wanted it.
Bill began to look for ways to turn things around. He started by meeting Paula face to face. He hugged her and forgave her.

Then he began to campaign for her death sentence to be reduced to a prison term. This was achieved, but Bill did not stop there. He desired to see Paula free and restored to a normal life. This was realized when Paula’s prison sentence was reduced for good behavior.
Many people will be amazed that Bill was able to go this far for the murderer of his grandmother. But Bill said “If you hang on to anger and the desire for revenge, eventually it becomes a cancer and it will destroy you” (for a fuller story see http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-23716713)
There are two sides to forgiveness (1) Releasing the offender (2) Releasing yourself. If you do not forgive, you become bound by bitterness, and bitterness is mental disease that will destroy you.
Bill responded well to the temptation to be bitter. But many who have lost loved ones to murder have lived with such hate for the murderers that they destroyed themselves. Some actually commit suicide years after the event; not due to the sorrow of losing a loved one, but because of bitterness towards both the offenders and God.
Sometimes forgiving serious offenders seems counter-intuitive. We think; ‘If I forgive, I’m letting them off the hook, or ‘If I forgive, they are taking no responsabillty, its like they did nothing wrong.’
Be careful of such thoughts, they are excuses to harbour hate and with time they will destroy you.
Now a question: It would appear that Paula Cooper acknowledged her wrong and was repentant, but what if someone is unrepentant? Can we still forgive them?
Here, Jesus is our example. The Romans and Jews that had him crucified were not repentant, but on the cross he prayed “Father forgive them.” He demonstrated forgiveness to the unrepentant. Besides this, Jesus said we are always to forgive. He said ‘If you do not forgive others their sins, your (Heavenly) Father will not forgive your sins’ (Matthew 6:15). That’s serious. But here I need make some clarifications.
First, forgiving is not the same as excusing. Forgiving is saying “You did wrong but I will hold no grudge against you. Excusing is saying ‘You did nothing wrong.‘ Usually the unrepentant person refuses to admit they have done wrong, so its important to make it clear that they are to blame before you forgive them. You still forgive them if they don’t accept the blame, but you don’t excuse them just because you want to be friends again.
Secondly, forgiving someone does not make them legally innocent. If someone murders your grandmother, you can forgive them personally, but you must still report them to the police.
Thirdly, forgiving someone is not the same as trusting them. If someone keeps stealing money from the members of your church, you can all forgive him from the bottom of your hearts, but there comes a time when you have to tell the thief that they must leave and never return. Forgiveness is unconditional, trust has to be earned. You can forgive your partner for committing adultery, but they will have to restore your trust by being extra accountable to you.
So with all that in mind, what exactly is forgiveness? Its releasing an offender of personal offence. Its holding no more grudge against them.
Its not easy to forgive a serious offence, but as you can see from the opening story it is totally possible. Which begs a question…
How come some people forgive easily, and others don’t? I mean, we all see it, right? When we’ve done wrong and we ourselves need forgiveness, we already know who is more likely to forgive and who isn’t? Its the humble type of person that forgives, and its the proud type that does not. If we are going to forgive, humility is key. Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit (the humble) for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Ultimately its the humble that are free and the humble that rule eternally.
Humility is a clear teaching of the Bible, but contrary to the way of the world. We only have to look at the current flood of popular music videos to see how much the world believes in hate, suspicion, bitterness and revenge. Such things are all about self and pride.
Like everbody, humble people see the bad in those who have offended them. But they also see the bad in themselves. And when we see the bad in ourselves we are able to extend mercy to those who are bad to us,
Forgiving our enemies like Bill Pelke is hard. Loving or enemies like Bill Pelke is harder. But its possible and it just starts with a prayer saying ‘Lord, I forgive them.’ And as we learn to pray for God’s blessing on that person, God opens an eyes and we start to see what messed our enemy up, why did evil. And often this understanding leads to compassion.
This is fighting the good fight of faith. Let’s fight it!Jesus did, and he won.

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