On the morning of Oct. 2, 2006, the unthinkable descended on a sleepy little town. Something snapped in the mind of a 32-year-old milk truck driver in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, an area known for its Amish population. Suffering from apparent and unspecified mental illness, the truck driver wrote out suicide notes for his wife and three children.
In one note he mentioned the unresolved rage he felt against God for the death of his infant daughter. Then he loaded a 9mm handgun and other weapons in his truck and set out for a one-room schoolhouse in the Old Order Amish community of Nickel Mines. The trucker, now a gunman, took 10 young Amish girls hostage at the tiny schoolhouse, allowing other adults and young boys to escape. He told some that he wanted revenge against God.
Then the dire situation became horrific. Just 30 minutes after the hostage situation began, the gunman unexpectedly opened fire on the helpless young girls, who were between the ages of 6 and 13. Two minutes later, as state police stormed the school, the assailant turned his gun on himself.
Two girls died instantly. Three others died shortly afterwards. Five miraculously survived.
The community and soon the people of America were stunned, horrified and outraged. Any school shooting was horrible enough, but the thought of innocent young children of an Old Order Amish group being murdered in cold blood was too much.
Yet out of this darkness came a light—a freeing way of thinking and living in line with that laid out to us long before in the pages of Scripture.
An unexpected reaction
As both locals and people around the world tried to make sense of the awful event that had happened, an unexpected miracle began to take shape. A grieving grandfather of one of the murdered girls warned other family members not to fall prey to hatred, stating, “We must not think evil of this man.”
Astonishingly, unrelenting forgiveness swelled up from the Amish community. Amish neighbors intentionally sought out members of the shooter’s family to express comfort and forgiveness. Some visited the shooter’s widow, his parents and his in-laws. A private fund was set up for the family of the shooter.
The result? A sea of wonder washed over the community. In the face of unspeakable horror, this response of love from the grieving Amish overwhelmed all who heard about it.
Instead of focusing on the horrible details of the event, 2,400 media stories about forgiveness erupted around the planet (Ann Rogers, “Nickel Mines Legacy: Forgive First,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sept. 30, 2007).
The widow of the shooter later wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbors: “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you” (quoted by Damien McElroy, “Amish Killer’s Widow Thanks Families of Victims for Forgiveness,” The Daily Telegraph, Oct. 16, 2006).
I have read this story several times. Each time I not only shudder at the horror but am speechless at the incongruous reaction of the Amish community and the families of the victims. I’ve asked myself: How would I react? Could I ever forgive such senseless horror perpetrated against my loved ones and the permanent loss? This level of forgiveness is totally out of the sphere of natural human behavior and reaction.
But it’s not without precedent. Let’s look at another incongruous story about forgiveness.
A lesson about not forgiving as forgiven
In Matthew 18 quite the opposite is told in the parable of the unforgiving servant. It starts by the apostle Peter asking Jesus Christ a question: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’” (verse 21).
Jesus responded: “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents [a vast fortune]. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made.
“The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
“But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii [a sizeable amount but nothing next to what he had been forgiven]; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt.
“So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. ‘So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses’” (verses 22-35).
This is a narrative that on the surface seems absurd but with the lesson self-evident. In this scenario one is forgiven millions in debt but is blind to what that means and what he’s to take away from it. After his awesome windfall the forgiven person comes upon someone who owes him a small amount in comparison and demands that he pay up right then and there. When the benevolent master who has forgiven him much finds out about his churlish behavior, he withdraws his blessing and demands that the original debt be repaid.
This parable teaches us about comparative debt, forgiveness and compassion. The lesson here is about how we are to extend the same grace we receive to those who are indebted to us.
The two comparative debts were very disproportional, which is like the difference between what God has forgiven us and what we need to forgive others.
The greatest example
There is yet one more story that also defies human reasoning about forgiveness.
Before Jesus came to the earth as a man He was called the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). He later became a human being: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (verse 14)
Jesus Christ then allowed Himself to be killed. What folly, one might think. Why would He want to subject Himself to this? There was great purpose in it, the apostle Paul explaining in Philippians 2 that it exemplified the kind of thinking we ourselves are to have.
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,” Paul said (verse 5), noting that “though he was God he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to” (verse 6, New Living Translation). Instead, Jesus “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (verses 7-8, English Standard Version).
A huge debt has been forgiven us, a debt we could never hope to repay. Our debt can only be paid with our life. However, Jesus came into our life and paid that debt for us. In this state of grace with our God, should we not be able to forgive anything smaller between ourselves?
Christ was blameless, perfect and innocent. He harmed no one. He did nothing wrong, sinful nor illegal. He recognized the Roman occupational government and its laws. He upheld the Levitical priesthood. But many among the jealous, self-righteous, hypocritical Jewish religious leadership of the time incessantly sought to discredit Jesus and plotted how they could kill Him.
All the while Christ preached to large crowds and fed thousands, answered questions of morality with impeccable wisdom, healed hundreds if not thousands of people and performed many other miracles. The envy and hatred of those in the religious establishment toward Him was mind-boggling. In the end they had Him killed.
At the very end of Jesus’ earthly life, He left these words to all who hurt Him—from the religious leaders to the shouting mobs demanding His crucifixion to the Roman officials and mocking soldiers: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). How unjust and undeserved! Of course they were misled by Satan—yet so is all the world in the evils committed against fellow man.
What can we learn from these stories?
When we become a Christian we embark on a journey of thinking differently from the way we thought before. We come to an awareness of a living God whom we can talk and relate to. We have a self-awareness of who we are. We then take responsibility for our lives. We have free will to make choices to do things differently. No other physical form of life has that capability.
From the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry He spoke of loving your adversaries and all who hate and abuse you. In the Sermon on the Mount, He gave His assembled listeners homework assignments to practice forgiveness: “I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
In the same message He taught His audience how to pray, with this sentiment included: “. . . And forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us” (Matthew 6:12, NLT). He underscored this focus just after giving the prayer outline: “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins” (verses 14-15).
This is a vital, mind-changing step in the upward journey toward peace of mind. We have to forgive, which means to stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw or mistake. Forgiveness is not just a nice thing to do or a good personal attribute. It is a plateau we reach and maintain with wide-open awareness and a determination that ultimately frees our mind from guilt, shame and blame preventing us from experiencing peace of mind.
Concerning the above passage, Matthew 6:12-15, noted theologian and teacher John Stott states this in his book The Sermon on the Mount: An Expositional Commentary:
“Once, as I was talking to a Christian psychiatrist, I touched on the problem of forgiveness and the need men have for it. The psychiatrist said, ‘As far as I am concerned most of what a psychiatrist does is directly related to forgiveness. People come to him with problems. They feel guilty about their part in these problems. They are seeking forgiveness. In effect, they confess their sins to the counselor and find that he forgives them. Then a pattern is set up in which they can show their change of heart in tangible ways toward the other person or persons.’
“The psychiatrist concluded by observing that the great need to be forgiven by men that many persons feel is only a shadow of a far greater need that all men have to be forgiven by God” (emphasis added throughout).
All of us have been hurt by someone else’s actions or words. Vengeful acts are often committed against those close at hand. It can be criticism, betrayal, misunderstanding and even well-meaning thoughts that nonetheless cause offense and bring on anger and pain. It might be reflexive self-defense. If these feelings are not dealt with, they can grow bigger and bigger and balloon far out of proportion to the original slight to the point of consuming us. Forgiveness frees us from that encumbrance.
The alleged perpetrator is usually not the only one suffering. So is the one who remains unforgiving.
I am so saddened when I see people harbor ill will, sometimes for years, over insults and actions of the past. They just can’t move past it, perhaps feeling that letting go will minimize what happened. Yet forgiveness does not lessen the wrong that was done. Rather it releases us from the grip of consuming thoughts of injustice.
(A word of wisdom: Nothing in this article should be construed as recommending that a person stay in a situation of domestic abuse or violence. Such situations often escalate to greater danger for one or both partners. If you or someone you know is in such a situation, seek help and remove yourself from danger. As Proverbs 27:12 [NLT] tells us, “A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions.”)
So what do we do?
Ideally we may want to go and talk to the offender or the offended, but if we can’t, we can still ask God to cleanse our conscience so we can go on in peace.
Jesus instructing us to pray about forgiveness from God and forgiving others in His model prayer suggests that prayer is the best place to discuss any difficulty in this with God. Tell Him how you feel. Tell Him how you don’t want to feel. Ask Him to take away hostility, bitterness, revenge and every other negative thought and then help you to face the world with a clean heart.
Forgiving, letting go, will open the door to peace of mind and healthier relationships. Forgiveness is a vital component in our physical, mental, emotional and especially spiritual health.
Some long-standing unforgiven feuds between peoples go back millennia, as generation after generation fights the same fruitless battle. On a national scale people just can’t forgive past wrongs—if they even remember what they were. A case in point is the never-ending feud between the Arabs and Jews. This quarrel actually goes back to Abraham’s sons Ishmael and Isaac nearly 4,000 years ago!
The act of forgiveness goes beyond relationship issues with those around us. We may be trapped in guilt and shame for our own past sins. We may have done terrible things or been guilty of gross neglect in the past, and that still jars us. We may have neglected our marriage and children and feel guilty years on because we recall James 4:17: “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.”
Some things we’ve done cannot be undone or put right. But we can be forgiven, with the sin removed from our record. In such cases, the only path to wholeness is through forgiveness and trusting in God’s promises while committing to live right and help those we’ve hurt in whatever way possible.
Finding and granting freedom
We may still shudder at our past. We may have hurt people decades ago and now regret what we did, troubled with guilt over our past actions. We may never have apologized or cannot because those people are no longer living. Or you and the other party were never able to reconcile dereliction, addiction, unfaithfulness in marriage.
Whatever it is, go to God to gain freedom from the grip of the past. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). What a blessing it is to be freed of guilt and stand fresh before God and man: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity” (Psalm 32:1-2).
There are amazing stories of people horribly abused in war who heroically forgave their tormentors. Corrie Ten Boom from the Netherlands was one who spent time in a Nazi concentration camp and saw and experienced the vilest abuse from her captors. However, she didn’t waste her life in bitterness. After the war she traveled and lectured widely about forgiveness. One saying she’s known for is “Forgiveness is setting the prisoner free, only to find out that the prisoner was me.” Proverbs 11:17 says, “The merciful man does good for his own soul, but he who is cruel troubles his own flesh.”
When people were cut to the heart by Peter’s preaching on the Day of Pentecost at the beginning of the New Testament Church and asked what they should do, he replied: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39, New International Version).
The message of forgiveness was given top billing in the preaching of the gospel. It should always be a constant reminder to us to also be forgiving, as it is so easy to be the opposite.
We’ve seen that forgiveness can be extended even in the most difficult circumstances, such as that of the Amish school shooting. We must further realize that a great debt has been forgiven us. What others owe us is paltry in comparison. Treat it that way. Always remember what Jesus endured in choosing to pay the debt we incurred for sins. And recognize that as He was killed, necessitated by the sin of every one of us, He said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”
Let us extend this same mercy. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:32, “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.”