Tuesday, October 10, 2006

How Can the Amish Forgive?

Susan Henderson wonders--profanely--over at The Huffington Post how the Amish community violated by a gunman can pay "their respects at the murderer's funeral and set up a fund for his family." It is, as she describes it, "astounding."

But the Amish community is clearly witnessing to an important, and sometimes impossibly difficult, aspect of Christian life: forgiveness.

Among the things they're teaching us about forgiveness are these:
  • Forgiveness is the attitude with which we're to meet the world.
We're to forgive as we've been forgiven. The Christian knows that in Jesus Christ, God has made forgiveness available to all people. To withhold it is not rightly in our power.
  • Forgiveness can't be earned or merited.
You can only decide to receive it when it's offered...or not. This act of deciding to receive forgiveness is what the Bible calls repentance. To repent--the Old Testament word used to describe it literally means to change directions, back toward God and the New Testament word means to change one's mind--is to accept God's (and other's) acceptance of us.

Jesus painted a vivid portrait of forgiveness and repentance in His parable of the Prodigal Son. The father in the story, emblematic of God, never stopped loving or wanting a relationship with his son. His forgiveness was always available for the taking. When the son came back, even before the boy was able to utter his words of contrition, the father was surrounding him in a bear hug of forgiveness.
  • Forgiveness is release.
In fact, the New Testament Greek word most often used to describe forgive is aphiemi, a word that means I release. When we forgive, we release not only the person we forgive from their bondage to shame, we release ourselves from the corrosive, killing effects of vengefulness and obsessive victimhood. We release ourselves to live.
  • Until we willingly forgive others, God's forgiveness can't reach us.
"Vengeance is mine," God tells us. He's the One to put things right spiritually and eternally. Not us. When we decide to act vengefully, we're taking to ourselves God-like dominion over others, an act as damnable as that of the murderer who decided to take the lives God gave to those Amish children.

It's not for nothing that Jesus teaches us to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." When we withhold forgiveness from others, we block from our lives the forgiveness and life God wants to give us.

Three things that forgiveness is not:
  • It's not approval.
Forgiveness is not say, "Oh, that's okay." Murdering children is not okay. When we forgive, we're not saying that the other person doesn't have issues to work out with God or perhaps, the criminal justice system.

In fact, the Christian's hope and prayer in offering forgiveness to others will cause the person to want to repent and enjoy a whole, personal relationship with the God revealed in Jesus and the restoration of other relationships. The New Testament teaches that it's the kindness of God that leads people to repent. Christians hope that in offering forgiveness, people will experience God's kindness and so, want to walk with Him too.
  • It's not an indication that the person we forgive is right with God.
God's forgiveness must be appropriated, accessed. That only happens when there is repentance. Forgiveness may be offered. Accepting or not is up to us.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t replace the proper working of the judicial system.
Because not everybody lives under the voluntary kingdom of God, God also rules through the coercive means of civil and criminal law. Civil authority exacts from the unbelieving what believers are called to willingly give to each other, things like mutual respect.

So, Pope John Paul II visited his would-be assassin within months of the attack that nearly ended his life and forgave Mehmet Ali Agca. But the Pope also left Agca in prison. The man still had to pay his debt to society. (See here.)

One final point. A commenter on Henderson's post, a person named Queenie, wrote this:
Thanks Susan for tribute to Amish. If only the Christians of our country had followed the lead of the Amish instead of the Falwell/Robertson crowd, we would not be bogged down in Bushs' Iraqi killing debacle now.
Leaving aside any discussion of the war in Iraq, I responded:
I can assure you that the Falwell/Robertson crowd represent but a fraction of we Christians in the United States and it ticks us off the way they've been able to hijack the perceptions of gullible people about what Christianity is about. In this sense, the Amish, who are also Christians, are more representative of what is best in us. Of course, none of us is perfect. As an apt bumper sticker puts it, "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven." The Amish are reminding us of that.
My personal experience tells me that to forgive in ways that the Amish are demonstrating right now is impossible when we rely on ourselves. It can only happen when we rely on Jesus Christ...and even then, one must go to God again and again and again, asking to be released from the feelings of hatred, anger, and hatred that can sometimes dog us so that we can get down to the business of living our lives. My experience says that only a Savior Who has forgiven all my sins--and the sins of the world--can give me the capacity to forgive as I've been forgiven.

The Amish are showing us all how the very practical life skill of forgiveness happens and how it works.

[UPDATE: Thanks to Andrew Jackson of Smart Christian for linking to this post.]

[ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE: Written by a Mennonite pastor. While I think that there's a lot of food for thought in this piece, I also think that governments are authorized by God to use force and other coercive power. This isn't necessarily an endorsement of US policy. I'm simply saying that God rules in two different ways over different constituencies. See here and here for posts that contain discussions of the two different means of rule God employs.]

[THANKS TO: Pastor Jeff at Conblogeration for linking to this post. Go over there and read the poignant personal story of forgiveness told in the comments by Des Moines Girl.]

[THANKS ALSO TO: The Ruminating Pilgrim for linking to this post.]

[I ALSO THANK: Susan Henderson, the blogger whose original post on The Huffington Post elicited this response from me. She wrote a gracious email to me, expressing regret that her post, which she intended to both laud the Christian graciousness of the Amish and to confess a personal desire to be more like them, had attracted so many "Christian-bashing" quotes. Susan's personal blog is here.]

[THANKS TO: Bonnie at Intellectuelle for linking to and summarizing this post.]


Charlie said...

Susan Henderson's post was interesting because it says what many people think, that being forgiven ought to be hard, it ought to come only after one has paid a heavy price commensurate with one's crime. There ought to be suffering and pain.

We know that Christ taught differently, but we rarely see such a dramatic, modern-day, human living-out of Christ's generous forgiveness as what we are seeing among the Amish. I look at them in wonder and ask myself, "Could I do that in their circumstances?" As you rightly say, only with Christ's help.

Good words, Mark.

Christinewjc said...

The Amish people showed amazing strength, compassion and mercy during their time of grief by extending forgiveness towards the perpetrator of this horrendous crime, as well as compassion and grace towards the family of the killer.

I was prompted to write a post The Power of Forgiveness when a skeptic posted the following comment:

"The passage involving the Amish man who said the killer’s family was also victims was very poignant—and absolutely correct. He showed a perspective that more “advanced” Christians, in their zeal to condemn, often overlook. You might do well to consider it."

You and Susan both shared some great words. You should both be commended for pointing out how important forgiveness is in Christian life, too.

Susan L. Prince said...

It has been interesting to see the mainstream media attempt to understand the concept of forgiveness. It seems to have caught many off guard, and I am impressed that the accurate portrayal of a Christian attribute the Amish have demonstrated was indeed reported!

I have been struggling with some things though, actually, I've thought about them for years and this story brought them to the surface again. How is it they can forgive a dead man? Can there be forgiveness without repentance, and can forgiveness be complete without it being accepted?

Christ offers forgiveness...but it can only be received AFTER repentance, then, that forgiveness and grace must be accepted. The Amish have demonstrated the Christian fruit in that they offer forgiveness, that their hearts are on things of God. That is how it should be...we should have hearts that always offer forgiveness.

Mark Daniels said...

Charlie, Christine, and Susan:
Thank you, each of you, for taking the time to leave comments here. God bless you!


Christinewjc said...

Hi Susan,

I can certainly understand your confusion on this issue. It can take us deeply into theology questions which can be difficult to answer. I'm not sure if I can help answer your struggle so that you might be better able to understand how the Amish can forgive a dead man, but I will try to do so.

First, it appears that you already know that human forgiveness for a wrong done by others is different from God's forgiveness for our sins through the blood of Jesus Christ at the cross.

In this particular case, human forgiveness was given by the Amish people towards the perpetrator. It was probably done in accordance with Christ's admonition to forgive, as well as for the benefit of themselves (the Amish). The third benefit is that the family which the murderer left behind, would be shown to be innocent of his actions (which they, of course, were).

Bitterness, anger and hatred toward the murderer are human emotions that we all would feel if it happened to our children. How could we not? However, kept inside, steaming, burning and eating at our hearts would do nothing but add to the anguish within, as well as the anguish of all involved. Releasing this to God through forgiveness, overcomes those negative feelings. At least that is what happened to me when I, personally forgave another person who did me wrong. It was such a relief! Admittedly, this is really tough to do. My struggle wasn't anywhere near as terrible as the murder of the Amish children. We can all learn quite a lesson in humility, grace and forgiveness through these people and how they handled such deep grief.

You asked: "Can there be forgiveness without repentance, and can forgiveness be complete without it being accepted?"

That is a great question! In my case, I forgave an individual in my own heart without even telling her how much she hurt me. She didn't have to accept my forgiveness for her actions, I just gave it out freely, in secret, through prayer to God. When I did this, it was like a huge burden was lifted from my soul! I was able to be reconciled with this person, and our relationship was restored, healed and is growing ever stronger now. I will tell you this. I couldn't have done it without the Holy Spirit's leading in my life. That made all the difference.

Also, extended forgiveness done in such a manner as this, helps the healing process for all concerned (e.g. the murderer's family and the Amish people affected by this horrible tragedy).

You are correct. The murderer could not have the grace, mercy and salvation bestowed upon him by God unless he repented of his sins and accepted Christ as Lord and Savior of his life before death. We don't know, for sure, if he ever did so in his lifetime or not. It doesn't appear likely, but we can only guess at this point.

As is the case with each of us, it is a matter between each individual person and God. Jesus asks us all, "Who do you say that I am?" How we answer that question, whether or not we are born again (see John 3), and whether or not we die with our own sins upon our own soul or covered by the blood of Jesus Christ through the cross, determines where we spend eternity...with God or separated from Him...forever.

Christinewjc said...

Hi Mark,

Thank you for all that you share here at your great blog! Though I don't always comment, I have visited here often; ever since the first GodBlog Conference at Biola U. You did such an excellent job during the panel discussions there! Keep up the great work for the Lord!

In Christ,

Anonymous said...

I think you're right. What the Amish did with the terrible situation was incredibly honorable and the rest of the world should use them as an example. I think it's part of the way they live too, in Traditional America that helps them because they're not so filled with the hate the media implants in the rest of us. Anyway, I just saw this lovely video on a scenic drive through Amish country and it was incredibly refreshing. Check it out: http://travelistic.com/video/show/2018