My daughter Sarah, a photographer, decided last week she would sell her back-up camera to raise some extra cash she needed. She became the victim of a sophisticated scam involving fake use of PayPal. Not only did she lose her camera, she actually paid the shipping charges.
Sometimes I wonder just how depraved human nature really is, and how in that wickedness people are prepared to take advantage of the poor and the defenceless.
But that isn’t the remarkable part of the story. The scammer contacted Sarah, which gave her the opportunity to write a letter telling him that even though he had stolen her camera and stolen her money, she had chosen to forgive him. Why? Because Jesus had forgiven her. And she told him she was praying for him. Why? Because Jesus told us to pray for those who persecute us. And she said if that suffering the loss was the price she had to pay in order to bear witness to Christ, it was worth it.
Life deals us some awful setbacks, and some are much worse than Sarah’s. But how we respond to them is much more significant for our spiritual, mental and emotional health than what actually happened to us.
This is not to diminish the damage done to us when we are wronged. But it illustrates the incredible power of forgiveness. And how foolish we are not to use it.
Why is forgiveness so important? Because it is at the heart of Christianity. Our whole faith is built around the fact that an innocent victim took the punishment for your sin and mine. Because he did that, we have been forgiven. That is why Jesus taught that if we fail to pass on that forgiveness to those who have wronged us, we will be handed over to the tormentors.
When we are wronged, we have a choice. We can try to hit back at our persecutor by hateful thoughts and vengeful actions. But it never gives satisfaction, often because we find ourselves unable to exact judgment ourselves, and even if we do, we are left feeling the punishment was never enough. In some countries, you can view the execution of someone who has killed a family member, but you will never get your loved one back. The desire for revenge is never satisfied.
To refuse to forgive means we assume the right to judge. But only God has the right to execute justice.
And this brings us to the heart of what forgiveness is. We mistakenly think that to forgive means to forget, to try to pretend it never happened. But that never works. You cannot forgive unless you put the wrong out openly on the table, state what was done, and affirm that God hated what happened more than you did.
But then - and this is the critical step - you give the person who hurt you over to God and to his judgment. Forgiveness acknowledges that the wrong I did to the sinless man who hung on the cross for me is greater than the worst atrocity anyone on this earth did to me, a sinner.
To hand the sin and the sinner over to God releases the grace, comfort and healing of God into our lives. It causes our suffering to become redemptive. God has an incredible capacity to bring good out of the worst thing. If we let him.
And so, without perhaps understanding all the nuances of it, that is what Sarah did. She put the wrong out on the table, acknowledged that God hated what was done, chose to give the person who wronged her over to him, and found that the Lord released grace in her to write what she did.
And I have no doubt that she will reap a blessing back. Already the cloud of hurt and anger has dissipated and she has moved on. And someone in dire need has heard the good news about Jesus.
You don’t have to forgive. You can live in endless hurt, allowing what happened to be replayed every day of your life. You can hurt yourself more than they ever did. Or you can see the supernatural power of forgiveness released in you and through you. And find freedom.
Not much of a choice really, is it?