Acts 7:23-8:1a; Deuteronomy 31-32; Job 19
Charles Roberts was an angry person. For nine years that anger had festered as he blamed God, and himself, for his newborn daughter’s death. On October 2, 2006, he snapped. He entered an Amish school house, released the boys, the female adults, and a pregnant school girl, and held fifteen female students hostage. After police arrived, he started shooting and the end result was that five of the hostages were killed. He also killed himself. In an incredible show of forgiveness, the Amish community not only attended Roberts’ funeral, they also provided financial support to his widow.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when Christians show “incredible forgiveness.” Jesus, on the cross, called for forgiveness for those who had condemned and crucified Him. But that was Jesus. That’s why He was going to the cross, wasn’t it? Do we really expect “ordinary people” to show such extraordinary forgiveness? The answer, of course is “no.” But then, God’s people have never been ordinary. Once someone has entered into a relationship with God, they can never be called ordinary again. There are some great perks to being considered extraordinary because of our relationship with God, but one of the responsibilities that must be the hardest is that our forgiveness must be extraordinary. Stephen was an extraordinary witness for God, but his last sermon enraged the Jewish leaders. They took him outside the city and stoned him. After he prayed for the Lord to take his spirit, he showed extraordinary forgiveness. “Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:60)
I saw recently where someone described this as the prayer that saved Paul, formerly known as Saul. Saul was the coat holder for the Sanhedrin as they rushed to judgment. Saul later became an agent of the persecution of the early church. The last words Saul heard from Stephen were for forgiveness. I can’t help but think that these words of Stephen played on his mind every time he arrested Christians until that glorious day when he encountered Jesus. In truth, the incredible words of forgiveness uttered by Stephen are part of a tale that has been repeated by Christians down through the ages. Not only have his words been repeated, though, Christians down through the ages have forgiven others for some of the most vile crimes imaginable. Hardened criminals who would laugh in the face of a victim who talked of hatred towards the person who ruined their life have been known to break down in tears when told that they were forgiven by their victim or the family members.
Forgiveness is a magical key to people’s hearts. We have been able to receive God’s forgiveness and enter into a relationship with Him because Jesus paid the penalty for our sins on the cross. If God gave us so much forgiveness, we ought to be able to forgive others more easily. At least, you might think that. How often do we accept God’s forgiveness, and then not show it to the driver who cuts us off in traffic, or the telephone solicitor who shouldn’t have our number, or the customer service person who can’t seem to get things straight on the phone? Our chances to forgive might be summed up by one of my favorite sayings from the old comic strip Pogo: “We are faced with an insurmountable opportunity.” The glorious thing about forgiveness is that this is one amazing way to be like Jesus who continues to forgive us. There is no end to the number of people we can forgive – even if that sometimes means we have to forgive ourselves. Our world is saturated by sin and by those who sin against us. If we sought to avenge every petty act of sin against us, it would be dreary. When we hold grudges, it affects us. Take on our insurmountable opportunity to forgive others. Let our lives reflect the forgiveness that God shows so well, that we forgive each slight or sin against us without reservation.
Oh Lord, forgiveness is so hard. I can make excuses as to why I don’t forgive others, but the examples of Jesus and Stephen remind me that I’ve had it easy. Help me to forgive others and show Your love each day.