Matthew 6:14–15 (ESV)
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
In an earlier post we had written that our son’s best friend had been a suspect in Jon’s death. Over the year following, police investigations continued in that direction.
We cannot pretend to know what it is like to be under scrutiny of law enforcement for extended periods of time as was Jon’s friend. He was eighteen years old, most likely scared as his family most likely was as well. Throughout this part of the legal process, which played out for eleven months, the direction things took as orchestrated by a defense attorney seemed quite puzzling to us.
In another earlier post, I mentioned a white pickup truck that had been stranded across the road from our house. The truck was impounded that day and taken to a secure location by law enforcement. What appeared to be human tissue was found in a wheel well and sent to Michigan State Police labs for DNA testing.
One watches “CSI” and all its related shows and sees Grissom or Horatio standing there tapping their toe waiting for DNA that was brought down the hall 20 minutes ago. We sat there and just laughed when we watched “CSI” – it took seven months for the DNA results to come forth in this case, and by current standards then, were reasonably swift.
The results came back and were indeed confirmed to be brain matter from our son. Even though it was not surprising, it still hits you in the face like a brick wall – the thought of what happened to your son to cause his brain to end up in the wheel well of a truck is…well, you can figure it out.
While all this was occurring, legal machinations continued, many from our perspective of a head-scratching nature. Could we have an idea what was going on to cause such things? No. Interestingly enough, however, in the midst of this, the defense attorney sent an email to my boss, they being friends who attended church together. The nature of the email? He stated that he knew he was causing a lot of disruption and problems in the community and wished to – looking back ten years – do some cleansing of his conscience (which will be addressed later in this post).
It was approaching one year after Jon’s death and an arrest had yet to be made. I was serving on a Keryx ministry weekend at Chippewa Correctional Facility and one of my assignments was to present a service on Saturday evening on the importance of forgiveness. In those days I left the prison for a couple hours to fuflill my role in the Keryx ministry as Trainer for some volunteers who would enter the prison. At 230pm that Saturday, I did so and was met by my wife at the training site, who proceeded to tell me that Jon’s friend had been arrested that morning on three felony counts.
This is where forgiveness rubber meets the road. It’s easy to preach forgiveness when all one has to do is forgive for relatively minor things. When it gets intensely personal, though, then challenges arise. I still recall very clearly watching a news story concerning those affected by Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing and hearing one lady say she would never forgive him as long as she lived. (If you have never seen the video here, it’s a must watch. Gary Ridgway, the “Green River Killer” was sentenced for the multiple murders he committed. At that hearing, people lit into him about what pain he had caused. Ridgway sat there impassive through those speeches. Watch the video at the 2:15 mark. The father of one of his victims spoke and said how he had forgiven Ridgway – watch Ridgway’s reaction. That father lived out the fruit of the gospel which had saved him and he was obedient to the command to forgive, which is not given with a list of exceptions letting the Christian off the hook if he doesn’t forgive based on environment or circumstance.) There is also the story of one affected by the crimes committed by Seth Privacky, who was a prisoner at Kinross Correctional Facility (the prison where I speak once a month and have volunteered for 16 years) – and who was killed during an escape attempt a few years ago – the one affected was not interested in forgiving Mr. Privacky for the crimes he had committed.
Was this arrest a surprise? No. They had made the arrest first thing in the morning and then had driven to our house and notified my wife, who then drove the 65 miles to the prison as she had already planned on doing. Still, again, when what is expected actually happens, it still hits you in the face. Jon’s friend has been arrested. Does the arrest mean he was guilty? Of course not. Investigation had shown, however, that Jon’s best friend was the only driver of the vehicle that night as other family members had disavowed doing so. Another question was this: just what was he guilty of committing? Justice is quite gray in an area such as this. Did he set out that night to kill Jon? No one believes that. If he was drunk, as was Jon, and it was purely an accident, what is just? These are not easy areas. What no one had ever said through all of this was that Jon’s best friend was not driving the vehicle that killed him – not even Jon’s best friend denied driving the vehicle, as he also affirmd he couldn’t remember driving the vehicle, either.
At this point was where I had to practice what I was going to preach. In a few hours I was going to be in a small classroom inside a medium security prison with my fellow volunteers and about 40 prisoners all packed in tightly and I was to tell them the absolute importance of forgiving those who have caused you pain through whatever means.
Returning to the prison, I told no one for a while. Then as we had a brief break before that service, I gathered my mentor and one of the pastors serving on the weekend and I took them with me to the end of the hall in front of the room where everyone was congregating for that service. I remember crying as I told them Jon’s friend had been arrested. There was no joy in the arrest. There was nothing to celebrate – it was a time of profound sadness – not only because it brought another stage of the process to a head, but for the fact what the future was most likely to bring for Jon’s friend and his family.
I asked my brothers to pray for me. They knew what I had to do in a few minutes – they knew I had to walk in that room behind us and tell the prisoners about forgiveness – and not be a hypocrite myself and stand there not having forgiven my son’s best friend. Both my friends were in tears. The pastor prayed. This pastor was one who was never at a loss for words – until then. Here was his prayer, in its entirety: “Lord, I don’t know what to pray.” An ideal prayer. What could say it any better?
Romans 8:26–27 (ESV)
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We all embraced each other. They entered the room along with me. I forgave Jon’s best friend right there – for whatever he had done, since we knew not the details. Then I was able to tell the prisoners that – the fact that a few hours before an arrest had been made and so forth.
Forgiveness is a volitional act. We choose to either forgive or not forgive. The child of God, being indwelt by His Spirit, can never say, “I can’t forgive.” That indwelling Spirit enables us to forgive. Several years after this, I told our story concerning Jon’s death and forgiveness (more on that tomorrow) at a church to a group of about 70 women. A few hours later I was asked to see a woman who wanted to talk.
This woman had already been talking for about 20 minutes to another woman and was not getting the answer she was looking for. I joined the two of them. The problem? This woman could not forgive her husband – for what she did not disclose and at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. She wanted to know how to forgive. I asked her if she was a Christian. She said she was. I asked her what made her a Christian and she gave the correct answer.
“So how do I forgive him?” My answer?
“I know this may sound trite and be a cliche, but it’s like the Nike ad – you just do it.”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“Yes, you can.”
“This may not be what you want to hear, but here’s the problem: you say you are a Christian. The Bible commands you to forgive. God has equipped you to forgive. If you don’t obey what God commands you to do, the Bible calls that…what?”
“Right. And however he has sinned against you – whether it’s real or perceived as sin, you have to forgive him.”
“But I can’t.”
“No, ma’am, it’s not that you can’t – it’s that you won’t. You seem to be deciding that holding on to your hatred for your husband is more important than obeying an explicit command from Christ Himself.”
“How did you do it?”
“It was more important to me to forgive and obey what God tells me to do than to be miserable just like you appear to be right now. I can sleep at night. My conscience is clear. Now, I could only do it because of the Holy Spirit working in me, but you told me you’re a Christian if that’s true, you not only can forgive, you must forgive.”
“I don’t think I can.”
“Yes, you can. If you don’t, it’s not because you couldn’t, it’s because you wouldn’t. There a big difference.”
As far as I know, she hadn’t forgiven him by the time we all went home the next day.
By the grace of God, that evening I was able to stand toe-to-toe (literally) with all those prisoners and my fellow volunteers and tell them how I was able to forgive and how they not only could, but if they were Christians, must forgive.
The defense attorney? That came to a head many months later, which we will present tomorrow.