Having a forgiving spirit may be one of the most difficult character traits to live out. When one considers the atrocities humanity has experienced as a result of its own deeds, it may even sound reasonable to say that some injustices cannot be forgiven. But Christians are called to forgive just as God forgives. The following is a real life story of a bereaved mother who tells of how she was able to forgive because of her knowledge of God.
When it comes to being victimized, perhaps there is no greater loss than when a child is murdered. Marietta Jaeger’s seven-year-old daughter, Susie, was abducted while enjoying a family vacation and later murdered by her abductor. Jaeger (1998) writes of this experience in the book,
edited by Robert Enright and Joanna North. Jaeger’s chapter is entitled, “The Power and Reality of Forgiveness: Forgiving the Murderer of One’s Child.”
Jaeger’s initial response to her loss was rage and the strong desire for revenge, even to the point of wanting to kill the murderer with her own bare hands. Jaeger found another option of how to respond to her loss. She found she could respond to her daughter’s murder through her knowledge of what God is like and what God does. Without knowing the final outcome for Susie, Jaeger waited for months in the balance of uncertainty for Susie’s return or death. As she waited, Jaeger reflected on her moral training and reached for the “highest moral ground.” Jaeger writes, “I surrendered. I made a decision to forgive this person, whoever he was” (p. 11). Her decision was based on her theology. Jaeger writes the following thoughts about God and how her theology impacts her life and character.
I had reminded myself repeatedly . . .
. . . that, however I felt about the kidnapper, in God’s eyes he was just as precious as my little girl. I claim to believe in a God who is crazy about each of us, no matter who we are and what we’ve done, and I had to be unremitting to calling myself to that.
. . . that, even if he wasn’t behaving like one, this man was a son of God, and, as such, just by virtue of his membership in the human family, he had dignity and worth, which meant for me that I had to think and speak of him with respect and not use the derogatory terms that came so easily to mind as I went month after month without knowing where my little girl was.
. . . that, as a Christian, I am called to pray for my enemies, a category for which he certainly qualified. In the beginning, that was the last thing I felt like doing, but as I sought to desire his well-being authentically and sincerely, the easier it became to do so. I realized how important it was that he experience good fortune and affirmation – the love of God – in this life. If he still had Susie, I wanted him to be good to her, and if he didn’t have her, I wanted him to have the courage it would take to come forth and tell what had happened (p. 12).
As Jaeger reflects on her thoughts about God, she translates her theology to character, and then to skills, and finally to praxis. Her theology is evident when she says, “in God’s eyes he [the abductor] was just as precious as my little girl.” As a reflection of her theology, her character becomes visible, “and I had to be unremitting to calling myself to that.”
Her statement, “this man was a son of God, and, as such, just by virtue of his membership in the human family, he had dignity and worth,” evidences another example of Jaeger’s theology. She reflects on the impact of her theology when she writes, “which meant for me that I had to think and speak of him with respect and not use the derogatory terms that came so easily to mind as I went month after month without knowing where my little girl was.”
Notice how she even speaks of the skills that support her character as she reflects on her theology. She thinks and speaks of her daughter’s abductor with respect and not in derogatory terms. She prays for him. “I am called to pray for my enemies, a category for which he certainly qualified.”
She also comments on her new praxis, “In the beginning, that was the last thing I felt like doing [
to pray for him
], but as I sought to desire his well-being authentically and sincerely, the easier it became to do so.” Her praxis reflects her theology. “I realized how important it was that he experience good fortune and affirmation – the love of God – in this life.”
Jaeger was looking for justice, but not in the form of punishment. She wanted restoration. She wanted something that she saw in her God. Her theology proclaimed a reflection of God as “a God who seeks not to punish, destroy or put us to death, but a God who works unceasingly to help and heal us, rehabilitate and reconcile us, restore us to the richness and fullness of life for which we have been created” (p. 13). She offers a wonderful comment on character and praxis as she reflects on the the very nature of God. “This, now, was the justice I wanted for this man who had taken my little girl” (p. 13). Just as God is a God of justice, so be a people of justice, the kind of justice one would see in God.
At the end of Jaeger’s chapter she writes, “Though I would never have chosen it so, the first person to receive a gift of life from the death of my daughter . . . was me” (p. 14). The gift originates from her theology that empowers her to make forgiveness a part of her character. This character leads her to a praxis that ultimately frees her from the powers of what she calls the “death dealing spirits” of anger, hatred, resentment, bitterness and revenge that can destroy one’s very life (p. 14).
The power and reality of forgiveness, indeed!