At age 8, Chris Carrier was abducted, stabbed multiple times with an ice pick, shot in the left temple at pointblank range and abandoned in the Florida Everglades.
Miraculously, he survived the ordeal, although the bullet to his head severed an optic nerve and left him blind in one eye. But perhaps the greater miracle occurred 22 years after the attack.
A police officer involved in the criminal investigation found the primary suspect, David McAllister—who never was convicted of the attack on Carrier—bedridden and blind in a nursing home. After the policeman told him he no longer needed to fear punishment, McAllister confessed to the crime.
When Carrier met the man who kidnapped and assaulted him, he told McAllister he had forgiven him many years earlier. In the week that followed, Carrier visited McAllister daily and ultimately led him to faith in Christ.
Carrier credits his ability to forgive his attacker to the faith commitment he made to Jesus Christ at age 13.
“That’s when my security issue was settled,” he said. Before he accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, Carrier confessed, he lived in fear, not knowing where his attacker was or when he might strike again. But that changed when he placed his trust in Jesus Christ.
“There’s no fear factor any more,” he said. “If Jesus is my Lord, what do I have to fear? Security’s no longer an issue.”
Ministry of reconciliation
But a former youth minister with whom Carrier reconnected to make the visit to McAllister challenged him to move beyond forgiveness. He urged Carrier to attempt reconciliation with his attacker, who had at one time been dismissed from a job by Carrier’s father.
Through his faith, Carrier saw himself as no different from McAllister—a man who apparently carried out a grudge against a father by attacking his son. Likewise, Carrier saw himself having been in rebellion against God the Father and guilty of the crucifixion of the Son of God. But from his cross, Jesus asked God to forgive those who crucified him.
In Carrier’s mind, he could do no less.
“It has to be bigger than forgiving because it makes me feel good about myself or forgiving in order to have closure,” he said. “It’s a calling to be involved in what 2 Corinthians 5 calls ‘the ministry of reconciliation.’”
Today, Carrier—a Bible teacher and interim campus minister at San Marcos Baptist Academy—volunteers in prison ministry. During weekend events, he spends the first couple of days just building relationships with inmates, who often tell him they are “too bad, with no chance of forgiveness.”
After he builds a rapport with the prisoners, then Carrier tells his story.
“I’m able to tell them miracles happen, and they have happened over and over in my life,” he said. “The greatest miracle is that God gave me the chance to go to the man (who assaulted him)… and say, ‘I want to be your friend, and I want that friendship to be eternal.’”
But if forgiveness is at the heart of the gospel and all Christians are called to a ministry of reconcilation, why is Carrier’s experience the exception rather than the norm?
Fuzzy understanding of forgiveness
Some theologians suggest many Christians struggle with forgiveness and reconciliation in interpersonal relations because they fail to grasp exactly what those concepts mean in terms of their relationship to God.
Varied views on Christian forgiveness came to light recently when veteran television journalist Brit Hume spoke on the Fox News Sunday program about whether Tiger Woods could recover from the revelations of his marital infidelity.
“He’s said to be a Buddhist. I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith,” Hume said. “So, my message to Tiger would be, ‘Tiger, turn to the Christian faith, and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.’”
Those comments by Hume—who reportedly made a deep faith commitment to Christ following his son’s suicide 11 years ago—prompted a firestorm. Some comments focused on the appropriateness of the remarks, or the chosen platform for delivering them, or whether Hume accurately portrayed Buddhism.
But the second-generation fallout of the controversy—the comments made about the comment—caused some Christians to raise concerns about a perceived cheapened view of God’s forgiveness that portrays it as a free pass based on easy belief.
For example, conservative commentator and provocateur Ann Coulter called Christianity “the best deal in the universe.” Crudely summarizing the incarnation and atonement, she concluded: “If you believe that, you’re in.”
Coulter’s explanation illustrates the muddied understanding many Christians have regarding the related—but not synonymous—subjects of forgiveness, grace, repentance, reconciliation and redemption, some theologians insist.
God’s forgiveness of sinners is not based on anything humans do but on what God already has done, said Randall O’Brien, author of Set Free by Forgiveness.
“Contrary to popular opinion, forgiveness precedes repentance,” said O’Brien, president of Carson-Newman College, a Baptist school in Jefferson City, Tenn. “Repentance is the result of God’s forgiveness—not the cause of it. God does not love and forgive us because we repent. We repent because God loves and forgives us. That’s the radical gospel of the cross.”
Jesus demonstrated unconditional love on the cross when he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Nobody had repented of his involvement in his crucifixion before Jesus freely forgave, O’Brien noted. But God’s universal forgiveness of sinners does not mean universal salvation, redemption and reconciliation, he explained.
“Forgiveness is a necessary but insufficient condition for reconciliation,” said O’Brien, a former religion professor and administrator at Baylor University. “Reconciliation is always conditioned upon the response of the forgiven.”
What’s true in the relationship between God and sinful people also holds true in human relationships, he explained.
“Forgiveness is a one-way street. Reconcilation is a two-way street,” he said.
Jim Denison, theologian-in-residence at the Baptist General Convention of Texas and president of the Center for Informed Faith, agreed.
“Forgiveness makes reconciliation possible but does not ensure that it is achieved. Both parties must be willing to restore their relationship before reconciliation is accomplished,” Denison said.
The example of Christ—and the grace Christians receive from God—demands action on the part of the person who has been hurt, O’Brien insisted.
“The victim has the task of initiating reconciliation,” he said. “That sounds crazy. But it’s the gospel.”
No excuse for offense
Forgiveness does not “look the other way” and pretend no harm as been done, O’Brien added. It does not minimize the damage caused or the offense committed.
“Forgiveness is not a substitute for judgment. Forgiveness is judgment. It is saying, ‘I judge you guilty, but I forgive you anyway,’” he said.
Forgiveness involves choice—choosing not to punish an offense, Denison observed.
“It is not pretending that the person was not harmed or excusing harmful behavior. When a governor pardons a criminal, she does not deny the reality of the crime, but rather chooses not to inflict the punishment prescribed by the law. God forgives our sin in the same way and calls us to treat others as he treats us,” Denison said.
Forgiveness does not mean enabling future bad behavior or imperiling innocent people. O’Brien cited the example of a woman who has been physically abused by a spouse. Forgiveness does not mean placing oneself—or others who are vulnerable—in a position that facilitates future abuse.
“Forgiveness is not a synonym for foolishness,” he said. “We’re not called to cast our pearls before swine. We’re not called to put our own safety or health—or that of our children—on the line.”
Forgive and forget?
When God forgives sinners, he “will remember their sins no more,” according to Jeremiah 31:34. But some Christian theologians and mental health professionals question whether that is either possible or advisable for human beings.
“God possesses the ability to forget all he forgives. … Such capacity is beyond most humans,” Denison said.
Denison points to the example of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who offered a prayer of forgiveness for people who were beating him to death with stones.
“Had Stephen survived the stoning he forgave, it is unlikely that he would have forgotten the experience,” he said.
Psychologist Dan McGee of Arlington, who administers counseling services for Texas Baptist ministers for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, agreed.
“I doubt that Jesus forgot his excruciating suffering and death by Roman crucifixion, perhaps the most humiliating and painful means of dying ever conceived by depraved minds,” McGee said. “However, most of the pain we experience at the hands of others, friend or foe, is not the result of willful intent to harm us.”
McGee recalled a personal experience, when he asked a friend how a former colleague could be so cruel in his behavior toward people with whom he had worked. His friend advised him not to take it personally and said, “When people are motivated by fear, they will run you over with no thought of the body count in their wake.”
“I discovered that it is far too egocentric of me to think they did what they did with my demise in mind,” McGee said. “What I am able to do in (Christ’s) strength is remember, not forget. Remember that what they did makes some kind of sense to them, and try to understand the circumstances they were dealing with to behave as they did. And when I find myself in such circumstances, think carefully of the impact my behavior could have on those God loves.”
Forgiveness liberates the person who does the forgiving, O’Brien stressed.
“To refuse to forgive is to live life backward,” he said, noting the person who rejects the possibility of forgiveness can become “a pain junkie” who draws his or her identity from the hurtful experience.
“Only forgiveness sets us free to a brand-new future. The only thing harder than forgiving is the alternative of living in bitterness.”
Forgiveness possesses healing power for the person doing the forgiving, and it holds the potential of broader healing through reconciliation, McGee noted.
“Forgiveness is always appropriate because of what nonforgiveness does to us and what grace expressed has the potential of doing for those who have harmed us,” he said.
“Forgiveness frees up the energy it takes to bear the burden of anger indefinitely. Psychologists know that anger suppressed—conscious blocking—or repressed—unconscious blocking—creates and sustains depression.”
But at the relational level, reconciliation moves to the next level, he added.
“Forgiveness is the healthiest response, but reconciliation is a celebration,” McGee said.
“And there is no bond as tight as that one that emerges from two friends, lost in conflict, recovering through reconciliation.”
–With additional reporting by John Hall of Texas Baptist Communications