I've been thinking recently about something television star Kelsey Grammer said. It's not because I saw a rerun of Cheers. Unfortunately, the context is tragic. Grammer has me thinking about well intentioned people who end up "packing unforgiveness." Where deep wounds are concerned, there are those who try and do what they believe faith requires. Yet, they end up hurting all the more.
Before I write anything more, I want to go on record saying that I have prayed for Kelsey Grammer. I have three lovely sisters and two beautiful daughters, and I simply cannot imagine what he has gone through.
To understand why Grammer is on my mind, you need to know something of the awful tragedies he has endured. When Grammer was only 13 years old, his father was murdered. A shark killed his twin brothers while they were scuba diving. But the most devastating loss for Grammer may have been the murder of his sister, Karen.
In the seventies, Grammer's 18-year-old sister Karen graduated from high school and moved to Colorado. Shortly thereafter, she was abducted as she left her waitressing job. Three men kidnapped, raped, and killed her.
Grammer was devastated. He said that Karen was his best friend and the best person he knew. He has felt guilty ever since because he wasn't there to protect his sister.
Eventually, a man named Freddie Glenn was convicted of Karen's murder, as well as two other murders. He was sentenced to life in prison. At that time, Colorado offered the possibility of parole for those with life sentences. This summer, 34 years later, Freddie Glenn is eligible. (See link here).
Grammer wrote an impassioned letter to the parole board members, asking them not to free his sister's killer. Parole was denied, and I certainly agree. Under no circumstances should this killer ever taste freedom in this life.
Grammer's thoughts about forgiveness in his letter to the parole board continue to be on my mind. Here is an excerpt:
". . . Please consider, when you wrestle with the fate of this man that killed my sister, the degree of suffering he has inflicted on his victims but also on the families of his victims. It has been many years since the murders and he has spent many years in jail. We, whose lives were so altered by his selfishness and brutality, have spent those years in a prison of our own. Yes, time has helped, but we will never be free. Why should his fate be any different?
I am a man of faith and my faith teaches me that I must forgive. And so I do. I forgive this man for what he has done. Forgiveness allows me to live my life. It allows me to love my children and my wife and the days I have left with them.
But, I can never escape the horror of what happened to my sister. I can never accept the notion that he can pay for that nightmare with anything less than his life. . . " (see letter here).
Notice the part I emphasized with italics. Grammer believes that God requires him to forgive his sister's killer: "I am a man of faith and my faith teaches me that I must forgive."
It's at this point, if I were visiting with Grammer, that I would gently suggest that he has misunderstood what God requires. Grammer believes people of faith should always automatically forgive offenders. As a result, he is trying to do the right thing and forgive his sister's killer. Someone has probably told him that he should forgive for his own sake--that unconditional forgiveness is the route to freedom. In reality, I wonder if Grammer's automatic forgiveness isn't packing bitterness and unforgiveness into the depths of his soul.
Contrary to what many say, in my book, Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds, I argued that forgiveness is conditional. Christians are not called to automatically forgive every offense. Rather, we should offer forgiveness to all. Said another way, we should maintain an attitude of forgiveness. But biblical forgiveness is more than a feeling. It is something that happens between two parties, and it takes place in the fullest sense only when the offending party repents and the relationship is restored.
While I include more detail in the book, the Biblical argument for conditional forgiveness is straight-forward.
• Christians are called to forgive others as God forgave them (Matthew, 6:12, Ephesians 4:32).
• God forgives conditionally. God only forgives those who repent of their sins and turn in saving faith to Him (1 John 1:9, John 3:36).
• Likewise, we also should offer forgiveness to all.
• We forgive those who repent. Indeed, we are obliged to forgive (Luke 17:3-4), knowing that whatever someone has done to offend us pales in comparison to what we have done to offend God (Matthew 18:32-33). (See what others say on conditional forgiveness here).
If I was talking with Grammer and I suggested that forgiveness is not automatic, he might ask, "Didn't Jesus forgive those who crucified him, even as he was on the Cross (Luke 23:33-34)?" The short answer to that question is, "no, Jesus did not forgive them." By praying, Jesus demonstrated an attitude of forgiveness. He prayed that those who crucified him would be forgiven in the future; he did not thank God that they were already forgiven. If they had already been forgiven, such a prayer would have been superfluous. (See more on this point here).
Usually, however, the objection to conditional forgiveness is for pragmatic reasons rather than biblical ones. People counter, "If we don't forgive everyone, then won't we become bitter?" The answer is, "no, not if we follow the example of Christ." Christians are called to have an attitude of forgiveness toward all. This leaves no room for bitterness.
At the same time, someone in Grammer's situation need not worry that anyone will get away with murder. Vengeance belongs to God. He will repay. Count on it. (Romans 12:17-21). As much as Grammer loved his sister, Almighty God is infinitely angrier about what happened to Karen. I choose my words carefully, but there will be a Hell of a reckoning, one way or another. Either this killer will turn in repentance and faith to Christ, in which case Jesus' work on the Cross is sufficient to atone. Or, this killer will face the unmitigated fury of God forever. Forever. Borrowing Jonathan Edward's language, in Hell, unrepentant sinners will wear out the sun in their agony and be no closer to the end.
Some might counter that considering the judgment of those who have hurt us is wrong or unbiblical. Quite the opposite. Christians in the Bible take comfort knowing that justice belongs to God and that he will repay (Romans 12:19, 2 Timothy 4:14-15, Revelation 6:10). Indeed, it is when we realize what awaits unrepentant sinners in the eschatological future that our hearts will begin to break for them. As Bonhoeffer said about the Nazis, "It is only when God's wrath and vengeance are hanging as grim realities over the heads of one's enemies that something of what it means to love and forgive them can touch our hearts."
I have preached and taught enough on this subject to know that here is where some of you will throw up your hands and say, "Okay, this is just a matter of semantics. You say, 'offer forgiveness'. I say, 'give it'. What's the difference?"
There is a big difference. If we say that everyone is forgiven, then we redefine forgiveness. Instead of it being something that happens between two parties (as it is in when God forgives us), forgiveness becomes something that I decide to do on my own--independent of the one who has hurt me.
Go back to Grammer's words. "I am a man of faith and my faith teaches me that I must forgive. And so I do. I forgive this man for what he has done." It is unclear what he means by saying that he forgives his sister's killer. Obviously, Grammer does not mean that he has a relationship with this man. Nor, does he mean that his feelings have changed either toward the offender or about the pain. He says he can never escape the horror of what was done to Karen. We can only surmise that what Grammer meant when he said that he forgives his sister's killer was something like, "I have to stop thinking about this evil man and go on with my life."
But Grammer's approach hasn't worked. In his words, he is still in a prison built by his sister's killer. He wrote, "We, whose lives were so altered by his selfishness and brutality, have spent those years in a prison of our own. Yes, time has helped, but we will never be free."
Furthermore, forgiving in this privatized, automatic kind of way has become far less than what the Gospel requires. It seems fair to assume that Grammer has no intention of ever offering anything to Freddie Glenn, yet this is exactly what God did. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Indeed, those who put their faith in Christ can say, ". . . He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.(Col 1:13-14, emphasis added)." Christians are called to follow the Savior's example, offering the handshake of forgiveness to those receive it in repentance.
I suppose, if I were talking personally with Grammer, suggesting that he be willing to shake hands with his sister's killer might raise the temperature in the room by 30 or 40 degrees. Yet this is the Gospel. Even though we are by nature objects of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3-4), God offers forgiveness. We are to do the same.
Automatic forgiveness packs unforgiveness. It redefines forgiveness as far less than what it means biblically. It hardens hearts with bitterness, isolation, and pessimism. In contrast, conditional forgiveness centers on the Cross. It offers the Gospel to all, recognizes that because of Christ any offender can be forgiven, believes that all relationships can be redeemed, and rests knowing that justice will be served.
Kelsey Grammer said he will never be free of what Freddie Glen did to his family. This need not be so. Those who know Christ can be assured that one day very soon, we will be in his presence on a New Earth where there is no more death, mourning, crying, or pain. It will be a new day. All wounds will be healed completely (Revelation 21:3-5). There, Christ's people will be free indeed (John 8:31-32).
HT: To my daughter Allison for help with the title, and to Dan Phillips for his recent post, "When Justice is Forgotten (Capital Punishment)."
Dr. Chris Brauns is the author of Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds. He is the pastor of the Congregational Christian Church of Stillman Valley. You can read his blog at http://www.chrisbrauns.com/. He hearned his MBA from the University of Northern Iowa, MDiv from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and his DMin from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where his doctoral thesis considered how pastoral search committees evaluate preaching. He has studied and spoken extensively on the topic of forgiveness.