Throughout my 27-year pastoral career, I’ve heard many agonizing stories of hurt, misunderstanding, and betrayal. Here’s one true thing I know: Sinners wound each other. Often. But then, sometimes, against all odds, a miracle occurs—these hurt sinners choose to forgive. Why? The reasons vary, but the forgiveness always flows from something special about the good news of Jesus. The following vignettes provide four different windows into why Christians can choose to forgive.
To Overcome Evil With Good: Chris’s Story
Chris Kelly loves bees. For 47 years he’s been keeping bees (most recently over 1 million on 100 hives) at his Promised Land Apiaries on the North Fork (or east end) of Long Island. Bees may seem fierce, but they are actually delicate and vulnerable creatures. So Chris was shattered when he found eight hives destroyed by vandals who split the clusters, exposing about 100,000 bees to a quick death in freezing weather.
Stunned and angry, Chris wondered, Who could do such a thing? And what should I do? He knew he could file a police report, but tracking down the vandals would consume time and energy. On January 28, 2018, Chris posted the following on his Promised Land Apiaries Facebook page, “I've been doing some thinking after seeing eight of my hives destroyed by vandals. I mourn the loss of the precious bees and am deeply saddened by the hatred of the vandals. My faith tells me to bless those who spitefully use you and to repay evil with good (Luke 6:27-28; Rom. 12:18-21). Promised Land Apiaries is going to donate eight five-frame nucs (or beehive starter kits) for people to start up in beekeeping or repopulate hives they've lost. Let's sow hope and light in our community.”
The local newspaper found out and wrote a beautiful story about Chris’s response to the vandalism, even including the Bible reference that moved him to forgive. Five days later Chris wrote the following post: “Promised Land Apiaries has successfully committed to donating a total of 10 (not eight) nucs to individuals across Long Island in memory of the vandalized hives! Delighted to be able to help people begin or continue in the wonderful journey of beekeeping. We will be giving a special hive installation demonstration and a special blessing of the bees. Open invite to all. My North Fork community, your love, support and encouragement to us has blessed us beyond measure. Love wins.”
Sometimes we choose to forgive so we can have a front row seat as we watch God’s goodness overcome evil.
To Let God Be the Judge: Benjamin’s Story
The first time the attackers came, they nearly killed Mama Gloria Kwashi. They were looking for her husband, Benjamin Kwashi, a much-loved and courageous Anglican bishop in northeast Nigeria, who was out of the country. “When they burst into my room,” she said, “they started hitting me on the head with their guns. ‘Where is the bishop?’ they yelled. Whack! On my head. ‘We know he was meant to come back today.’ Whack! Whack! Whack! Then one of them broke a bottle over my head.” For 2 ½ hours they terrorized her until she lost consciousness.
The same attackers returned in less than 18 months. This time they found Benjamin and told him, “Man of God, we have been assigned to kill you.” He said, “Let me pray first.” So as they took him outside to shoot him, he opened his Bible, got on his knees, and started praying Psalm 124—“If the Lord had not been on our side … when people attacked us, they would have swallowed us alive” (Psalm 124:1-3 NIV). Miraculously, when he looked up, they were all gone.
Now, 10 years later, I asked my friend and mentor Benjamin, “What helped you and Mama forgive your attackers?” He said, “This is what helped me. God knows my attackers. He saw them when they were planning the attack. He knows their names, their addresses, and their phone numbers. I had to leave all things in God’s hands. I believe a day of judgment is coming. The Lord Almighty is a righteous God. On that day his justice will be perfect. I live as only a man, who is waiting for the day when the true Judge will make everything clear.”
When I asked, “But what about today?” he replied, “In this life I do not judge. If I held bitterness towards those young men, I could not shake their hands or share a meal with them. My preaching and teaching might be focused on what they did to Gloria and me. I would not be free to hug them and bring them to Christ.”
Sometimes, if we can stop being the judge, we can forgive as we trust the real Judge of all people to make things right.
To Weep With the World: Sheli’s Story
Sheli remembers the exact moment her heart shifted towards the young man who sexually assaulted her teenage daughter. The shift was sheer grace. After being bullied severely at high school, her daughter was already vulnerable. Then a classmate assaulted her. Sheli and her husband quickly learned that the pursuit of justice would take years, and that the process might traumatize her daughter. So they chose to focus their energy on healing. Meanwhile, Sheli said, “He got to continue school, play football, enjoy the prom. He got to live life.”
Then, startlingly, her heart opened to forgiveness. Sheli told me, “I was sitting on my best friends’ front porch, trying to process what had unfolded in the last 72 hours. I felt as if God had lifted a weight off my heart that I was never meant to carry off of my heart—allowing me to see past the crime against my daughter. He quickly let me see, before I could build a wall around my anger, that what this boy had done was a result of someone breaking him years ago. Someone in his life had hurt him deeply, and therefore he had acted out of the evil that had been done to him.”
It was God’s gift. Sheli said, “The burden of anger was too heavy to carry. I had to let go of the anger so we could fully engage with our daughter and our family, or healing would never come. So I chose to focus on restoration rather than justice, connection rather than conviction.”
Sheli also added, “This is not to say that there have never been moments when I am so angry and resentful. I am. But those moments are few in comparison to an overwhelming sadness of how broken this world is.”
Sometimes we forgive because it’s better and more Jesus-like than hiding behind our walls of anger and bitterness. So we ask God to dismantle our walls, and we sit with Jesus and weep over the world’s brokenness.
To Be Like Jesus: Hesham’s Story
Growing up in Lebanon, Hesham Shehab was taught that his family descended directly from the tribe of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. He was also taught that Christians were “unclean infidels” descended from the morally corrupt West. So when a “Christian” militia killed his beloved older brother during the Lebanese Civil War, Hesham’s heart filled with the poison of bitterness.
“My brother and I were best friends,” he said. “We learned how to swim and bike, had the same friends, and went to school together. I thought that revenge would be sweet. So, I got a silencer and two pistols, and I started stalking my enemies in the streets at night.”
Meanwhile, in his university studies, he started reading selections from the Bible and the Qur'an. At the climax of his hate and thirst for vengeance, he read Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:44-45). Hesham said, “I felt that I heard the voice of God in stereo. I, who knew what an enemy is, and who sought to kill my enemies, felt that Jesus' exhortation was superhuman and could not emanate from an ordinary human being, but only from a divine source. I was taught by Muslim clerics that the Bible was distorted by rabbis and bishops, but I was compelled to know the truth of Christ's words. Even though I was suffering and grieving the loss of my brother, I thought, There is another way, a way of forgiveness.” Hesham chose to accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior, and then he chose the way of forgiveness.
Sometimes we forgive because Jesus did. He asks us to forgive and He lives within us and gives us the power to forgive.