*This article first appeared as a guest column in the Rockford Register Star.
As a pastor, this week I have considered what I would say to one of the Virginia Tech parents who lost a child. In these days and years of Columbine, Oklahoma City, and now the Virginia Tech massacre, it is a question we all face. How should we respond to such evil?
Some believe that Christians should immediately forgive. One web site contends that Cho Seung-Hui deserves to be “respectfully and lovingly remembered just like the rest of the victims.”
Automatic forgiveness on the part of Christians is common. From Oklahoma City to Columbine, some rush to forgive regardless of whether or not they were victims. And, some forgive even if the offender does not repent.
However, well intentioned, such automatic forgiveness is misguided. Not only is it inconsiderate of the families of victims, it also undermines a proper understanding of the justice of God and the integrity of grace.
Alternatively, Romans 12:17-21 summarizes three guidelines for a proper Christian response to evil. First, Paul admonishes his audience not to take revenge. He repeats this point three times (Romans 12:17, 19, 21). Virginia Tech victims cannot respond with vindictive hatred towards Cho Seung-Hui, his family, or others they believe are responsible. Revenge is not an option for Christians.
In a second guideline, Paul tells Christians to authentically love all people. “Let love be genuine . . . If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all (Romans 12:9, 18).” Amish families exemplified genuine love when they offered financial assistance to the family of their daughters’ murderer. Overwhelmed by such love, the widow of the shooter, Marie Roberts responded, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world.” It would be an act of stunning beauty if Christian victims reached out lovingly to the family of Cho Seung-Hui.
But, the third guideline Paul offers is that Christians should, “Leave room for the wrath of God.” Indeed, this is why Paul argued that Christians should refrain from revenge. Christians can rest in the certain truth that God will accomplish perfect justice. Such a confidence in the justice of God guards Christians from the bitterness that poisons those who believe it is their job to retaliate.
Paul later shared with Timothy how he put this truth into practice. “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him . . . (2 Timothy 4:14-15a).” Paul does not say he forgave Alexander. Neither is he bitter. He trusts God for justice.
Some argue that Jesus automatically forgave those who crucified Him. But, this is not the case. Jesus prayed that they would be forgiven, which demonstrates that they were in fact, not yet forgiven. It was the repentant criminal next to him that Jesus forgave (Luke 23:34-43). Similarly, Stephen prayed that his killers would be forgiven (Acts 7:60). His prayer was answered in part when Paul repented, and was subsequently forgiven, on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1ff).
Others, based on a therapeutic, privatized understanding of forgiveness, argue that forgiveness is strictly for the sake of the person doing the forgiving. Forgiveness is understood as a feeling. But, this is contrary to how Scripture defines forgiveness. Biblical forgiveness is a commitment by the offended to graciously pardon the repentant from moral obligation or liability. It is reserved for the repentant (Luke 17:3-4). Biblical forgiveness is not a private matter. It is a transaction between two parties.
Ultimately, the perfect response to evil is given by the Lord Himself, “. . . He did not retaliate. . . Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23b).” And, He forgives all who repent and believe in Him (John 3:36).