Wrestling with forgiveness

  • Benjamin Swift
  • 21 October 2019
All their friends fell dead around them, the survivors took flight and ran, screaming in terror as the uniformed figure whooped with joy, laughing and cheering, as he picked them off one by one… Few of those shot survived; the killer had chosen his weapon with care, using special dum-dum bullets that explode inside the body, causing maximum internal damage. And he shot each person multiple times.1

This description provides just a small glimpse into the horror carried out by Anders Behring Breivik as he coldly and calculatingly murdered sixty-nine young Norwegians on a small island off of Norway not so long ago.

The human response to this evil is rage and heartbreak that fuels a desire to see Breivik experience, at the very least, the pain and suffering he inflicted on so many.

And the pages of history are littered with names synonymous with evil on a grand scale. Anti-Christian Marxist leaders including Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky, Pol Pot, Castro and Mao, to name a few, produced regimes of unimaginable horrors and human oppression. According to The Black Book of Communism, these Marxist leaders were cumulatively responsible for between 80 and 100 million deaths in the 20thcentury, creating mass killings, deaths in prison and state-induced famines.2

It would be easy—and certainly understandable—for those directly affected by the deep suffering and pain caused by callous acts of other human beings to become twisted and bitter to the point of breaking, continually reenacting their vengeance through their thoughts and dreams as they struggle to make sense of why such evil has taken place.

But is this what Christ calls us to do?

These seemingly natural responses to the unwanted pain brought about by other people can be the most difficult things to wrestle with when it comes to living a Christian life. Real personal grief cannot be dealt with by drawing on philosophical or theological textbook cases. Rather, it must be first filtered through broken hearts before being let go and placed on the shoulders of the God who eagerly waits for us to do so.  

Genuine forgiveness does not come without pain, but nevertheless it is something which all Christians are called to do. There’s a battle of natures going on within each of us as fallen flesh continues to be transformed and conformed to the perfect nature of Christ. As Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

If, then, we are called to forgive as Christ forgives, what does this look like? Are we called to forgive and forget when those who have wronged us express no remorse whatsoever? Forgiveness calls us to put to death our human tendency to hold onto hurt and hate—that is, to adopt a spirit of forgiveness open to reconciliation with those repentant of the pain and suffering they’ve caused. Here forgiveness and humility become intertwined as judgement is left at the feet of the rightful judge and Christ renews us from within on an often long and winding road to recovery. 

To fully comprehend the nature of forgiveness, we must turn to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This is where the forgiveness we can receive in God’s grace is freely offered to all people. We take hold of this forgiveness through what Christ has achieved on the cross through a repentant heart that seeks to be reconciled with its Creator.     

I find this teaching very difficult. It’s not difficult to understand, and I know deep down it’s the right thing to do, but when the rubber hits the road my heart tends to swerve out of control emotionally—because my ‘self’ remains too quick to grab hold of the wheel and relegate Christ to the passenger seat.

Despite our shortcomings, we are called to forgive those who acknowledge their need for forgiveness; to be reconcilers in a world of broken relationships. Christ clearly commands us to forgive others as we have been forgiven by him; if we truly love him, we show it in the way we reflect him back into the world.

But whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:5-6)

As if the challenge to forgive those who wrong us is not difficult enough, the Apostle Paul takes it one step further:

To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:20-21)   

It is here that we begin to comprehend the transforming power of forgiveness to both those who desire it and those who become willing to offer it.

There was a mother who knew about forgiveness on a deep, personal level. Her two teenage girls had been raped and murdered by a man who was found guilty and incarcerated—only to have this courageous woman sit eye to eye with him, offering him the forgiveness she knew she had received from her saviour. Tears streamed down her face as she offered these life-changing words… but it would be safe to say that there were more tears on the face of the forgiven. He served his time—justice remained necessary in both their eyes—but forgiveness brought freedom to two hurting souls.

I ask myself, as a father to my daughters, could I ever do the same? Certainly not without God’s strength. Do I really believe that Christ died for the sins of all guilty people, or just guilty people like me? If Stalin, Hitler or Breivik had turned to Christ and asked for the forgiveness earned for all on the cross, how would I feel about their salvation?   

These are certainly challenging questions, but questions that get to the heart of what Christ demands from all who claim to follow him. True forgiveness can only come about through the death of pride, the root of all gone wrong in the human heart. It is only when Christ truly lives in us that we can crucify that pride and reflect the grace shown to us back into all of creation—including those who trespass against us.


1. Anne Manne, The Life of I, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2015, p.4.

2. Greg Sheridan, God is Good for You, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2018, p.141.