Living in The Netherlands, I often went for long walks in the nearby Dunes. It was a place of escape, and a wonderful place to meet God. Sometimes His words were comforting, and at other times, unnerving. Grabbing my pocket NT, I often turned to the Pastoral Epistles. I was, after all, a pastor. There was one afternoon I was reading 2 Timothy 2, and I was seized by the Spirit. It’s the best way I know how to describe what happened next. Paul’s words, “You, therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” created an urgency to leave.
Walking back to my house, I immediately drove north to a neighboring Dutch village. There was a man God placed on my heart. I hesitated, but an urgency compelled me to knock on his door. A large German scientist greeted me and invited me in. He was not an easy parishioner. He disagreed with just about everything I did as a pastor. I began by asking forgiveness if I had offended him in any way. For the next half hour, he proceeded to rip me apart. Paul’s words kept coming back, and I knew God was calling me to receive everything with both love and silence. It was clear this would come out uneven. This was not part of some self-interested exchange. I thanked him for his time and left. I don’t recall we ever had another conversation.
For some strange reason, God keeps encountering me with this mystery of grace. I recently finished Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis. It is the story of a Lutheran chaplain who pastored the most despicable men on earth. For months, he extended the love of God to architects of acts that brutalized the innocent. Many of these leaders of Hitler’s army saw no wrong in what they did. It was all for the nationalistic cause. They manifested evil in its darkest and vilest way, and then went home to tend to flowers and attend concerts. Nonetheless, this chaplain extended divine mercy to them, even as they walked up the steps to the gallows. As the author puts it, “The Nuremberg chaplains’ one single burden was to return these children of God from darkness to the good of their own light.” Would this have been my burden?
I found myself asking this same question tonight. I came across an article by Robert Barron, “Forgiving Dylann Roof,” in the most recent First Things. You may remember the story. On the evening of June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof casually joined a group of African Americans who had peacefully gathered at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church to study the Bible. After joining and participating with them, Dylann got up and killed nine of them, including the pastor. He later admitted to the killing and has subsequently made it clear he has no regret. None. Still, these families of the victims have extended grace. They have forgiven him. As one put it, “We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive.” Would I?
I assumed the article would make a case that it is not our place to forgive. Or that forgiveness comes only when the perpetrator has shown some remorse. Or that this simply reveals people who have not properly taken time to take serious the crime and processed their emotions. Instead, Barrons talks about the forgiveness of God they have demonstrated to the world. True forgiveness is writing off a debt. It has nothing to do with whether or not it is deserved. God can love this way because He needs nothing outside of Himself. The world adds nothing to His greatness. Whenever He wills something, it is completely for the good of us.
My human tendency is to want something in exchange. Tell me you are sorry, and then I will forgive. Show some kindness, and I will make a home visit. But Jesus asks, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Love your enemies and pray for them.” Obviously, we can only enter in and participate in such grace when His divine life is in us, and His Spirit has charge of our spirits.
Barron reminds us that this is our mission. To offer grace, even where there is no indication of regret or repentance, is so strange, and yet it is what makes our faith, and our God, so unique. True grace breaks us free of the egotistic rhythm of exchange, of a conditional love that is not so compelling. Such grace and such love demonstrate the existence and nature of God. They astound the world and reach the lost. No wonder we must be strong in grace, standing ready for the next encounter—even if it is in the dunes.