This topic is incredibly relevant given the recent tragic events that took place this past Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio.
An elderly man, returning home from Easter dinner with his family, was gunned down in the street by a distraught man who was at the end of his rope, and felt the need to kill. The murderer then uploaded the video to Facebook and posted several videos of himself “snapping”- in his words.
The victim was a 74-year old man named Robert Godwin. And his murderer, Steve Stephens, is now dead after a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, post police car chase in Pennsylvania. There are still details coming in, but the ones I’ve shared have been confirmed.
If you live in Cleveland, or nearby, like myself, you’ve heard this story relentlessly for the past two days. Even out-of-state radio programs, news stations and other avenues have been trying to educate us and alert us so we could protect ourselves and our families, but also help find the murderer who was on the loose, and bring him to justice through our judicial system.
Though Stephens worked at a mental health facility and was on the giving end of mental health needs for so many, he clearly needed help himself. Sadly, in the end, he took the easy way out. And though he seems to have escaped our system, make no mistake, he is facing his judgement today. That final act is reserved for God alone. It is not our decision to decide his fate. We may have opinions and justified outrage, but where he lands was decided before he pulled the trigger on himself today.
In light of this tragedy, let’s revisit some truth about last Friday- Good Friday.
Christians and believers all around the world celebrate Good Friday, which is truly a day of mourning. Jesus Christ, whom we believe was fully God and fully man, was crucified over 2000 years ago by Rome, Herod, the Gentiles, the Jewish Sanhedrin, and the people of Israel. These groups worked together to have him tried, found guilty and murdered for claims of blasphemy, sedition and treason. His death was senseless, much like the one listed above. To some, he was guilty, but some weren’t as convinced, for they had witnessed miracles and saw Him give love to people whom no one else would have.
JESUS WAS SINLESS.
Regardless of the claims against Him, Jesus was without sin and only carried out the work He was meant to do for the redemption of all of us- Jew and Gentile. But He was found guilty by Rome’s laws, convicted in the evening quietly, so that His death would be a message to those seeking to overthrow the government.
Once He was put in the tomb, they thought they had won.
A common word heard in some communities regarding Jesus’ life is this: Propitiation. I heard it many times in my Lutheran upbringing. And yet, the value of it never sunk in until today while researching. According to Bibleinfo.com, Jesus’ death,
“…lies in the fact that a just and perfect God could not simply sweep sin under the carpet and go on running a perfect universe. God must deal with the injustice of sin. Suppose a criminal should come before a judge and that judge would simply excuse a crime of murder, rape, or theft simply because the judge loved the criminal. What would society think of such a judge?
The Bible says: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right” (Genesis 19:25). Selfishness has a natural consequence that eventually results in death to the innocent (Rom. 6:23). Jesus, the Judge, assumed the consequence of sin on the part of man, rather than inflict death upon the sinner. That consequence was death.
The death of Christ accomplishes reconciliation, or reconnecting us back to God. Romans 3:25 says, “…whom God set forth as a propitiation” for our sins. “Propitiation” literally means “something that appeases a deity.” However, in the Biblical sense it means much more than this. It can mean to “accept hurt”, to “forgive”, to “show mercy.” As sinners we transgress God’s perfect law and have no legal right to exist. But God himself who sits as Judge accepts the hurt, pays the price, forgives, and offers mercy.”
We all can look back through our own lives and remember moments where someone has wronged us, hurt us, hurt someone that we love, and caused pain in one way or another. By the world’s standards, we have a right to be upset, and to retaliate. Eye for an eye, right? After all, going back to the Facebook murderer, didn’t Stephens deserve to be shot by someone else? What right did he have to be the one to do it?
Yet, a few days earlier, on the day that Robert Godwin was murdered, believers everywhere celebrated the miraculous and divine resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the grave-the place He conquered death for us, so we could have eternal life with Him FOREVER! God accepted Jesus’ death as our death, so those who believe in Him and call on His name will be saved. To those of us who follow Jesus, we cannot let unforgiveness take root in our hearts. After all, Jesus certainly didn’t!
We ALL have hurt others too, and have sinned against our HOLY God, whether we agree with the setup or not, that’s the way it is. God is God, we are created beings. We act out of selfishness, hurt each other, make demands and misuse our bodies. We have every right to go to Hell, and experience eternal separation from Him. But Easter Sunday is the day we celebrate our exoneration from ALL of our debts (past, present and even FUTURE) in the perfect, sinless resurrection of Christ.
Because He died, we died with Him. And because HE LIVES, WE CAN LIVE WITH HIM FOREVER!
Robert Godwin was killed on Easter. And that same day, his family was interviewed by news reporters and agencies trying to get the first word. Clearly, this family had every reason to be outraged, upset, furious and retaliatory! But if you’ve seen the reports or heard their interviews, their response is in sharp contrast to our human nature.
Yes, tears are being shed, questions are on their lips, but instead of hate speech, violence and anger, their words are carrying the truth of what we celebrate.
Tonya Godwin-Baines says this to the accused murderer:
“I just want him to know that God loves Him…we love Him. Yes, we’re hurt. But we have to forgive him, ’cause if we don’t, the Bible says your Heavenly Father won’t forgive you.”
Tonya is correct. She is remembering Matthew 6:15, where it states,
“But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
I was sitting on my couch watching the news when I heard her say this, and I immediately started to cry. She’s right! Here I am, having awful thoughts toward this man for what he has done to them, but she’s redirecting my heart to truth. She, and her family, all agree and are spreading the message that forgiveness has to reign.
Why? Why should they forgive this man who killed their family member? In cold blood, in the middle of the day, because he had girlfriend/gambling issues? This older man had nothing to do with this young man’s problems! What right did he have to take Robert’s life?
The answer is he had no right! And we are all justifiably angry about the injustice of it. But this family is demonstrating for us a quick response to an even worse reaction if unforgiveness takes root in their hearts.
What is forgiveness? Personally, I love this definition:
Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender well.
I teach on this subject, and believe it is a choice to let go and not hold onto something offensive. As a believer, we go a step further to deepen our faith by trusting that God will deal with the offender, and that He can be trusted with the outcome without our manipulation or assistance.
Forgiveness is necessary for a sound mind and a free heart. And it’s a gift to an offender who may not even be seeking it, but also the giver who doesn’t bear the weight of the offense any longer.
Don’t believe that your health can be affected by your anger and unforgiveness?
“Chronic anger puts you into a fight-or-flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and immune response. Those changes, then, increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions. Forgiveness, however, calms stress levels, leading to improved health.”
-Karen Swartz, M.D. at Johns Hopkins, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_connections/forgiveness-your-health-depends-on-it
I’m also reminded of a story in the Bible, found in John 9, where Jesus healed a blind man who had been blind since he was born. The disciples (not even the religious leaders who were ready to accuse him at every turn), asked which of the parents had sinned in order to make their son blind (assuming God was punishing the parents for something- sound familiar to any thoughts we seem to have at times?). Jesus’ response was that neither of them had sinned. The act of blindness had happened so that when Jesus encountered him and healed him, he would glorify God. His exact words were,
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. “
Say what!?! This poor guy had to be blind from birth, so that later in his life, he could be healed by Jesus?? That sounds crazy! But to be honest, it is also beautiful. Our lives are meant to reflect the light of Jesus whom we choose to believe in, and our circumstances may be just that-something that happens or that we must endure so that God may be glorified. It doesn’t mean we’re being punished, it means there is something bigger going on.
And this is where I go back to the Godwin family. They have demonstrated extreme restraint and forgiveness. I’m not God. I don’t have an answer for why He allowed Robert to be walking down the street by himself when this other man felt the need to shoot someone at random. I know God would’ve prevented it, because He certainly can step in and assist us at any time.
I am choosing to believe that Robert Godwin was a saved man, who is being heralded by his family for being selfless and teaching ALL of them about the love of God. God knew that Robert was coming home to him in Heaven. Maybe God allowed the death of Robert to be a message of hope for those of us who struggle with life at times. Yes, we can have tragedy, pain and struggles, but God sent His Son Jesus years ago to save us from sin and the charges brought against us before Him. Jesus chose to forgive when the world was against Him. If He could love beyond the hate thrown at Him, who are we to withhold love for others?
At the end of our lives, we will all stand before God with our infractions and charges. None of us will be exempt. Everyone will give an account for what they’ve chosen to do with their lives. The only way we will not face eternal death and separation from God and our loved ones is to choose Jesus, who was the Lamb who died to spare us. Jesus will stand in front of those of us who have surrendered our lives to Him, and defend us, saying we are no longer condemned, but free because of His shed blood.
I don’t want unforgiveness in my heart. I don’t want the physical effects that come with not letting go of hurts and infractions. I want to reflect the light of Jesus to the world, which is full of pain and heartache, and share with others, that, with Jesus, we can forgive. I want to offer the same freedom He offers, and point people in His direction so that they too can share in the gift of eternal life with Him when ours ends here. And I’m thankful to the Godwin family for reminding me of the goodness of Good Friday and the beautiful life-giving truth of Easter, that because of Jesus, we have been forgiven and should extend the same to those who hurt us.
It is not our right to hold onto the offense when Jesus already died for it and wants to grant grace for it. And that may sound like it doesn’t make sense. Where is the justice for when people do things wrong? It’s on the cross. Right next to my sins, are yours. And there was blood shed to cover them. That’s what His grace IS.
My challenge to you: May you take some time and be bold enough to search your heart for the names and moments that have hurt you over the years, and when you’re ready, go a step further. Pray for that person or group, ask the Lord to have mercy on them, forgive them in your heart, and remember the offense no more. We are to pray for our enemies. We are to love those who accuse us and wrong us. It’s completely counter-cultural and absolutely absurd, but it is Jesus’ way. It’s freeing, and moves us from judge, jury and executioner to a son or daughter of God.
And a separate challenge: pray about the unforgiveness in your heart for moments and hurts done to someone you love or care about. It’s not your burden to carry. Give it to Jesus. There is no reason to have hatred in our hearts for injustice. We can walk alongside our friends, and help point them back to the cross. God doesn’t need any of our help deciding who deserves what, when we all deserve death. When you realize what you’ve been saved from on Good Friday, your heart will open up to the idea of loving those who have hurt you, in spite of the hurt, so that you heart, soul and mind can be healthy and at peace with God.
Praying you can take these steps, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, release those who have been on your “hook” and trust them in the hands of God.
Love, Gracie 🙂