The Paper Pulpit
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound ...” So begins one of the most beloved hymns of all time, a staple in the hymnals of many Christian denominations. The author of this hymn was John Newton, who was born in London on July 24, 1725. As an adult he became the captain of a slave ship, but on May 10, 1748, he was converted and became a Christian. In the hymn that has been loved by millions for more than two centuries, Newton is describing himself when he speaks of the “wretch who once was lost but now is found” — saved by amazing grace.
Grace is often described as “unmerited favor” — forgiveness not deserved. The Bible describes grace with meaningful phrases like “the riches of grace,” “the glory of grace,” “the abundance of grace” and “the manifold riches of grace.” As in the life of John Newton, every person who is the recipient of God’s grace receives forgiveness for their sins and is transformed. The tragedy is that many Christians who accept God’s forgiveness are unwilling to forgive others.
Philip Yancey in his book, Rumors of Another World, shares the powerful story of Nelson Mandela, who taught the world a lesson concerning the impact of God’s grace when it is both accepted and shared with others. Emerging from prison after 27 years, he was elected president of South Africa. In an unusual action, he asked his jailer to join him on the inauguration platform. He then appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to head an official government panel with a daunting name, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Mandela sought to defuse the natural pattern of revenge that he had seen in so many countries where one oppressed race or tribe is controlled by another.
For the next two-and-a-half years, South Africans listened to reports of atrocities coming out of the TRC hearings. The rules were simple: if a white policeman or army officer voluntarily faced his accusers, confessed his crime, and fully acknowledged his guilt, he could not be tried and punished for that crime. Hard-liners grumbled about the injustice of letting criminals go free, but Mandela insisted that the country needed healing even more than it needed justice.
At one hearing, a policeman named van de Broek recounted an incident when he and other officers shot an 18-year-old boy and burned his body, turning it on the fire like a piece of barbecue meat in order to destroy the evidence. Eight years later, van de Broek returned to the same house and seized the boy’s father. The wife was forced to watch as policemen bound her husband on a woodpile, poured gasoline over his body and ignited it.
The courtroom grew hushed as the elderly woman who had lost first her son and then her husband was given a chance to respond. “What do you want from Mr. van de Broek?” the judge asked. She said she wanted van de Broek to go to the place where they burned her husband’s body and gather up the dust so she could give him a decent burial. With his head bowed, van de Broek nodded agreement.
Then she added a further request, “Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.” Simultaneously, some in the courtroom began singing “Amazing Grace” as the elderly woman made her way from the witness stand, but van de Broek did not hear the hymn. He had fainted, totally overwhelmed. Justice was not done in South Africa that day. Something even more important than justice took its place!
Remember this: God’s grace is not complete until it is shared with others. Forgiveness is the perfume that the trampled flower casts upon the heel that crushed it. The first stage of forgiveness is the decision not to try to inflict a reciprocal amount of pain on those who have hurt you. When you forgive others, you give up the right to hurt them back. You suspend the law of vengeance. Reconciliation is possible only when you have given up the quest to get even. To refuse to forgive is to allow the one who has hurt you to keep you chained in a prison of bitterness and resentment year after year. No one is more miserable than the person who has an unforgiving spirit. But when forgiveness is given and reconciliation takes place, a miracle happens — a miracle that God makes available in the lives of those who choose it.
Are there persons whom you need to forgive? If you expect God to forgive you, you must forgive others!
The Rev. D.E. Parkerson is retired pastor of First Baptist Church of Sanford.