The following column was prepared by Don Shoemaker, who retires next month as pastor of the Grace Brethren Church in Seal Beach, California. In addition to his pastoral work, Shoemaker has served as police chaplain and as head of the Social Concerns Committee for the FGBC for many years.
Forgiveness—Conditional or Unconditional?
My heavy involvement in the events and relationships that followed the mass murder in Seal Beach on October 12 have brought the issue of forgiveness to the front of my thinking.
It was my honor to officiate at the funeral of Randy Fannin, owner of the Meritage Salon and a murder victim on October 12. At one point in my message I mentioned some of the feelings and issues we must work through and I mentioned “forgiveness.” I said, “I am not one who believes in unconditional forgiveness.”
The next week I attended the last of the services for the eight victims. The pastor said, “We need to love and forgive.” So he and I both commented on forgiveness and that’s where the similarity ended.
After the pastor said that, an officer leaned toward me and said, “I’m not sure about the forgiveness part.” And I later learned that all the officers who attended Randy’s service heard what I said about forgiveness loud and clear. In fact, I was even contacted by a funeral director who listened. He said he was a Christian and had never heard anything like that ever said in church!
Well, it wasn’t my idea! Jesus said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (see Luke 17:1-4).
Forgiveness is not just how I feel about being wronged by someone. It’s not focused on my interior so much as it is an interpersonal concept. Forgiveness (and, if at all possible, reconciliation), in order to be full and true, has to have a process to address and resolve the issues that created the wrong in the first place along with a heart’s desire not to do it again.
God forgives us, but not without conditions. Sin must be atoned for in Christ. We must respond to God’s offer in repentance and faith and commitment. And we are called to forgive as God has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32). This affirms and does not erase conditions.
Murder? In this case full forgiveness is impossible for the primary victims who were violated are not there to extend it. Family and others in the inner circle can forgive, but why should they without remorse and, as may be done, restitution? Society cannot “forgive” unless the “debt to society” is paid (how it should be paid in the case of premeditated murder is another debate).
So I think I know what the other pastor was saying. Someone who wrongs us shouldn’t get the double victory of watching us consume ourselves with bitterness. But I also know what I was saying. Forgiveness requires a process that is just and restorative. I know the officers concurred.
Senior Chaplain, Seal Beach Police Department