On December 1, 1997, about a dozen students were gathered together for their daily prayer meeting at Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky. As they said their final "Amen," a 14-year-old boy suddenly walked up and opened fire on the group. Three of the students died, while five others were seriously wounded. The irony of the situation was that a number of these students had actually befriended this young man.
In the midst of this tragedy, an amazing story of forgiveness emerged. As she lay in the hospital, one of the injured girls — 15-year-old Melissa Jenkins — was informed that she most likely would be a paraplegic for the rest of her life. Melissa wanted to convey a message to the teenage boy who shot her.
What do you think her message was? Did she say she hated him or that he would get his in the end? No. This is not what she had to say. This Christian teenage girl said she forgave him.
Only a Christian can do something like that. It is not a natural thing to do. Rather, it's supernatural. That is one of the amazing things about true followers of Jesus: they have the capacity to forgive people.
Understand that if you are a Christian, then you — like Melissa Jenkins — need to learn how to forgive as well. In fact, to not forgive someone is an outright sin. If you don't forgive a person who has sinned against you, then you are sinning against God. To say that you are a Christian, but that you refuse to forgive, is a contradiction in terms.
If you are an unforgiving Christian, then one must question how much you know about Christianity. Jesus constantly pressed this issue. His sermons, His parables, His private talks, even His prayers, were often filled with lessons about forgiveness. You would be blind to miss this point.
There are a number of reasons I could give as to why we should forgive, but let's consider two very significant ones.
One, you are never more like God than when you forgive. It has been said, "To err is human, but to forgive is divine." If you want to be like Jesus Christ, then you need to be a forgiving person.
Jesus modeled this beautifully as He hung on the cross. Remember what His first statement was? " 'Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do' " (Luke 23:34 NKJV). There was Jesus, forgiving from the cross. His statement was so powerful in its effect that one of the thieves came to his senses right on the spot and believed.
Two, it is only reasonable that forgiven people should be forgiving people. One day, Simon Peter thought that He would impress Jesus with his willingness to forgive others. He came up to the Lord and said, " 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?' " (Matthew 18:21 NKJV). He probably was expecting the Lord to say something like, "Are you serious, Peter? You are willing to go seven times? Let's have a round of applause for Simon Peter. Way to go, Peter."
No doubt Peter was surprised when Jesus said, " 'I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven' " (verse 22). I don't think Jesus was saying that if you have forgiven someone 490 times, then it is open season for offense number 491 and above.
Rather, the message was clear: unlimited forgiveness. Forgiveness is to be extended over and over again. That is what Jesus was saying.
Here is what it comes down to. God has forgiven us of such an incredible debt. All of us have sinned. All of us have broken God's commandments. But God has pardoned us of all of our sins, and therefore we should be willing to extend that same forgiveness to others.
As I have often said, He came to pay a debt He did not owe because we owed a debt we could not pay. Therefore, a forgiven person should be a forgiving person.
If you are not a forgiving person, then one has to question whether you really know all that much about forgiveness.
As C. H. Spurgeon advised, "If you want to learn about your need for forgiveness, go to the cross. If you want to learn about forgiving others, hang out there for a while." That is what we need to do.
Out of their long and painful journey has come a really helpful survival guide, so to speak. It’s a book called Suffer Strong: How to Survive Anything by Redefining Everything. It’s not just an inspiring story of triumph through trials but a how-to book for accepting God’s plan and recognizing His providence even when it feels like your world is shattered.