The freedom of forgiveness

A little over 10 years ago, on April 28, 1999, 17-year-old Jason Lang was gunned down while attending school in Taber, Alberta, by a troubled 14-year-old boy.  Coming on the heels of the Columbine massacre, this tragedy shook the nation.

Jason’s memorial service was conducted by his father, Dale Lang, an Anglican priest.  Towards the end of the moving service, he stunned everyone in attendance by announcing that he was going to walk out to the site of his son’s shooting to lay a wreath.  After laying the wreath he led the assembled mourners in a prayer to reclaim the school so that it would be safe for future students,  expressed his own decision to forgive the boy who had killed his son, and prayed a prayer asking God to forgive, heal and bless the shooter and his family.

How could Dale Lang do this?  He has been asked this question many times in the ensuing years.   On one occasion he explained it this way.

[A]s someone who had been a follower of Jesus Christ for 22 years, forgiveness was the only response that I could give. I didn’t think about it, my wife and I didn’t sit down and talk about it, it was a response out of our faith. We did it because it was the way we understood who Jesus is. And we did that and it had a significant impact on people in the country.  I can’t explain except to say that people just are not used to forgiveness.

Most of us will never have to endure the tragedy of losing a son or daughter to a killer, but all of us have been hurt by others at times in our lives.  All of us have known what it is to be wronged or to have our trust betrayed.  Some have received wounds that have left deep scars.  Unless the trauma is so huge that it overwhelms our defenses, we often tend to minimize, deny and bury the pain of these smaller betrayals and offenses, pretending that they have not affected us.  But such bitter roots bear bitter fruit, causing us to miss out on the grace of God, and leading to a backlog of unacknowledged resentment and bitterness as our hearts gradually become hardened and trust becomes more and more difficult.

Although pride or fear of pain may prompt us to want to deny it, the truth is that betrayals and wrongs do hurt us deeply.  There is nothing unspiritual about acknowledging this.  They hurt us because we were designed to thrive in an atmosphere of love and trust.   This is especially true of young children whose hearts are tender and impressionable.  Because we live in a fallen world with imperfect parents who are unable to consistently model God’s merciful kindness for us, we grow up emotionally damaged to a greater or lesser degree.  When we come to faith in Christ, and our sins are forgiven at the cross, we are set free from condemnation, but our backlog of emotional garbage usually remains in place, and needs to be removed.

God won’t force you to let him clean up your garbage – the choice is yours.  You can keep it if you want to.   But the wonderful truth is that everything needed for our healing, cleansing and restoration has been provided by Jesus’ powerful, life-transforming teaching and example and his sacrifice on the cross.  Jesus not only taught us to freely forgive those who have wronged us – he did it himself.  If anyone could ever have claimed to be an innocent victim, it was Jesus – yet when he was hanging on the cross he uttered this unprecedented prayer:  Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.  He understands our pain, loves us completely, and is able to give us the ability to forgive and love those who have wronged us.

Because we have all committed many wrongs in our lives, we are all in need of God’s mercy.  Jesus taught us that we can only receive God’s forgiveness as we forgive others.   As we learn to practice forgiveness, we become freer and freer.  Dale Lang didn’t just wake up on the day of his son’s memorial service and realize that he had to forgive his son’s killer.   Although Dale and his wife Diane were in tremendous emotional pain because of this devastating loss, they had learned years earlier to walk in the freedom of God’s forgiveness, and they knew right away what they had to do.  Their decision to forgive their son’s killer not only protected their own hearts from becoming hardened, it also allowed them to have a huge impact on many people.  They were used to bring healing and hope to the students at their son’s high school, and since then, Dale Lang has told his story on hundreds of occasions, speaking at high schools, at prayer breakfasts, at restorative justice conferences, and in many other venues.  Every time he has been asked to speak, through his simple story of the power of forgiveness he has been able to bear witness to the light that Jesus has brought into the world.

The details of our story will be different than theirs, but we can learn much from Dale and Diane Lang’s example.  Because of their choice to let Jesus heal their hearts and lead them into the freedom of forgiveness as a way of life, they have been able to turn a curse into a blessing.  By their example they have demonstrated the love and power of God to many, with great integrity and simplicity.  Practising forgiveness is its own reward, but it also provides us with many opportunities to show God’s kindness to a needy world that is suspicious of religious show but hungry for authenticity.