Many years ago, I had a friend who cheated on his wife in a time of weakness. It could have ended his marriage to a fine woman who was a good wife and mother. But she, in the strength of Christlike charity, agreed to give him another chance. Within a year or two, my friend was able to turn his life around, becoming a stronger husband, father, and a good influence on youth with whom he was called to work.
Today we are living in a “cancel culture” in which people can be punished or ostracized for bad or stupid things they said or did years ago. This is often called “justice.” But it leaves no room for the mercy so badly needed by all of us flawed human beings.
Please raise your hand if there is nothing wicked or mean or stupid in your past.
Yeah, I thought so. Me too.
We all have done some of those things. There is one from nearly 60 years ago that haunts me still, something I said carelessly in a college class that left someone in tears. The incident puzzled me. I wasn’t mature enough at the time to understand that the words I chose might have sounded cruel to her and to others. Several years later, I was horrified when I realized what she probably thought I meant; it was something far different from what had been in my heart. But there was no way to find her and apologize or explain.
The best we can hope for with experiences like these is to learn and grow through them.
Today, well-known people often have past words or acts dredged up to be used against them. Lesser-known people often have their embarrassing, petty actions captured by the all-seeing mobile phone and broadcast for the world to see. Maybe some of these people deserve public punishment. Maybe some of their obligatory apologies are insincere. But what about those who really mean it? What about those who really have been humbled and learned valuable lessons? Should their careers or lives be destroyed because they made a mistake?
And do we have the wisdom to judge who is sincere? It seems we would be able to learn this only by witnessing their future actions.
We very often go wrong when we judge the past by what is acceptable or normal today. In doing so, we distort history. We fail to learn its lessons when we try to erase the parts that displease us. Some people never truly deserved statues or monuments, but if we pull down all the monuments to people who ever did or said something we find offensive, there won’t be any monuments left. We will also be saying that all the good those people might have done in their lives counts for nothing.
I know another man who spent many years in prison for crimes against children, punishment he fully deserved. He is not repentant now; I would be wary of having him close to my grandchildren. And yet—I am alive to write this because he was there to rescue me from a drainage canal I had gotten myself into when I was four years old. I was struggling not to drown. I can still feel the sticky mud sucking at my feet when I sank under water and touched bottom. He jumped in without hesitation to pull me to safety.
How could I possibly judge the value of this man’s life? I thank God that the responsibility of judging is up to Him, not me.
When we deny others the chance to repent, we break the bridge that we each need to cross ourselves. All of us have need to repent and be forgiven at some time in our lives.
We might think that some people deserve their comeuppance, people whose actions and ideas we don’t like very much. Maybe they do deserve punishment—but maybe it’s not up to us to decide how or when.
Or maybe they actually don’t deserve it. Maybe we aren’t seeing that this experience has shed new light for them and given them the motivation to change.
Either way, forgiveness is our best course. That way, we avoid the trap of self-righteousness and gain the right to ask mercy from God and others. (See Zechariah 7:9; Matthew 6:14-15, 7:1-5.)
In forgiving, we might be allowing some sinner to rebuild a life. We might even be helping to save someone from spiritual drowning.