On June 17, 2015, the SBC Annual meeting was breaking up in Phoenix while the Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, SC was holding a small prayer meeting. A skinny white loner wandered in and was welcomed so warmly that he almost changed his mind about the evil he had come to do. When the prayer service ended, he pulled a gun and opened fire on the mostly elderly congregation. Nine people, including the pastor, entered eternity and the world was in shock. Dylann Roof fled but was apprehended quickly and the next day was brought in to be arraigned.
At the arraignment, the story took a turn. Several members of the Emmanuel church showed up, not to protest or call for Roof’s blood, but in the midst of their grief and pain, to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ. They expressed words of forgiveness and hope to the man who perpetrated this vile act against those they loved.
A relative of Myra Thompson, one of the slain, said this.
“I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that He can change him and change your ways, so no matter what happens to you, you’ll be okay.”
They both forgave him and called on him to repent and seek the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. They refused hate or to wish evil against the man who had demonstrated hate and evil against them. They lived Jesus in front of the world.
The press, already in a frenzy about the murders, was in disbelief at their actions. Some were even offended and outraged. Ericka Schiche of Salon magazine was horrified at this act and wrote an article entitled, “Why America needs to reject the Charleston massacre’s dangerous narrative of forgiveness.” They were convinced that outrage and anger were essential in response to such a horror and that forgiveness would perpetuate such acts. Many think that anger and outrage are productive responses when faced with abuse, injustice, and other cultural horrors.
This attitude is found in the church as well. There have been embroiled infuriating, shameful, and disgusting injustices throughout church history, but many have come to full light recently. Our nation’s treatment of minorities is a shameful stain on our history and the church has been more than complicit, but a leader in that sin. The abuse scandals that because famous in the Catholic church have spread to other denominations and parachurch groups and have shaken our convention to the core. Not only have many innocents been sexually abused by church leaders, but denominational leaders helped to cover this up. Too often, we protected the abusers instead of the abused, the institutions instead of the injured.
Anyone with a heart for the Lord and a shepherd’s heart for God’s people is not only deeply ashamed at this, but infuriated at the stories we hear. When we hear of leaders harassing survivors, of online abuse and trolling, of so-called journalists persecuting those who have already suffered horrors we cannot even imagine, we want to scream!
Even in the Christian world, many ask, “Where is the outrage?” The insinuation is that outrage is a proper, biblical, and spiritually productive response to injustice in this world.
I get it, at least a little. Bile rises inside when I hear stories of churches firing pastors for inviting black children to VBS, or for failing to vote for a particular presidential candidate, or when I see an incident like George Floyd’s brutal murder, or hear another story of abuse, oppression and coverup. Rage is a normal, human response to any of this.
It is not, I am convinced, a godly response, nor a productive one. Before some of you pick up stones to stone me, I ask leave to present God’s word over a series of posts and to deal with some specific questions and answers at the end. Just a hint – I believe that we should forgive those who hurt us, but that does not prevent us from reporting them to the police and testifying against them in court. Neither do I believe women should be badgered into forgiveness to silence them, to keep them from speaking out about the sins committed against them. Forgiveness is a personal choice made out of love for God, not a tool used to badger or further brutalize those who have been abused.
My Walk with Anger
Having said that, loving our enemies and forgiving those who have sinned against us is a biblical command and cannot be ignored without detriment to our spiritual health. I know. I tried it. I recently left my pastorate after 17 years and many people told me I was done wrong. That’s for God to decide, but in my trip to Africa in November, and in the months since, I’ve been in spiritual rehab, spending a lot of time with God doing spiritual inventory concerning my walk with him. Recently, I have been preaching Colossians 3 at my interim church and as I studied and preached verse 13, a lot of things crystallized for me. That passage calls on us to “forgive as Christ forgave.” There are no exceptions. It doesn’t say, “unless the hurt was bad enough.” It doesn’t list certain sins which are outside the pale. It just commands us to forgive.
I realized how I allowed anger and injury to build up in my heart against people I perceived had hurt me. In some cases, I genuinely believe they did hurt me and God will deal with it in his time, but God has been reminding me that vengeance is his, not mine. He has been reminding me that my duty is to walk in his love, to “love my enemies,” to prayer for them, and to forgive those who have hurt me as Christ forgave a sinner named Dave Miller.
There is no wiggle room in those commands. They are commands and to ignore them is to disobey God. Regardless of how justified I might feel, to ignore the commands to love my enemies and forgive them is sin. Regardless of the extent of their sin, I cannot set aside God’s commands.
In this series of posts – I have no idea how many posts it will be – I am going to deal with aspects of forgiveness. The last post or two will deal with questions like “Can I forgive and still report someone to the police?” (yes) and “Can we force someone to forgive?” (no).
If you are infuriated with what I am saying (and based on past experiences, some will be), I only ask that you show me where I am missing the mark biblically. I am trying to present what I believe to be the perfect word of God. If I misrepresent what it says, PLEASE argue.
Is Outrage Productive?
Does our anger and outrage accomplish anything productive? Many assume that it does, even many Christians. Some assert that holding our anger in causes pain. How should we handle anger, hurt, and even abuse? Are outrage, venting, and displays of anger useful tools?
There are clears answers to this question in God’s word. James 1:19-20 is on point.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
It can’t be much simpler, can it? We always want to justify our anger as righteous, like Jesus turning over the tables or his calling out of the Pharisees, but it generally just isn’t so. Remember, Jesus always had a redemptive purpose in all he felt and all he did. Our anger is not redemptive, but destructive. It doesn’t accomplish God’s righteous purposes.
In our therapeutic culture, we justify because it makes someone feel better, but if our purpose is to glorify God in all things and to be like Christ, then we must be very careful with our anger. It is not spiritually productive.
Look at Proverbs 29:11.
A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man quietly holds it back.
That doesn’t sound right, does it? We are told to vent our emotions, not to hold them back. God’s word says that wisdom holds back and it is fools who fully vent their anger. Why? When we give full vent to our anger, the consequences are destructive. We tear down and destroy.
God has given us weapons of warfare to handle the troubles and trials we face in this world. They are powerful, used by the Holy Spirit to accomplish his purposes. Our weapons are not of this world. Look at 2 Corinthians 10:3-4.
For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.
God gives us spiritual weapons that have divine power. Anger and outrage are not among these weapons. Love, forgiveness, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, prayer – these and many other heavenly weapons are at our disposal.
It is my thesis that, as has been true in my life, the failure to love our enemies and forgive as Christ forgave is a key spiritual issue in many of our lives. We wonder why we are spinning our wheels spiritually and going nowhere, yet we hold grudges and refuse to forgive those who have hurt us. We want to receive forgiveness from God but not grant it to others.
When we, in reality, love our enemies and forgive those who have hurt us the most as Christ forgave us, we will experience a new freedom and joy in our Christian lives – something truly supernatural.
- The next post will deal with a couple more basic questions and I will talk about what I believe is the key to all of this – Christ-active living. Then, in what might be the third post, (or fourth) I will deal with Ephesians 4:26-27, “Be angry and do not sin”