On May 13, 1981, Pope John Paul II entered St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. Mehmet Ali Ağca was waiting with a gun. Ağca pulled the trigger. Four bullets hit the pope, and he was rushed to the hospital where he eventually recovered from his wounds. Ağca was immediately taken into custody.
Just after Christmas in 1983, Pope John Paul II entered a cell in an Italian prison. He took Ağca’s hand in his own and looked his would-be assassin in the eye. Then the pope forgave the man that tried to kill him. The pontiff later said, “What we talked about will have to remain a secret between him and me, I spoke to him as brother whom I have forgiven, and who has my complete trust.”
That’s an amazing story of grace. As I wrote in posts about grace last Thursday and Friday, grace is undeserved forgiveness. But I recount the story here not just because of the pope’s forgiveness, but because Mehmet Ali Ağca remained in prison until 2010.
The pope forgave Mehmet Ali Ağca, but there are still consequences for Ağca’s actions.
We hesitate to extend grace, and even doubt that God might be graceful with “some people,” because we fear it is equivalent to letting someone off the hook for the consequences of their actions.
But that is not the case. Even though I know I am forgiven by God for everything I have done or will do, there will still be earthly consequences when I inevitably screw up. That is good for me – I need to learn from my missteps – and for those around me.
As a parent, when my children misbehaved I certainly forgave them. But there were consequences . . . how else would they learn?
When I share the grace I have received from God and forgive someone who does not deserve it and/or has not asked for it, that does not mean that I roll over and invite them to harm me again.
If another person betrays my trust by sharing a confidence, I will (hopefully) forgive them, but may not let them in on anything that I don’t want to be public knowledge.
Nowhere in the Bible does it say that we must “Forgive and forget.” To forgive is to extend grace; to forget may be just plain stupid.
Amazingly, it is only GOD who forgives and forgets! (Hebrews 8:12, Isaiah 43:25). How an omniscient God forgets all the times I have fallen short is certainly a mystery, but it is truly a wonderful promise.
This is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so let me close this brief discussion of the distinction between grace and pardon from consequences with a confession on behalf of the church that I serve. I don’t mean the particular congregation, but rather the church of Jesus Christ historically. For many years it was the practice – and unfortunately still is in in some places – that women who were abused were instructed to “forgive and forget” in the name of grace and to preserve the “sanctity of marriage.”
The church has been just plain wrong in those instances. It has confused the meaning of grace. Certainly, at some point and with God’s help women will hopefully be able to release themselves by forgiving their abusers. But that does not mean that they should have to return to be hurt again and again. The “sanctity of marriage” was already violated by their abusers.
And grace, whether extended by God or by others, does not mean there are no earthly consequences.