Christians horrifically injured by unrepentant offenders should point an onlooking world to the Cross.
It has now been over 10 years since Charles Roberts IV murdered five Amish little girls in Nickles Mines, PA, and injured five others, before killing himself. Two recent articles give an update.
- Washington Post, Toby Itkowitz: Her son shot their daughters 10 years ago. Then, these Amish families embraced her as a friend
Several have asked me to comment on the recent stories of how Amish forgiveness has brought healing to the shooter’s mother.
The above articles offer positive evaluations of the Amish response. I wholeheartedly agree that the love the Amish have demonstrated is beautiful. Amish grace has done so much to stop what could have been a cycle of anger and revenge. But there is a crucial element missing.
When the Offense is Grave and the Offender Is Unrepentant
In Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds I argued that when the offense is grave and the offender is unrepentant Christians must follow the example of Christ in 3 ways. These principles are explicit in Romans 12:17-21 and 1 Peter 2:21-25.
- No revenge. Scripture clearly prohibits Christians from retaliating in any way (Romans 12:17, Romans 12:19). Any bitterness or vindictiveness is completely off limits for Christians.
- Proactively show love. Christ demonstrated his love for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). Likewise, Christians should look for ways to positively and creatively reach out to those who injure us (Romans 12:17).
- Leave room for the wrath of God. God has promised that he will see that justice is done (1 Peter 2:23, Romans 12:19). The Bible consistently comforts victims, not by saying that the sin will be overlooked, but rather by encouraging us to give the matter to God (cf. 2 Thess 1:5-10, 2 Timothy 4:14, Revelation 6:10).
In Unpacking Forgiveness, I showed how commendably the Amish have followed principles 1 & 2. Here is an excerpt of what I wrote:
The beauty and loveliness of Christ reflected in the lives of the Amish in how they responded to Roberts. There was never a thought of revenge. They showed love proactively and creatively. First, there was the thirteen-year-old, Marian, who asked Roberts to shoot her first. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). God bless Marian.
The families continued what Marian began. When donations began to pour in to help with the expenses, the Amish immediately offered assistance to the family of the man who had murdered their daughters. One Amish elder explained: Who will take care of their family? It’s not right if we get $1,000 and they get $5. We must set something up for these children’s education.
The stories of Amish grace and love after the shooting can only be highlighted here. More than half of the people who attended the funeral for Charles Roberts were Amish. Parents of the slain children invited Roberts’s widow, Marie Roberts, to attend the funeral for their daughters. Overwhelmed by such love and grace, Marie Roberts wrote to the Amish, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world.
It is principle number three that concerns me where the Amish response is in view. In terms of what has been reported, there is almost nothing written that shows the Amish pointed an onlooking world to the justice of God and the necessity of the Cross. Here is another excerpt from Unpacking Forgiveness:
. . . I believe the Amish community of Nickel Mines glorified God in how they proactively and lovingly offered grace to the family of the man who murdered their daughters. They were so exemplary in their love amid such awful circumstances that one hesitates to differ with their response in any way. And yet because their actions were widely represented as a model of how Christians should respond to evil, it is appropriate to consider if their response could have been more balanced.
So far as I am aware, and I have not done an exhaustive study, there was little or no mention by the Amish of the justice of God. From the beginning they automatically forgave Roberts. An Amish woman said on television that they had to forgive if they wanted God to forgive them. The grandfather of a victim said, “We shouldn’t think evil of the man who did this. “
It is true that Christians must not be overcome by hatred. Yet, Christians must also warn an onlooking world about the justice of God. Christians should most explicitly point people to the cross when evil is darkest. There is a way to lovingly remind people that God’s judgment is certain (Hebrews 9:27). There is not room here to dialogue thoroughly with the Amish position. Several quick points, however, can be made.
The Amish do practice conditional forgiveness with their own members. They shun those who breach their order and do not receive them back into fellowship unless they are repentant.
The Amish do believe in hell and eternal judgment. While they may say that they forgive an unrepentant offender, they believe God will deal justly with him or her.
The Amish are not evangelistic. While a rare event such as Nickel Mines may draw attention to Amish faith, it is hard to square their radical separation from culture to Jesus’ commandment to go into all the world to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). Amish passivity is not effective in calling people to faith and repentance.
The Forgiveness Quiz – This will get you started thinking about forgiveness.
Didn’t Jesus Forgive Unconditionally on the Cross? – One of the first questions that comes up when we talk about the truth that Christians should not always forgive.
Others on Unconditional Forgiveness – This is a collection of quotes from others who interact with the subject of conditional forgiveness.
5 Problems With Unconditional Forgiveness – Numerous problems arise when we encourage cheap grace. Here are 5 examples
Should I confront an offender or just get over it? – What should be confronted? What should be let go? This post will help you work through the question of when to confront.
How can I stop thinking about it? – The “mental gerbil wheel” is one of the most difficult aspects of deep offenses.
How can I forgive myself? – This is another forgiveness question people often raise.
Chris Brauns Review of Totally Forgiving God by R.T. Kendall – Is it okay for Christians to forgive God. Some authors argue there are times it is appropriate. In this review for The Gospel Coalition I interact with R.T. Kendall’s book.