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"How Could She Ever Forgive Him?"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on January 14, 2024
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2024 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Matthew 18:27

"Then the Lord of that servant was moved with compassion and forgave him the debt," the Gospel according to Matthew 18:27.

Five years ago in January of 2018, a young woman named Rachael stood in a Michigan courtroom and offered forgiveness to her abuser, a man named Larry. Years ago Larry had been Rachael's medical doctor, but he had since pled guilty to accusations that he had sexually assaulted not only Rachael but also many other young women and girls over the course of two decades, under the cover of offering them specialized medical care. Because Larry had pled guilty, all that remained was for the judge to decide on his prison sentence. And after hearing seven days of testimony from more than 150 women and girls explaining how Larry's abuse had impacted their lives, the judge opted for the maximum sentence. Currently, the former doctor is in prison serving a life sentence with no option of parole.

But Rachael, on that day in the courtroom, she offered him forgiveness.

Many people don't understand forgiveness. Some see it as excusing the inexcusable. Forgiveness is cowardly they say. It's afraid to call evil evil, afraid to stand up and confront those who do evil. Some say that forgiveness fails to protect others from becoming victims because it enables the abuser to continue unchecked. Some say the idea of forgiveness is a weapon used to silence victims wielded by people in power—like the powerful institutions surrounding that doctor, institutions that systematically silenced his victims for years. Forgiveness is an assault on the truth people say and accomplice in crime and affront to justice. And sadly, too many of these accusations are accurate when it comes to forgiveness or at least what sometimes passes as forgiveness. But this was not the case with the forgiveness that Rachael extended to Larry, the man who abused her.

Rachael wasn't excusing Larry's behavior when she offered him forgiveness. Rachael, in fact, was the first person to publicly bring formal charges against him. Though over the years, many girls, including Rachael, had reported Larry's behavior, but were silenced, were disbelieved, were written off as overreacting. But it was Rachael who broke that silence and insisted on telling the truth no matter what it cost her personally, because she believed it was her duty to protect others. In that same statement, when she offered Larry forgiveness, she also appealed to the judge that Larry be given the maximum sentence afforded by his plea bargain. She spoke clearly and calmly to the judge about her experience. She said, "Larry is a hardened and determined sexual predator. His ability to gain my trust and the trust of my parents was the result of deliberate, premeditated, intentional, and methodological patterns of abuse, patterns that were rehearsed long before I walked through Larry's exam room and which continued to be perpetrated, I believe, on a daily basis for 16 more years, until I filed a police report."

Clearly, whatever Rachael was doing when she offered Larry forgiveness, it was not excusing his behavior. But then we might ask, was she really forgiving him? If she were really forgiving him, shouldn't she be excusing him from the consequences of his actions? It's an understandable question because forgiveness is a highly misunderstandable action. And this has been the case for a very long time.

Professor Charles Griswold in his book titled Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration, studied the practice of forgiveness from a secular perspective. He wrote, "It is surprising and illuminating that forgiveness is not seen to be a virtue by the ancient Greek philosophers." Forgiveness was not seen as virtuous. People are suspicious about forgiveness today, and they were suspicious about forgiveness long ago. See, these ancient philosophers understood why someone might want revenge and they understood why it might be good sometimes to overlook some offenses, even to excuse bad behavior, but they did not understand forgiveness, at least not the kind of forgiveness that Rachael was offering Larry.

These philosophers did talk about something close to forgiveness because they knew that the desire for revenge can get out of control. They had seen firsthand how revenge can burn like a wildfire. They had seen cities, countries, lives decimated by revenge. And they knew that thirst for revenge when it's held back can then freeze a person cold with resentment. So if you're not going to let revenge get out of control and you're not going to let resentment control you, the best you could do according to these ancient philosophers was to take the high ground. The best course of action was to see the wrongdoer as beneath you, to be condescending toward them, to despise them as unworthy of your attention, so that they could have no more control over your emotions.

But is that forgiveness? Is forgiveness mostly about moving on, about self-improvement, about being a virtuous person, and less about concern for the other person: the one who wronged you? When I listened to Rachael how she offered forgiveness to Larry, it sounds like there's something more there. You can listen to the recording of Rachael's 40-minute-long impact testimony that she gave in that Michigan courtroom. (You spend a little time searching for it on the internet, you'll find it.) Twenty-eight minutes into the recording you'll hear the way she addressed Larry. She doesn't sound bitter or vindictive. She doesn't sound condescending like she's dismissing him so she can get on with her life. If you listen, you might think she sounds like a mother speaking to her child, an unrepentant child, but loved, nonetheless. And you might wonder where did she learn to speak like this.

Rachael, it turns out, is a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. Like me, she's part of a global community of people who believe that Jesus is the most important person in the world and that Jesus is at the heart of the account of God in the Bible. Rachael learned about Jesus and the Bible from her parents. She wrote, "My parents showed us that love is the foundation for everything, and behind everything was love for Jesus Christ." When Rachael was three, her mother had caught her in an act of some three-year-old defiance. She had done some minor physical damage to the family's home and she knew that it was wrong and she tried to hide it. When her mother found out, she calmly talked to Rachael about the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible and how they had tried to hide from God. But God found them and God talked to them about the damage they had done. God corrected them because He loved them. And because they couldn't fix the damage that they'd done, God promised to fix it by sending us Jesus.

When Rachael was seven, she had done some seven-year-old act of defiance and had emotionally wounded her mother. When her father came home, he confronted Rachael about it. "Did you know that your mother was crying in the bathroom?" Rachael quietly shook her head. "That's my wife," he told her, letting the weight of his words settle on her shoulders. "That is my wife," he repeated. "Your behavior today hurt my wife. And you need to know this: I love her and I will protect her." Rachael says she doesn't remember what other punishments were meted out that day. Whatever they were, they had no weight compared to her father's words. Both her father and her mother showed her what God's love in Jesus looks like. God loves us by giving us the dignity of being responsible for our actions, and God loves us by not letting our inexcusable actions come between Him and us.

We misunderstand forgiveness when we misunderstand love. But we can only understand love when we meet the Source of love, God, as He has given Himself to us in His Son Jesus the Christ. Without God's love in our hearts, our attempts at forgiveness will always reduce to excuses we make, whether for ourselves or for others. And when the excuses don't work anymore, they'll leave us resentful or vengeful. And when that lets us down, all that's left is to try retaking the high ground by dismissing those who hurt us, by judging them as not worth our attention. But God's love sets us on a different path, a path that follows Jesus to His self-giving sacrificial death on the cross. Jesus died because someone has to pay. Someone has to pay to repair the damage that's been done because our inexcusable actions and inactions do real damage, damages that have real costs.

Jesus once told a parable about forgiveness. The verse I opened with, Matthew 18:27, is from that parable. It's about a servant who owed an unpayable debt to a king. The servant begged for forgiveness, and the king moved with compassion, forgave him, erased the debt. But that doesn't mean that the king snapped his fingers and made the debt disappear; it means that the king himself carried the cost of the debt. Instead, the king humbled himself to become a servant to his servant, while still giving him the dignity of being responsible for his actions, as the second half of the parable shows.

This is how Rachael could offer forgiveness to Larry. Before she could begin to offer him forgiveness, she had to see herself exactly in the same position before God with an incalculable debt she could never repay. She had incurred an equally unpayable debt, not only by the bad things that she had done, but also by the good she had failed to do. But God had moved toward her with compassion. He forgave her the debt. In this respect, she was no different than Larry. You and I are no different. None of us can make the payment. None of us can fix the damage caused by what we have done and left undone. So God together with His beloved Son paid. Jesus paid the unpayable, and rose from the dead to repair the irreparable.

Rachael knew she was just like Larry, not because her behavior had been like Larry's. No, Larry's choices were uniquely his own and he alone was responsible for them. Rachael is like Larry because he is loved by God also. God sent His Son so that nothing would come between Him and His love for them, both of them. See, Rachael knew that she couldn't deal with Larry one-on-one, but only with Jesus as their Mediator, as their go-between. Rachael knew that God through these proceedings was saying to Larry, "This is my daughter. Your behavior has hurt my daughter. You need to know this. I love her. I will protect her."

And Rachael knew that Jesus was saying to her, "You need to know this. Despite all Larry has done, I died for him. I love him just as I love you." This is what Jesus was doing for Larry. Even under the maximum penalty of his plea bargain, God was still loving him, protecting him. How is that possible? And how is it possible that Jesus was also loving and protecting Rachael and the 150 other girls in the courtroom whom Larry had abused? How is Jesus loving and protecting you when He lets you suffer? Honestly, I don't know how it's possible. But I trust that with Jesus it is.

Maybe it's something like how children can't begin to comprehend the complexity of the situation their parents are in, assuming that they're loving parents. The parents love their children, yet they must work with each one uniquely holding each one accountable, each on their own timeline, measuring out appropriate consequences, knowing when to rush in and fix things and when to wait. And whether they're waiting or fixing or punishing or correcting, they're always loving. And then multiply that times the billions of people in the world across space and time and the incalculable debts we all owe and the damage we've all done. That's what it's like for God. Except where human parents do this imperfectly, God does it perfectly. No, I don't understand how Jesus could be loving Larry and all the rest of us, but I believe He is. Jesus has stepped in to mediate for all of us. He's relating to each one of us personally because He wants to protect us, because we all face a danger far worse than prison without parole, because there is a second part to Jesus' parable about forgiveness.

The man who had been forgiven that incalculable debt by the king soon thereafter cut himself off from the love of the king. And the evidence of this was in the way he began using and abusing the people around him. The man started acting as though he were the king, and that the people around him were there to serve his needs. He made himself into a counterfeit king, a self-serving tyrant, a false god. He thought he could impose on the people around him, and then dispose of them as he pleased. He thought he could live without a mediator. And without a mediator, all that's left is an unpayable debt, an eternal debt. That's the danger we all face. That's the danger Larry faced.

See, at this point in the proceedings Larry had formally pled guilty as part of a plea bargain, but when appealing to the judge, the one who was going to decide his sentence, he was still trying to justify himself. It seemed he was still unrepentant, still masquerading as a counterfeit king. And Rachael loving him, forgiving him, told him the truth. She addressed him soft-spoken yet serious like a heartbroken mother. She said, "Larry, in losing the ability to call evil what it is, without mitigation, without minimization, you have lost the ability to define and enjoy love and goodness. You have fashioned for yourself a prison that is far worse than any I could ever put you in." She said, "You brought your Bible into the courtroom and have spoken of praying for forgiveness. If you read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love is of God Himself loving so sacrificially that He gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin He did not commit."

"And the Bible you carry," she told him, "speaks of a final judgment where all God's wrath and eternal terror is poured out. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the Gospel of Christ so sweet, because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found—and it will be there for you. I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so that you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me, though I extend that to you as well."

Rachael Denhollander's memoir is titled, What Is a Girl Worth? It's received hundreds of five-star ratings from readers around the world. And if you read it, you'd understand why, Rachael, this daughter, this wife, this mother of four, a lawyer, an advocate, an educator, why she was named one of Time Magazines' 100 most-influential people, why she received the Inspiration of the Year Award from Sports Illustrated, why she was named "Michiganian of the Year" by The Detroit News. But none of these awards and accolades will help you understand how she can forgive. It's not because she's more virtuous than the rest of us, it's because the King who became a Servant is leading her in His love. And that King is here to help you forgive as He forgives. In His Name. Amen.

Reflections for January 14, 2024
Title: How Could She Ever Forgive Him?

Mark Eischer: For FREE online resources, on-demand audio, and more, go to Now back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. We are visiting again with Dr. Dan Paavola, a professor at Concordia University in Wisconsin. Also, the author of several books, including one that goes with a theme for this month, focusing on forgiveness. The title is Flowing from the Cross: Six Facets of God's Forgiveness. Welcome back, Dan!

Dan Paavola: Thank you. It's a joy to be with you.

Mike Zeigler: Why is it important to know that there are other forms of forgiveness that are just masquerading as forgiveness, but are counterfeits in a way? Can you give us some examples of that?

Dan Paavola: It's so natural, isn't it? To come up with a reason or our own image of forgiveness. And I have three in the book. One of them is that it doesn't take much to find someone worse than you are. And it's easy to imagine that that's why God should forgive me because well after all, "Well look, I'm not near as bad as that guy." We often would rather be excused by comparison than forgiven by the cross.

Well, then the other one is "winter gloves." The layers of excuses we give for ourselves are our winter gloves. If we put on enough layers of excuses over our hands and God comes to us with a ruler of correction, maybe we'll be fine.

And the last one is just so, so common to us. "Give me a second chance. Well, can I have a second chance?" Do you really think you're going to be much better given a second chance?

Even if I got a second chance and I'm really, really, really, really good, that only pays for today. That says nothing to the debt and the interest I'm piling up for the past. So, Mike, I think that all of these are easy to come to mind, but none of them are the real thing of forgiveness.

Mike Zeigler: How do you see this intersection interplay between forgiveness and love?

Dan Paavola: You bet. Well, there's a wonderful verse that I think brings them together pretty well: Psalm 103: "As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love towards those who fear Him. As far as east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us." So the psalmist says first love and then forgiveness. And I think that answers the natural question of forgiveness. Imagine a judge looking at us and, by the way, we're as guilty as could be, and he looks at us, brings down the gavel and says, "Not guilty!" Okay, that's great news, but I've got to ask, "Why?" Well, we've got the answer: "As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for us." Why would a righteous God dismiss our sins, send them far away, and declare us not guilty. It's love.

All those other things we try to come up with as excuses or reasons or I'm not as bad as someone. No, no, no, no, no. God, the Judge is saying no, that's not it at all. There's only one thing: His amazing love, His mercy, and that's all expressed of course in sending Jesus to take that cross. So when we send those sins far away, they're there on the cross with Him. But we live in the sunshine of heavens above us; that's the love of God. So, I think they not only naturally work together, but you need a reason for why would God forgive us? It's as simple as that: that love as high as the heavens.

Mike Zeigler: And part of what people misunderstand about love these days is they confuse it for permissiveness. How does love give us this dignity of being responsible for our actions?

Dan Paavola: Absolutely. Isn't there a part of us that says, "Wait a minute, isn't somebody going to pay for this? Doesn't somebody have to do something for all the wrong that's been done?"

I think at that point God steps up and He says a very simple sentence: "I gave My Son to die for you." Is that enough? Yes, that's more than enough. So, I think, Mike, we have that natural tension. While we love to be forgiven, there's also a sense of justice. Doesn't somebody have to do something? Doesn't somebody have to pay for this? And again, the answer then always goes back to Jesus and a simple sentence from God: "I paid with My Son. That's more than enough."

Mike Zeigler: Thank you so much for giving us your time today and for this wonderful book. If you're interested in reading it or using it as part of a group Bible study. Again, the title is Flowing from the Cross: Six Facets of God's Forgiveness by Dan Paavola. Thanks for being here, Dan.

Dan Paavola: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be with you.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"The Only Son from Heaven" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.

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