The Sept. 11 fiasco in Libya, in which a U.S. diplomat and three other men lost their lives, is too extensive to detail here. I’m struck by one aspect of the story: a father’s loss. When Tyrone Woods, a 40-year-old former Navy SEAL then serving as embassy security personnel, rushed to the aid of the embassy compound in Benghazi, he found no backup and allegedly died in a hail of bullets while trying to signal targets for a counterattack that never came. On Sean Hannity’s TV show a few weeks later, Tyrone’s father Charles clearly implicated official negligence in his son’s death, possibly extending to the White House.
Citing his Christian faith, Charles Woods added, “I don’t know who [the responsible parties] are, but one of these days the truth will come out. I still forgive you, but you need to stand up.” His two young daughters seconded that, the older one adding, “As a Christian, we should act as Jesus wanted us to act. … Jesus was pretty good at forgiving.” This is generous—and troubling. The family of Tyrone Woods has a right to forgive those who have hurt them, and even more to do it in Jesus’ name. But is it really forgiveness at this point?
At least the Woods family was offering pardon for a personal loss. Too often, Christians are lectured on the need to forgive some heinous murderer facing execution because “that’s what Jesus would do.” Or a pastor ends a funeral sermon over the casket of a murder victim with exhortations to forgive the murderer. Or a counselor tells a man abused as a child to let it all go and forgive his abuser. But the vendors of blanket forgiveness overlook two vital elements: the involvement of the offender, and the Person who is ultimately offended.
In a survey of Scripture passages including the words forgive or forgiveness, I found several contexts: forgiveness urged for someone else (e.g., Genesis 50:17); requested by the sinner, whether sincerely (1 John 1:9), or not (Exodus 10:17); granted on the request of a mediator (Numbers 14:20); granted with no explicit request (Matthew 9:6); and, in the majority of cases, granted on one condition—the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22). In no case is forgiveness offered without knowing who the perpetrator is, and Psalm 51:4 makes it clear that in every case the ultimate offended party is God.
But what’s the harm in “forgiving” unknown perpetrators or notorious criminals?
First, I doubt it’s even possible to forgive someone who has not asked for it (a theme of several inconclusive after-church conversations). Forgiveness is not an initiative, but a response. Forgiveness on one side must be balanced by confession and repentance on the other, even if it’s seventy times seven. We can agree that to remain bitter and angry over unconfessed wrong isn’t healthy. But forgiveness that wasn’t requested isn’t true. Setting aside revenge and looking to God for vindication are proper Christian responses (1 Peter 2:23), but they aren’t the same as forgiveness, and it doesn’t help to confuse one for the other.
Even worse, confusing the concept among believers is apt to scramble it still further among unbelievers—thus the secular sermons about “forgiving” people we’ve never met for crimes that did not affect us personally. This is actually a blanket pardon extended to everyone for anything, on the notion that forgiveness is God’s stock in trade. It’s just what He does, right? Issue blank checks for people to do whatever they feel like doing.
That’s not what God says. In His infinite compassion He forgives iniquity, but in His infinite holiness He can “by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34:7). Sin must be paid for, and God forgives on one basis only: the blood of His Son. Only then can He grant forgiveness, and only for those who ask.
Charles Woods has a struggle ahead, and I pray for him. But if he is ever able to truly forgive, it will be at the end of the process, not the beginning.