Earlier this year, thousands of people assembled for the funeral of a New York hero—NYPD Detective Steven McDonald. McDonald was on patrol on July 12, 1986, when he spotted a bicycle thief and two other teenagers in Central Park. When he moved to frisk one of them, 15-year-old Shavod Jones shot McDonald three times, with one bullet piercing the officer’s spinal column and leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.
As Steven began to realize the full extent of his injuries, he was overwhelmed with despair and anger. McDonald had a turning point when he turned to Christ and prayed the famous prayer of Francis of Assisi: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon….” Gradually, his attitude changed, and Steven became an advocate for forgiveness. About six months after the accident, McDonald made a statement about Jones through his wife that defined the rest of his life: “I forgive him and hope he can find peace and purpose in his life.”
In the years following the shooting, McDonald’s message of forgiveness opened the door for him to travel around the world. He met with Pope John Paul II and Nelson Mandela, and sat for an interview with Barbara Walters. He also took his message of forgiveness to Israel, Northern Ireland and Bosnia.
When McDonald passed away at age 59, his family encircled him and prayed the Lord’s Prayer focusing especially on this part: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. (Matt. 6:12)[i]
There is nothing closer to Christ-likeness than when we release an offender from an offense. Simply put, forgiven people are forgiving people. If you can’t learn to forgive then you don’t understand the Gospel. As C.S. Lewis has written, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”[ii]
We can’t survive life’s traumas if we don’t learn to forgive others. When we forgive someone, we are not excusing or condoning their actions. We are choosing to release the bitterness that can poison our own personalities. We are letting a ray of compassion break through the clouds so we can forgive as God has forgiven us.
Lewis Smedes wrote, “To forgive is to put down your 50-pound pack after a 10 mile climb up a mountain. To forgive is fall into a chair after a marathon. To forgive is to reach back into your hurting past and recreate it in your memory so that you can begin again. It is to ride the crest of love’s highest wave. To forgive is set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.”[iii]
[i] “Steven McDonald, Paralyzed Police Officer Who Forgave Shooter, Remembered as 'Superman,'” USA Today, 13 January 2017 <https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2017/01/13/paralyzed-detective-who-forgave-shooter-eulogized-as-hero/96547244/>
[ii] Jerry Root and Wayne Martindale, The Quotable C.S. Lewis, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2012), 221.
[iii] Lewis B. Smedes, “Forgiveness, The Power to Change the Past,” Christianity Today, January 7, 1983, p. 26.