The Arithmetic of Forgiveness

September 29, 2017
Zach Davis
HDS student Zach Davis

What would it look like to practice radical forgiveness? Zachary Davis, second-year MTS candidate, explores this issue in the sermon below, which he delivered Sept. 27 at Noon Service, hosted by the HDS Latter-day Saint Student Association.


On October 2, 2006, Charles Roberts, a 32-year-old milk truck driver, walked into a single-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and shot and killed five young girls between the ages of 6 and 13. As police approached the school, Charles then turned the gun to his head and killed himself. 

As the community gathered that evening, a grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls told some young relatives not to hate the killer, who was not Amish, saying, "We must not think evil of this man."

Another person was recorded saying: "I don't think there's anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts."

These were not just words. Hours after the shooting Amish community members visited and comforted Charles Roberts' widow and parents and extended forgiveness to them. One Amish man held Roberts' sobbing father in his arms for more than an hour to comfort him.

The Amish, who themselves do not accept charity, set up a charitable fund and gave the money raised to Roberts’ widow and three young children.

Around 30 members of the Amish community, including several of the families whose daughters had died, attended Roberts' funeral, and Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims.

There were many people who were uncomfortable with the nearly immediate forgiveness granted by the Amish to the murderer of their children. How could they possibly forgive something so unforgivable? And so quickly?

I confess I was one of those skeptics. Eleven years ago, reading the news, I remember thinking: What could it mean to grant forgiveness the very day such an unspeakable evil has been done to you? Shouldn’t there be some ratio where the gravity of the offense is proportionate to the time before forgiveness?

In my moral imagination, I could understand immediate forgiveness for things like my wife taking the last delicious bite of a Mike’s Pastry lobster tail, or my son dropping my phone and cracking it. Ok, maybe not immediate, but probably measured in hours. I could even imagine relatively quickly forgiving a thief who stole my wallet. But wouldn’t granting forgiveness to the murderer of your child take a lifetime, or more? 

But this isn’t the example we were given by Jesus. He taught us a different arithmetic of forgiveness.

Hanging from the cross, bleeding from the nail wounds in his hands and feet, just hours after he had been scourged, beaten, and mocked, he looked down on the scene before him. The Roman soldiers were gambling for His clothing; the criminals on the crosses to either side of Him were reviling Him; the religious leaders were ridiculing Him; and the crowd was blaspheming Him.

And then Jesus prayed: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Christ did not wait for a certain time to pass before granting forgiveness. He did not make a calculation of available mercy by measuring the weight of the offenses against him. He forgave at the very moment of his torture and death.

What this suggests to me is that forgiveness cannot mean the same thing as forgetting, “getting over,” or “coming to peace with.” It seems to be telling us something else.

Listen to Christ’s prayer again:Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

We usually read this as a prayer for Christ’s murderers. I think this prayer is for us, too.

None of us fully know what we do. None of us fully comprehends the extent of our shortcomings, mistakes, or sins. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”

It is tempting to say, sure, I have my weaknesses—I watch Game of Thrones, I skip Sunday school sometimes, I’m stingy when I pass a panhandler, I sometimes don’t answer the phone when my mother calls—but I don’t really consider myself a sinner. I’m a good person. Maybe even a great person.

I know many of you here today very well and, yes, you are great people. Some of the best. I am in awe of you. But you are still sinners. Let me explain.

Forty-five million people in the United States live in impoverished misery. 50 percent of black children live below the poverty line. Sixty-five thousand people a year die from drug overdoses, with millions more ensnared in its tragic grip. Middle East wars have raged, often fed by U.S. involvement, for our entire lifetimes. Our earth and our animals are abused in pursuit of efficiency, industry, and profit. Our communities are politically and culturally divided and wounded by mutual hatred and fear.

We cannot evade responsibility for these sins. They are also upon our heads. We, too, participate and perpetuate the brokenness of this world, no matter how small we might hope our part in the evil is.

We know not what we do. And that is why each of us is in need of forgiveness all of the time.

How then, can we be forgiven?

The Gospel of Luke: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

The Gospel of Matthew: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

The only way for us to be forgiven of our sins is to forgive those of others. We cannot be saved without forgiving each other. It is a prerequisite of salvation.

In fact, I think we spend far too much time thinking about whether God forgives us and not nearly enough time forgiving one another. Divine forgiveness and interpersonal forgiveness are codependent. Even more than that, forgiving others is demanded of us.

Doctrine and Covenants 64: “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.”

Peter once came to Jesus and asked him how many times he had to forgive someone who sinned against him. The teaching of the religious leaders of the time was that no more than three times was required. Which, really, makes some sense. I mean, after someone has kicked you in the shin the third time what are you supposed to do?!

Jesus said you must forgive 70x7 times. Jesus taught us a different arithmetic of forgiveness.

Jesus then told Peter a story.

There once was king who had a servant who owed him 10 thousand talents. When it came time to pay back his debt, the servant did not have the money and the king commanded that he, his wife, and his children be sold into slavery to pay off the debt.  The servant threw himself to the ground and worshipped the king, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you it all back.” The king was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.

But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellow servants, who owed him a hundred pence. And he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, “Pay me what you owe.” And his fellow servant fell down at his feet, and begged him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you all of it back.” But he would not, and he cast him into prison until he could pay the debt.

The king soon heard what had happened and called the servant to him and said, “O you wicked servant, I forgave you all that debt, because you desired it of me: shouldn’t you also have had compassion on your fellow servant, even as I had pity on you?” And the king was furious, and sent him to be tortured, until he could pay back all that was owed.

Jesus concludes his story by saying: “So, likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not everyone his brother their trespasses.”

What would this radical practice of forgiveness look like?

It might begin by never considering whether someone deserves forgiveness, or has earned our forgiveness, but just always and immediately granting it.

But beyond forgiveness for direct offenses, we might consider how the judgments we can make about people prevent us from inviting them into fellowship and friendship. Think about the last time you avoided someone in your life. Was it because they were too:

Progressive, or
Conservative, or
Intellectual, or
Unintelligent, or
Attractive, or
Unattractive, or
Obsessed with themselves, or
Obsessed with their kids, or
Ostentatiously wealthy, or
Awkwardly poor, or
Overly devout, or
Religiously relaxed?

There are a thousand reasons why we don’t like people. And I’m not saying there aren’t sometimes very good reasons for it. But I invite you to think of your hesitation to connect deeply and genuinely with the people in your life as also an unwillingness to forgive. An unwillingness to forgive their weaknesses, faults, mistakes, yes, but also an unwillingness to forgive their humanity. Forgiveness then begins to look just like love—the love that Christ taught us.

This is not an easy love to practice. It may actually be the hardest thing to learn how to do. But it becomes easier as we contemplate the fact that we are all here in this room because we have covenanted to do our best to love each other in this way—to live as part of a community where we can forgive and be forgiven as much as necessary, and where we can bring our deeply flawed, broken, sinful selves and be embraced with immediate forgiveness and limitless love. Where we can admit to one another that “we know not what we do” and find, miraculously, that it is enough.