For many people, the definition of forgiveness is “getting over it.” When someone hurts you, you can say you’ve forgiven him when the thought of the sin no longer bothers you, when the memory no longer breaks your heart, when you’ve just sort of moved on.
And for those operating according to this definition of the term, “forgiveness” is easy to extend to someone when he hasn’t left you with much to get over. If a friend cusses you out while he’s drunk, for example, you can usually forgive him by the next morning. If a family members steals from you, it might take a few weeks or months to get over it, but you’ll get there eventually.
But if the sin is life-altering, if someone’s cruelty tears your body apart and burrows into your brain, you’ll never get over that. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. So what do you do in those circumstances? How do you forgive someone for afflicting you with unspeakable evil that you’ll never forget? How do you forgive a monster?
Last week, Rachael Denhollander gave a heartbreaking yet beautiful answer to that question in the victim impact statement she delivered shortly before former USA gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison. He spent decades sexually abusing her and countless other girls who came to him for medical treatment.
Towards the end of her statement, Denhollander spoke these words directly to Nassar:
The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. 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 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.
In other words, one day, Larry Nassar will stand before God in judgment, surrounded by the mountain of pain and cruelty he brought into this world. One day Nassar will stand before the light of God that will illuminate, in full horror, the monstrosities worked by his heart and his hands. One day, that poor, miserable sinner will stand before the God who has the power, the authority, and the right to condemn him forever, and the only thing that can remove that sentence is the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
The only thing that can save Larry Nassar from hell will be the forgiving blood that Jesus shed upon the cross — blood that was shed for every sinner, even the unimaginable monsters. Out of love for the unlovable, God wants Larry Nassar to receive that forgiving blood through faith before it’s too late. And, miraculously, Rachael Denhollander wants the same thing.
So why was Rachael Denhollander able to say “I forgive you” to the monster who abused her for years? Because Christ said it first when He breathed out His dying words, “it is finished,” upon the cross. Because the Son of God spoke these words, they are true. And because Rachael Denhollander is a Christian, she believed them.
So, in order to forgive her monster, she didn’t need to get over his cruelty. She didn’t need to stop being hurt by his abuse. She didn’t need to achieve the impossible goal of no longer being nauseated by his evil. Nor does she need to produce that forgiveness herself. Rather, she just needed to take the forgiveness produced by Christ and hand it to the monster who hurt her. She just needed to look at Larry Nassar and essentially declare, “Jesus says He forgives you. I believe Him.”
Likewise, just as Denhollander doesn’t have to produce forgiveness herself, she also doesn’t have to pit Nassar’s need for mercy against her right to justice. As the Bible makes clear, God has given different tasks to the state and the church. He’s called the Church to forgive sins, to treat the repentant as though their iniquities never took place, and to ensure that even the vilest of criminals face no punishment in the life to come. God has called the state, on the other hand, to protect us from those who do evil by punishing and restraining them and by giving justice to those who have been wronged.
These tasks are different, but they are both holy. And because of that, Rachael Denhollander can find joy when both of those tasks are carried out. As a citizen of Christ’s kingdom, she can rejoice to know that Christ died for Larry Nassar. As a citizen, of the world, she can also rejoice to know that Nassar will die in prison, unable to hurt another child. As a Christian, she can find peace by knowing that Jesus has paid the debt that Nassar owed in the life to come.
As someone entitled to God’s justice from her government, she can also find peace knowing that Nassar will spend the rest of his days paying off the earthly debt he owes to her and every other one of his victims. Because God has promised to give all of us both mercy and justice, she doesn’t have to choose one or the other. She can say “I hope you ask Christ to forgive you before it’s too late,” just as she can say, “I hope spending the rest of your life in prison makes you realize how much you need that forgiveness on account of the evil things you’ve done.”
Forgiveness doesn’t mean “getting over it.” And that should give tremendous comfort to those who have been hurt by monstrous sins that they’ll never get over. Forgiveness means trusting that the same nail-pierced hands that freed you from the sins you’ve committed have also freed you from the sins others have committed against you.
It means that you don’t have to generate, from your own wounded heart, the strength to overcome the pain and wickedness of this life, because Jesus generated that strength for you when He overcame the world and all its monsters at Calvary. Forgiveness means that Jesus took away the claws of men like Larry Nassar, which makes it possible for women like Rachael Denhollander to stare their monsters in the face and say, “Jesus forgives you, so I forgive you too.”
Rachael Denhollander was the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual assault. She helped bring justice to 150 women who say that Nassar assaulted them as well. By standing up to her abuser with a word of judgment, she showed us what it means to be a selfless neighbor and a brave citizen, and she deserves all the praise our throats can muster for it. She deserves that same amount of praise for standing before her monster with a word of forgiveness and showing us what it means to be a Christian.