Skip to content

Blog / “Forgive as the Lord Forgave You”: Desmond Tutu and Impossible Forgiveness

“Forgive as the Lord Forgave You”: Desmond Tutu and Impossible Forgiveness

What’s the hardest act of forgiveness you’ve ever done?

Forgiveness is central to the Christian story—both Jesus’ forgiveness of us, and our forgiveness of others. This promise of God’s forgiveness (so appropriate to contemplate during Lent!) is one of the most powerful, reassuring messages in the Bible:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. — 1 John 1:9 (NIV)

But the Bible’s emphasis on forgiveness is not always comfortable. Consider Matthew 6:14-15, in which Jesus declares that forgiveness is not an optional exercise of faith:

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. — Matthew 6:14-15 (NIV)

Forgiveness isn’t too hard to dispense when the offense is of the mild, everyday variety committed by people we like or love: a careless remark, a forgotten chore, a tardy arrival. But forgiveness becomes harder when the person we’re forgiving is an enemy, and harder yet when the offense is something truly serious. Yet the Bible doesn’t distinguish between different levels of forgiveness; it simply directs us to forgive as we have been forgiven.

History has given us many examples of incredible acts of forgiveness—acts of forgiveness so extreme that upon reading about them, we can only nervously wonder if Jesus truly expects us to display this level of grace. Consider Corrie Ten Boom’s forgiveness of a German guard who worked at the concentration camp where she and her sister had suffered horribly. Is it possible for an ordinary person to extend such grace?

desmondtutuOr consider this story about forgiveness in the aftermath of South African apartheid, as related by Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho in The Book of Forgiving, their new book. By a strange coincidence, when Tutu’s publisher sent this excerpt to Bible Gateway wondering if it was relevant to our ministry, I had just finished reading André Brink’s brutal novel A Dry White Season, about the injustice of apartheid, and had found myself wondering how such institutionalized evil could be confronted, let alone forgiven. Here’s Tutu’s account of superhuman forgiveness:

“He had many wounds.” She spoke with the precision of a coroner. “In the upper abdomen were five wounds. These wounds indicated that different weapons were used to stab him, or a group of people stabbed him.” Mrs. Mhlawuli continued her harrowing testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She spoke about the disappearance and murder of her husband, Sicelo. “In the lower part, he also had wounds. In total, there were forty-three. They poured acid on his face. They chopped off his right hand just below the wrist. I don’t know what they did with that hand.” A wave of horror and nausea rose in me.

Now it was nineteen-year-old Babalwa’s turn to speak. She was eight when her father died. Her brother was only three. She described the grief, police harassment, and hardship in the years since her father’s death. And then she said, “I would love to know who killed my father. So would my brother.” Her next words stunned me and left me breathless. “We want to forgive them. We want to forgive, but we don’t know who to forgive.”

As chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I have often been asked how the people of South Africa were able to forgive the atrocities and injustices they suffered under apartheid. Our journey in South Africa was quite long and treacherous. Today it is hard to believe that, up until our first democratic election in 1994, ours was a country that institutionalized racism, inequality, and oppression. In apartheid South Africa only white people could vote, earn a high-quality education, and expect advancement or opportunity.

There were decades of protest and violence. Much blood was shed during our long march to freedom. When, at last, our leaders were released from prison, it was feared that our transition to democracy would become a bloodbath of revenge and retaliation. Miraculously we chose another future. We chose forgiveness. At the time, we knew that telling the truth and healing our history was the only way to save our country from certain destruction. We did not know where this choice would lead us. The process we embarked on through the TRC was, as all real growth proves to be, astoundingly painful and profoundly beautiful.

What’s your reaction to this story? Could you imagine yourself extending this kind of grace to somebody else—somebody who wasn’t even asking for your forgiveness? Tutu uses the word “miraculous” to describe the decision to forgive rather than take revenge, and I think that’s a profound insight: I think true forgiveness on that level is possible only through the extension of God’s grace to us. I am thankful that we serve a God who can strengthen us in every good deed and word—and who can move our hard hearts to forgive even our worst enemies.

If you’re interested, you can learn more about The Book of Forgiving here. You might also enjoy this recent interview with Tutu—in which, among other things, he explains why the Bible is “dynamite” to injustice and human evil:

Related posts:

  1. Give Thanks to the Lord!
  2. The Earth is the Lord’s!
  3. “The Lord Thundered From Heaven:” Thunder and the Authority of God
  4. Reflecting on Nelson Mandela’s Christian Legacy

Filed under Books, General