The hand gripped my shoulder and I felt my blood freeze. I had been caught red-handed, stealing from a supermarket with two friends. Even though this incident was nearly 40 years ago, it still makes me shudder to recall it. The police were called and so were my parents. It was a frightening, humiliating, embarrassing experience. How could we have been so stupid? How would my family and other friends react? What would happen now?
The police released me and we drove home in painful, stony silence. I didn’t feel guilty, I just felt trapped, helpless to escape. I had made a big mistake and felt utterly powerless to change it, or to influence the consequences. The weeks passed and eventually I received a letter to appear before the local police superintendent. By now I did feel worried. Would I be sent down, sent to a youth detention centre? The thought filled me with horror.
The police chief sat behind his desk and looked at me thoughtfully, kindly. He explained in a calm, compassionate and warm voice that although I had done wrong, to take strong action would destroy my life and future. In light of this, he explained, no further action would be taken. I was being given a second chance. I couldn’t believe it. I felt surprised, confused, grateful, immensely relieved. A huge and terrifying weight had been lifted.
As we drove home, I began to feel remorse. A total stranger, the wronged party, had chosen to let me off the hook, to set me free. I deserved blame, punishment, and yet they had chosen to forgive me. I couldn’t understand it. They didn’t forgive me because I was good, but because they were good. They saw the potential in my life, the offender, and chose to release it. They gave me a new life. It was undeserved grace, an incredible gift.
This experience impacted me deeply. Years later, I encountered that same attitude in God when I was introduced to Jesus Christ. I had believed in God, at least at some level, all of my life but this was something completely different. It was a profound existential experience, a explosive encounter that changed the focus and course of the rest of my life. God had used that police encounter, the power of forgiveness, to reach into my psyche and touch me.
And so I pray that God will make me more like that. How easily I can get annoyed by the little things. A person cuts me up in traffic, drives using a mobile phone, stays in the middle lane of a motorway. A neighbour leaves a dog out barking at night or plays their TV too loud. A colleague does something that frustrates my plans or fails to meet my standards. How easy it is to get critical and judgemental. ‘Forgive us, Lord, as we forgive others too.’
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