In April, 1994, I received a phone call asking me to go to a prison and baptize an inmate who wanted to be forgiven for his sins. That inmate was Jeffrey Dahmer, infamous for murder, dismembership, and cannibalism of some of his victims. Even today, so many years later, his name causes some people to shake their heads and spit when they hear his name.
How could someone like that want to be baptized? What did he know about the subject and what were his expectations? Isn’t there a limit on how much evil you can commit and be forgiven? Aren’t there some sins too evil to forgive?
I went to the prison and met with him and saw the remorse in his eyes. He had come a long way before I even appeared on the scene. I had no doubts about his heart and his intentions and agreed to baptize him. Some have questioned me since then, wondering how I could be so forgiving. I didn’t see that I had a choice in the matter. A sinner wanted to come back to God, and was asking if I could help him along his way. Of course, I would be glad to help.
Seven months later, Jeffrey was himself murdered while in prison, and I was asked to perform a memorial service for him. His father and step-mother were there, as was his younger brother. Unknown to me, one of the sisters of one of Jeff’s victims was, also, there. She had developed a close personal relationship with Jeff’s parents. She, in turn, brought her sister along, also, without telling her what the occasion was.
It was an awkward and uncomfortable experience. My heart went out to the second sister who was brought under false pretensions. But, I was there to do a memorial for Jeffrey Dahmer, and that is what I did, with a special focus on his faith and remorse for his crimes. When I finished, I visited with the second sister after the service, and although she had tear stains on her cheeks, she told me that hearing of Jeff’s faith helped her to forgive him for what he had done to her brother.
How was she able to forgive when she had been hurt so badly? I’ve known people who had great difficulty not only in forgiving, but even thinking about forgiving because their pain was so great. It seems that the depth of their pain somehow justified their refusal to forgive. It is implied that when the pain became lessened by time, that somehow forgiveness might be possible. However, time does not always lesson the pain, and forgiveness never occurs.
Part of the problem is not understanding what forgiveness is all about. Yes, there is pain and suffering and that has to be addressed. Some would point to forgetfulness as the method of forgiveness, but it is hard to forget deep pain. But, the focus needs to be shifted off the pain and onto the work of God we know as forgiveness. Has God known pain?
Yes, He has. How does God forgive, when He has been so badly hurt? Because he doesn’t look at the pain any longer, but has made a commitment of love that says, “I will no longer be angry about the pain, and I will focus on My love for you.” That’s what we are called to do when we are asked to forgive, “forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4.32b). Take the focus off yourself and put it on the one who needs forgiveness. Commit yourself to not feel the anger any longer. Let God deal with the anger; He’s a far better judge than we are.
Roy Ratcliff, 2011, “How Can I Forgive When I’ve Been Hurt so Badly,” Think 6.8 (Aug): 20.
Roy Ratcliff is also the co-author (with Lindy Adams) of the book, Dark Journey Deep Grace: Jeffrey Dahmer’s Story of Faith(Abilene, Tex.: Leafwood, 2006).