'I was having a Jonah moment. Several years ago I realized I didn't want to forgive the people who planned and executed the September 11, 2001, attacks on America. I didn't want God to forgive them, either.
This surprised me. In the past, I've been able to forgive most people relatively easily. And it didn't make much sense to me: Like most Americans, the events of 9/11 shook me, but I wasn't personally affected as none of my loved ones were physically hurt. I didn't even realize I was still angry about 9/11 until I came across the website Adopt-a-Terrorist for Prayer (ATFP).
'I'd read about ATFP in an article and had intended to find a terrorist to "adopt." The site's spokesman, Dr. Thomas Bruce, says the war on terrorism is primarily spiritual. "If terrorists start converting, then terrorism as a weapon will fail, and the whole world will know something spectacular about the one true God," he says on the site. Praying for terrorists' salvation sounded like a great idea to me.
But when I visited the site and began reading the killers' profiles, I became angry. Why should I pray for these evil people? I thought. They have no remorse. If given the opportunity, they'd kill every American.
One of my pastors once observed that we want God's forgiveness for ourselves, but we want his justice for our enemies. That was true for me as I prayed, "God, please let these terrorists be located and found guilty for their crimes. Punish them for the lives they took. Please help heal the families who've suffered loss by bringing justice. Amen."
That prayer seemed fair in light of the terrorists' actions. But something inside me felt wrong. I shared this with my pastor, and he helped me take a hard look at Ephesians 4:26: "In your anger do not sin." The NASB translation says, "Be angry, and yet do not sin." In this verse, we're told anger itself isn't a sin; the emotion is permissible. But unchecked anger can cause us to sin.
So it isn't wrong for me to feel anger toward terrorists. (For that matter, I can be angry toward rapists, murderers, and child molesters too.) But I crossed the line into sin when I acted like Jonah: I ran away from the task God was giving me. Jonah's story cautions on how anger can lead to sin. Jonah felt deep anger toward his enemies, the Assyrians, and wanted God to punish rather than forgive them. There was good reason for Jonah's anger: The Assyrians had attacked his people, completely destroyed their homes, and taken the Israelites captive. When God told Jonah to go preach in Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, in his anger he disobeyed God by running away. He didn't want Israel's enemies to have a chance to receive God's mercy. Jonah tells God, "That's why I left… . You are a kind and merciful God, and you are very patient. You always show love, and you don't like to punish anyone" (Jonah 4:2, CEV). It was Jonah's disobedience—not his anger—that was the real problem. He ran away and cut off his relationship with God. That's what sin does: It alienates us from God.
I realized that I, too, didn't want my enemies to have any chance at grace. The Holy Spirit had moved me to pray that the terrorists would turn to God, and had led me to the ATFP website. But in my anger, I disobediently said, "No way, God! I won't pray for that; they don't deserve your forgiveness."
It didn't take long for me to feel convicted about my disobedience. The implication was this: If I thought the 9/11 terrorists didn't deserve God's mercy, it meant I wanted them to be sent to hell. To be permanently, eternally separated from God. I shivered at the thought, remembering Jesus' words in Matthew 6:14: "If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."
There's a saying, adapted from the writings of the 18th-century poet Alexander Pope, that "forgiveness is divine." Perhaps it isn't humanly possible to forgive a murderer, a rapist, a child molester, or the perpetrators of 9/11—at least, not without God's help. I can't say I'm ready to pray God will be merciful to terrorists. But I'm willing to let the Holy Spirit continue to transform me inside. If I allow God to change my heart, he'll show me the right balance between justifiable anger and divine mercy.
Is there someone you feel angry toward? Has your anger caused you to sin?
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