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The power of forgiveness

By Ted Britain

Steve Smalley joined the Marine Corps after high school graduation in 1992. After eight months of infantry and security forces training he was sent to Iceland. Just 11 hours after his plane touched down, as he reported for duty, another Marine pointed a rifle at his head. “Shall I shoot you or should I shoot myself?” the man asked.

Then he pulled the trigger.

In his personal diary just three hours before he died, Steve had written about his love for God and his concern for the salvation of others. He could not have known at that time the dramatic events that would lead to the salvation of many he had prayed for — and one man he would never know.

We’ve all heard stories of people turning their backs on God and blaming Him when tragedy happens. With Steve’s mother, Judy, it was just the opposite. “I ran back to God as fast as I could because I knew I couldn’t survive the pain and guilt and eventual anger without the Lord,” she told me.

Judy, her husband, Lyle, and their daughter, who was a sophomore in college, found their way back to the Lord and began attending the church we pastored. Several months later, Judy and Lyle were in my office asking about having their 2-year-old son, Matthew, dedicated to the Lord.

I asked one of the most difficult questions I have ever asked anyone: “Judy, have you come to the place in your heart where you have been able to forgive that young man for killing your son?”

I braced myself for her response. What I heard shocked me. But it prepared the way for God’s miraculous intervention in Judy’s entire family.

“The day those officers came to tell us that Steve had been shot, my world seemed to stop,” she said. “It was indescribable pain, emotionally and physically. Seeing my son in a casket was the worst day of my life. God, I thought, how can I live with this?

Steve was only 19, and someone had ripped his life away in one second. Judy discovered an anger and hatred she never knew she could feel.

“But within a month,” she said, “I came back to church here at First Assembly. That Sunday morning my heart was so broken, I didn’t know if it could be mended.”

That morning we stood as a church and I invited people to come to the altar for prayer. We were singing, “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.”

“I knew,” Judy said, “that God had brought me right there to that spot and that I had to surrender my entire life to Him once and for all. With Him, I could face tomorrow.”

Judy stood weeping at the altar, crying out for peace in her tormented soul. God gave her that peace, and she found herself praying for the man who killed her son. She knew absolutely nothing about the Marine except that his name was Jon and that he tried to commit suicide a couple of days after the incident and was under a 24-hour watch until the trial.

“I knew that as long as I had unforgiveness in my heart, I could not start the healing process,” Judy said. “I could really feel God’s love working through me, because I cried out to God not to let Jon die too. What a gift God had given me to be able to forgive.”

Before the trial Judy and Lyle stood outside the courtroom, knowing that as they entered they would come face-to-face with their son’s killer. Judy asked God for courage and strength when she saw the young man. As they went through the doors, they saw him about 15 feet straight ahead of them.

Judy met Jon’s eyes immediately.

“I was shocked to see a young man with a baby face looking so scared and frightened as the rest of his life was in the hands of eight military officers,” Judy recalls.

The court determined the shooting was not deliberate but a hazing incident gone too far. Jon was found guilty of manslaughter by culpable negligence. Judy’s testimony at the sentencing hearing would help determine the severity of his sentence.

On the stand the attorney asked her to describe her anger toward the man who had killed her son.

“I felt God’s love and peace literally flow through me,” Judy said. “As I looked at him I said, ‘I feel no anger.’ ”

After the sentencing, as they were taking him away, Jon asked to see Judy. Judy agreed. They nearly collapsed in each other’s arms, both of them sobbing uncontrollably for the longest time.

“I wish it were me who was dead,” he said. “If I could, I would trade places with Steve.”

“Jon,” Judy told him, “Steve would not trade places with you if he could, because he’s with his Lord whom he loved and served.”

God’s forgiveness released the power of His love in Judy’s family. Her husband and daughter were saved, then her mother, her three sisters, her brother-in-law and several nephews.

Eventually, through her testimony and personal correspondence, Jon also came to know Jesus Christ as his Savior.

Salvation spread like the ever-increasing ripples of a stone thrown into calm water.

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24, NIV).

Ted Britain, an Assemblies of God minister, is former pastor of First Assembly of God in Twin Falls, Idaho, and founder of Restoration Ministries in Delta, Colo.

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