Read Romans 13:1-5
1 Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. 2 So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished.3 For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you.4 The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. 5 So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience. (NLT)
There is a difference between crime and sin. Adultery is a sin but not a crime, for example. This is significant when it comes to the issue of forgiveness. To take a real-life example: a woman’s son was knocked down and killed by a drunk driver on a pedestrian crossing. The woman both offered forgiveness to the driver and testified against him in court, so sending him to prison.
Crimes are to be punished. The civil authorities are not in place to exercise forgiveness. They dispense justice according to the law. Forgiveness is what happens between persons. It is not a way of sidestepping the obligations of the law. It is not soft-heartedness. That mother recognised a terrible wrong had been done which hurt deeply. She recognised that the law had to do its job. She also recognised that it was not up to her to seek revenge and nurse hatred.
It is so understandable that hurt and tearful people outside a courtroom will say they can never forgive the offender who has taken their loved one’s life. It is also so unhelpful. We mainly hurt ourselves by declining to begin the painful yet healing process of forgiveness. Of course forgiveness is not a one-off dramatic gesture. Of course it is costly. Of course it doesn’t let the person off the hook: they have been justly punished.
But choosing to forgive, hard as it may be, is the healthiest option. As has been said, when we forgive we set a prisoner free, and that prisoner is us.