Learning to forgive is essential for a happy and fulfilled life, according to Baptist educator and minister J. Randall O'Brien.
O'Brien, interim provost and chair of the religion department at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, presented the annual Dotson M. Nelson Lectureship on Religion in Life Sept. 6 at Samford University.
Speaking to a packed audience of students, O'Brien said he had never met anyone "who didn't need forgiveness" or anyone "who didn't need to forgive."
The long-time educator and former Baptist pastor offered three reasons why forgiveness is important: forgive for Christ's sake, forgive for the sake of others and forgive for the sake of ourselves.
O'Brien cited the story of former Ku Klux Klan leader Johnny Lee Clary of Oklahoma and African-American pastor Wade Watts as an example of the importance of forgiveness. As a Klan leader, Clary personally torched the late Rev. Watts' church in McAlester, Okla., in the late 1970s.
When the two were brought together for a radio talk show, Watts approached Clary, who was dressed in full Klan regalia, extended his hand and said, "I love you. I forgive you." Ten years later, Clary resigned as Imperial Wizard of the Klan and called Rev. Watts to say "your words have chased me and haunted me."
O'Brien asked the students why Watts offered forgiveness. "He forgave for Christ's sake and for the sake of others."
O'Brien said that persons who don't forgive become "prisoners of your own pain. It's cruel, especially because you keep hurting yourself after the initial pain."
Forgiveness is not about the past, O'Brien noted, but about the future. To refuse to forgive "is to be hopelessly overwhelmed by the past."
He encouraged the students to "let go of the need for revenge. Only forgiveness can liberate you and set you free for the future that God wants you to have."
Contrary to popular opinion, "forgiveness precedes repentance," O'Brien said. "God does not offer the gift of forgiveness without granting the power to forgive. What you do with the gift of forgiveness impacts your relationship with Jesus Christ."
O'Brien also encouraged students to find people who are hurting "in your own little corner of the world. Become a conduit of grace as you touch others with the grace of Jesus Christ."