Matney: How to forgive
Today’s article comes from a true story that I share in sermons and with individuals struggling to forgive. It is a lesson I try to practice when I have difficulty forgiving people.
On June 25, 1973, Marietta Jaeger was camping in Montana with her husband, Bill, and their five children. That night, while everyone slept, 7-year-old Susie was kidnapped. Marietta was understandably filled with boiling rage. One night she said to Bill that even if the kidnapper returned Susie unharmed, she would happily kill him with her bare hands.
Bitterness, rage, anger, revenge are not peaceful feelings. One night, near dawn, she heard God telling her, “I don’t want you to feel this way.” But she still wanted to murder the monster who’d snatched her little girl.
“I had a real wrestling match with God shortly after my little girl disappeared. But after a long night of struggle, I said to God I was willing to forgive this man. But I said to God, I give you permission to change my heart. I can’t do it alone.” This is how forgiveness often starts: not with a rush of compassion but with a weary willingness to try.
The conclusion was obvious: Hatred of the magnitude she was feeling got people nowhere and the best thing she could do for herself was to try to forgive. She purposely set out to forgive.
Her project was on her mind every day, and every afternoon, Marietta retreated to her bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed. There, day after day, she worked on forgiving the kidnapper. She found guidance on how to forgive from Matthew 5:44. Jesus said, “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”
To bring about a change of heart, Marietta resolved not to talk about the kidnapper in subhuman terms. She would no longer call him a monster or other derogatory terms. She found a way to pray for her enemy. She didn’t know his name and had to call him “the man who has Susie.” How about wishing for “the man who has Susie” clear skies? Even criminals appreciate a fine day.
At first, every positive prayer seemed disloyal to Susie. How could Marietta wish good things for the man who stole her baby? Marietta’s wishes came more easily, though, as the weeks passed and she begin to visualize him catching a prize fish. So, every weekday afternoon she sent Susie’s kidnapper wishes for blue skies and a big trout.
One year to the minute after Susie was snatched from her tent, and after almost a year of doing forgiveness work, the Jaegers’ phone rang in the middle of the night. She switched on the tape recorder attached to the phone by the FBI, then grabbed the receiver. “Is this Susie’s mom?” the caller asked. “I’m the guy that took her from you.” The man had read a newspaper interview in which Marietta said she wished she could talk to the kidnapper. Now, by the tone of his voice, Marietta could tell he was calling to taunt her.
But, when she heard the man’s voice mocking her, she realized something had genuinely shifted in her and the compassion she felt for him came through in her voice. She gently asked him, “What can we do to help you?” Her compassion completely undid him and he began to cry. The call lasted 80 minutes, long enough for the law to trace the call, and learn it was a David Meirhofer. When captured, he confessed to Susie’s murder and three others.
Marietta tells people, “If anyone thinks forgiveness is for wimps, they haven’t tried it. It takes daily, diligent discipline. I had to start by giving God permission to change my heart because I couldn’t do it by myself. Then I had to cooperate in every way I could — by reminding myself daily that my daughter’s kidnapper was as precious to God as she was, by speaking of him respectfully and praying for him daily to experience God’s love and goodness.”
On September 29, 1974, Meirhofer hung himself in his jail cell. Marietta continued the work of forgiveness and later befriended David Meirhofer’s mother, Eleanor Huckert. Marietta made a return trip to Montana, and she and David’s mother went together to visit the graves of their children. Marietta felt that her struggle to forgive was complete. Her work of forgiveness had been worthwhile. “If you remain vindictive, you give the offender another victim,” she says. ‘‘Anger, hatred, and resentment would have taken my life as surely as Susie’s life was taken.”
If each one of us would follow Mareitta’s example and Jesus’ teaching, our own mental health would be better, and our families, schools, work places, community and nation would be much less divided. If Marietta could forgive her enemy, surely, we can forgive one another also.
Dan Matney is the pastor at New Life Assembly of God in Avon. Email him at email@example.com.