It wasn't until I watched myself being interviewed on the PBS program Frontline a few years ago that I discovered I hadn't really forgiven Robert Willie, the man who'd kidnapped and raped me when I was 16. Willie had also kidnapped-and murdered-another girl days before our encounter, and my testimony in court led to his receiving the death penalty for that crime. While in prison, Willie struck up a relationship with Sister Helen Prejean, who became his spiritual advisor in the months before his execution. Their relationship became the basis of the 1995 Academy Award-winning movie Dead Man Walking.
It was in that Frontline documentary about the movie that I first publicly shared my part of the story. I also revealed how my renewed relationship with Christ had lifted me out of the downward spiral my life had followed since that traumatic event.
As a Christian, I thought I'd done the hard work of forgiving Robert Willie. Then I'd heard my final words on the documentary: "If what I'm supposed to accept is that Robert Willie deserves a place in heaven right next to me, then I'm not there yet." With a sinking heart, I realized I hadn't yet finished the process.
I started studying Bible stories about grace and forgiveness. The parable in Matthew 20:1-16, about the workers in the vineyard, leapt out at me. In it workers were paid the same price despite how long they'd worked. It infuriated the people who'd worked all day that they received the same wages as those who'd put in only a couple hours.
I realized I was just like them. I felt I deserved heaven-and Robert Willie didn't. But that parable showed me God's grace is accessible to all of us, regardless of when we turn to Him. Though I don't know what happened between God and Robert Willie before he was executed, I do know that if he repented, he received God's grace. And I know that if he did make it to heaven, he made it by the same grace I will.
As Christians, we aren't given a choice about forgiveness; it's a command. The simple fact is, if we don't forgive others, our Father won't forgive us (Matthew 6:14-15). So I had to decide if my anger and bitterness were worth separation from God's peace, love, and forgiveness.
When God brought my wrong attitudes to light, I had to pray through each one. I prayed "Lord, help make it all right in my heart if Robert Willie's in heaven with you." It always amazes me that when you pray for someone, you can't continue to hate him. I think that's part of God's grace, too-a grace that's big enough for both me, and Robert Willie.
Reprinted with permission from Today's Christian Woman, March/April 2001