A Testimony of grace
The news cycle in America can be depressing. But every once in a while, a story comes around that, though depressing and horrifying, inspires us and glorifies God. Many news outlets covered the prosecution of Larry Nasser this week. Nasser is a former Team USA gymnastics doctor who molested over 160 women athletes and others during the years he practiced at Michigan State University clinic. The physical, emotional, relational and spiritual wreckage this man leaves in his wake have been chronicled by the personal impact statements of his victims, which you can read here. During the sentencing phase, the Judge ripped into Nasser for his statement seeking to excuse or minimize his acts and sentenced him accordingly to, essentially, life in prison with no chance ever of parole.
By every secular standard we can imagine, Nasser is beyond the reach of forgiveness, since he appears to have no genuine understanding of his acts, and no apparent remorse other than for the legal proceedings themselves. His sentence is certainly just considering his crimes. Without remorse, and genuine repentance, where is there any ground for forgiveness?
I’m willing to bet that this very excruciating dilemma is one that you have wrestled with—just like me and countless others. Where is the fairness in all of this when all that seems left is the wreckage of so many lives?
I want to direct you to one of the most winsome and compelling testimonies I have ever heard, by a convinced and articulate Christian named Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast who was first molested by Nasser when she was 16. In her testimony, you will hear her pain. You can view the video of her whole statement here. But if you skip to the 25:40 mark in the video you can see and hear Mrs. Denhollander address Nasser directly and speak Gospel truth into his life.
I ask you to bear with me in unpacking her testimony because it reveals the very heart of what we believe as followers of Jesus Christ. The truth she so boldly proclaims is actually the very truths for which our Anglican reformers—Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley—died as martyrs 500 years ago. Sometimes I hear people complaining that our coverage of the crisis of false teaching in the Anglican Communion is such relentlessly bad news— “we want positive stories” they say.
Rachael Denhollander’s testimony is good news! But it is good news precisely because of the Biblical truths about the reality of sin, the inevitability of objective, moral standards and judgement, and the amazing saving grace that forgives and sets free uniquely and finally through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Please hear me: these truths about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior of all people, at all times and in all places, are the very things that are at stake in our own once-every-500 years Anglican reformation! As we and others have noted time and again, sex is merely the tip of the iceberg and what grabs all the attention in the media—just as it has in this case of sexual abuse.
But deeper still lie the issues of the authority of the Bible and the very nature of the good news that we must proclaim against the secularizing forces in our culture—and for over fifty years, within the leadership and false teaching of Anglican churches in the secular west.
I don’t know whether Rachael Denhollander is an Anglican. I rather doubt that she is. But she has stood up to these secularizing forces in our culture with courage and conviction, and in a most winsome way. And that is good news! So, let’s unpack her testimony
First, she addresses the issue of right and wrong. In a secular society, how can you and I ever find an immovable standard for what is right and wrong. This is such a problem in our culture which has, in principle, eliminated any boundaries for sexual expression so long as it serves the pursuit of happiness. Denhollander addresses the moral chaos that drives us into despair, and away from God with her quote from C.S.Lewis:
“Throughout this process, I have clung to a quote by C.S. Lewis, where he says:
‘My argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But how did I get this idea of just, unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he first has some idea of straight. What was I comparing the universe to when I called it unjust?’
Larry, I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line exists. The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone else’s perception, and this means I can speak the truth about my abuse without minimization or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is. And this is why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define good and evil, when they cannot define evil, they can no longer define and enjoy what is truly good.” (emphasis added)
She speaks the truth that we all need to boldly proclaim to every one of our friends and neighbors who has given up on God because of the problem of pain, evil and injustice in the world. Secular society cannot explain to anyone’s satisfaction the origin of our sense of right and wrong. Nor can it explain the origin of our sense of good, and beauty and deep joy and satisfaction. What a wonderful way to begin a conversation about Jesus with this question of origins—and to listen carefully and prayerfully for the answers that come from the heart from our loved ones and friends who are wandering so far in a land that is waste.
After defining the immutable standard by which she can say that Nasser’s actions were malicious, cruel and simply evil, she addresses the justice that he must face:
“You have become a man ruled by selfish and perverted desires, a man defined by his daily choices repeatedly to feed that selfishness and perversion. You chose to pursue your wickedness no matter what it cost others and the opposite of what you have done is for me to choose to love sacrificially, no matter what it costs me…
If the Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw(n) into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds… When a person can harm another human being, especially a child, without true guilt, they have lost the ability to truly love…
In losing the ability to call evil what it is without mitigation, without minimization, you have lost the ability to define and enjoy love and goodness. You have fashioned for yourself a prison that is far, far worse than any I could ever put you in, and I pity you for that.”
Avoiding any concern for social and political correctness, she goes on to explain from the Gospel that the full fury of hell has been reserved for those like Nasser—beyond the prison they have fashioned for themselves, and beyond the prison cell in which they will leave this mortal life.
But what is truly remarkable and grace-full is the way she turns from truth and justice to forgiveness. She testifies that she is choosing to face him and forgive him without any precondition of remorse and repentance on his part! She declares that her sacrificial act of forgiveness is the exact opposite of the perversion that she has suffered from this man. And then she prays:
“In our early hearings. you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so, it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way…
Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.
I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well.” (emphasis added).
You see, the only place that makes sense, and the only way to reconcile justice and forgiveness, is at the foot of the Cross of Jesus Christ, where grace reigns supreme.
This is the heart of what we believe as followers of Jesus Christ. It is the reason why we often spend so much time addressing crises of false teaching in the Anglican Communion that would lead us away from the cross and this precious gift of grace. By the blood of Jesus, we can face the crush of guilt that we know under God’s law and receive forgiveness and cleansing—genuine transformation from the inside out (see I John 1:8-9). By this same blood, we stand on the only ground where we can extend forgiveness with a heart released, even in the absence of the offender’s remorse and repentance.
Thank you Rachael Denhollander for reminding us that as followers of Jesus Christ, we must always find our way back to that place we must never, ever give up or compromise—at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ, under the only blood that forgives, cleanses, heals and restores.
The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey is President & CEO of the American Anglican Council.