Rachael Denhollander, Costly Grace, and the possibilty of Redemption – Part 1


I haven’t written a blog post in January.  There are a number of reasons: numerous commitments, sick wife and son, waning motivation, prioritizing writing time, discouragement.

But I read a quote and feel compelled to respond.  Simply put, it epitomizes “Grace is Greater.”  I have to write about it.

“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.”

Rachael Denhollander spoke these words, in a courtroom, to the man accused and found guilty of molesting her, repeatedly, when she was fifteen.  The accused, Larry Nassar, had more than 150 women testify against him.  They spoke their minds.  They spoke their hearts. As Denhollander expressed it:

I do want to thank you, first, Judge Aquilina, for giving all of us the chance to reclaim our voices. Our voices were taken from us for so long, and I’m grateful beyond what I can express that you have given us the chance to restore them.
Nassar was sentenced to between 40 and 175 years for decades of sexual abuse against one hundred fifty-six girls.  He also was found guilty and sentenced to 60 years for federal child pornography charges. He will die in prison.
The depth of Nassar’s atrocities, his sheer, depraved sinfulness (I’m guessing even secular folks may be comfortable with that description in this case) is difficult to fathom.  You and I might argue that he is beyond forgiveness.
But Rachael Denhollander has forgiven him.
I take her at her word.  She offers the man whom I would be sorely tempted to describe as a monster and an abomination her forgiveness and exhorts him–prays for him to receive, to experience, true repentance and then true forgiveness from God.
I have spent years (and years) forgiving some people in my life whose sins against me, by my own measure, are a trifle compared to what Ms. Denhollander suffered.  I try to grasp her process of saying with sincerity that she forgives her abuser and I fail.
But I believe her.
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.
Reflect on these words for a moment.  Then consider to what “that” refers in her sentence:
“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.
The crushing guilt is what makes the Gospel of Christ so sweet.  The Gospel of Christ “extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found.”  To the extent that Larry Nassar is a monster, precisely to that extent God offers him grace.  Ms. Denhollander forgives/has forgiven Nassar and so will God, if Nassar truly repents.
Does that offend you?  Because I am offended.  I believe in grace and know that God’s grace has saved my life and yet I’m offended.  But it’s good for me to be offended. It displays for me my own hypocrisy, and yet proves my blog’s thesis statement: to whatever degree we grasp God’s grace, it is greater. than. that.
The power of the Gospel is that there is no one living who is beyond God’s grace.  No one.  God will forgive anyone who repents for anything, for everything they have done.  Me, Larry Nassar, you.  All of us.
Understand that no one is excusing Larry Nassar’s crimes, least of all Rachael Denhollander.  Her courage, determination, and persistance put him in prison, not single-handedly but as the single biggest contributor to bringing about justice for his abusive violence.  To excuse means to wave off, to look the other way or ignore, to accept an excuse as covering the sin.  Hardly.  Sin has consequences, and sins that harm others have greater consequences.   A sentence of two hundred years in prison is the opposite of “excusing.”
Grace looks directly at the crime, the sin, the atrocity.  It recognizes the crushing, appropriate guilt.  Then, while allowing consequences, it offers forgiveness and the opportunity for redemption.  None of this has anything to do with deserving or earning forgiveness: grace means precisely that you do not and cannot earn forgiveness.  Grace is giving something good when something bad is is deserved, giving love and forgiveness and love when condemnation and death are deserved.
Grace is more powerful than revenge.  Forgiveness frees the victim. It frees the victim from being a victim anymore, sets the abused one free from the power of the sin*, and, astoundingly, opens up the possibility of redemption for the sinner, for the violator, in a way that revenge never can.  We have historical examples.  Saul of Tarsus.  He hunted down followers of “The Way,” the radical heretic Jesus, and dragged them from their homes in chains, seeking their death sentence.  “Breathing violence and threats.”  Then Jesus redeemed his life.
Confrontation, repentance, forgiveness, transformation.  Grace.
Paul understood the crushing guilt.  When he describes himself as the worst of all sinners (“the chief of sinners”), I don’t think he’s speaking lightly or being falsely self-deprecating.  I think he’s remembering accosting mothers and fathers in their homes, remembering the eyes of their children watching him make their parents disappear, turning their children into orphans, for the crime of responding to a teacher who taught love and forgiveness.
But that was ancient history and we elevate “The Apostle Paul” to saint status, forgetting who he was, what he was.
Today, Rachael Denhollander offers Larry Nassar forgiveness.  She points the way to his redemption, because God can redeem even his life.
#MeToo and #ChurchToo call out sinners for their sins, abusers for their crimes.  The women and men who have suffered abuse deserve a voice, they deserve to see justice for their abusers.  Then they must decide if they can forgive.  I’m not standing in their shoes.  I’m not claiming that I would.
I’m saying that Rachael Denhollander did.  She reminds me, I hope she reminds us all, of the breathtaking, shocking power of grace.  She’s my new hero.  Plus Jesus is my hero, for giving her the love and the strength to do this.  I’m pretty sure she’s fond of him, too.
*I don’t say this lightly and forgiveness for in some situations may be a lifelong process.

7 thoughts on “Rachael Denhollander, Costly Grace, and the possibilty of Redemption – Part 1

  1. Dawn

    Mike, I’ve been mulling costly Grace ever since Tony Perkins made the comments about the Mulligan. I wrote the following after much thought and posted it to the family research Council website. It’s new so if you read my previous post this is different. I’d like your opinion. Your honest opinion. Please let me know if you think I’m off course:

    The grace of God is absolutely free to us. Yet, the debt for our sins which we can never repay through good works has been paid for us at a terrible price. That costly grace has always been inextricably linked with faith and repentance. Look no further than Jesus’ mission opening statement: “Repent and believe the kingdom of God is at hand!” John the Baptist prepared the way for the simple reason that the way needed preparing for the entrance of Jesus into people’s lives. The preparing of the way is referred to in the gospel of Mark (1:1-4) like so: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the Prophets: “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You. The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD; Make His paths straight.’ John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” Enter Jesus. Enter forgiveness bought and paid for by his perfection and his sacrifice. Does the entry of Jesus and the perfection of his sacrifice mean that repentance and faith are not relevant to the forgiveness of sins? Of course not. Jesus himself said “repent and believe.” It means that the debt has been canceled because of the work of Jesus on the cross; but, to receive that gift of forgiveness, repentance and faith is necessary. *It’s impossible to receive a gift while walking away from The Giver.*

    As individuals, we can and should offer forgiveness to those who have offended us even if they’re walking away from us. But they can’t receive forgiveness until they turn back, that is until they repent. When public figures are the ones doing the sinning, the public doesn’t have standing to offer forgiveness for sins done against others unless they are affected such as when an official sworn to uphold the law breaks it. When public figures sin against others, the public can view those actions to help us generally determine the character of that public figure, and that’s about it. We can’t offer that person a mulligan or a do-over. That’s the purview of God and the person that they offended. We can only use that information to help understand whether we ought to trust them, whether they should be role models or leaders for us. It’s simply not our business to forgive or not forgive other people sins against other people. But it is our business as the public to ascertain the character and trustworthiness of public officials based on what we know of their behavior. Doing so is to apply wisdom; it is not the same thing as “judging” which is defined by scripture as holding a debt over another person.

    In the case of the president and the pornstar, it’s not for us to forgive him for his decade old infidelity. He was not unfaithful to the public, but to his wife. Nor should we ignore or excuse his pre-election pay off for the pornstar’s silence or his false denials, both of which are more relevant to the public trust. We should apply wisdom in addition to Grace. Given that the president refuses to acknowledge the sin, actively hiding it, common sense leads us to conclude that he either hasn’t fully repented or doesn’t know how to fully repent. The Church bears the responsibility to call a sinning brother to account graciously (Matthew 18). In so doing, we offer forgiveness and restored relationship or trust upon repentance. We sometimes extend this responsibility to holding public figures accountable. Yet, instead of calling the President to account for the lies and the pay-off, some evangelical leaders are offering “do overs” for sins that he hasn’t even acknowledged. Something is deeply wrong here. The cart has been put before the horse. The President says publicly that he does not ask God for forgiveness, saying “forgiveness does not come into” his relationship with God. So why are church leaders who are not the offended party offering forgiveness to an offender who is not even acknowledging the offense? I can’t help but feel that this makes a mockery of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I would not be questioning if the president’s wife chose to forgive the president even if he didn’t apologize to her. She could cancel the debt without his knowledge or acquiescence. That is grace given, though not necessarily received. The offering of forgiveness to public figures from other public figures on behalf of the public does not make sense. It just confuses the gospel message which is: “repent and believe, the kingdom of God is at hand” meaning that now that Jesus is on the scene HIS righteousness covers our sin as we draw near to and receive him. If, as a church or as a constituency, evangelicals offer do-overs to seemingly unrepentant public figures who promise to do their political bidding, then we make forgiveness out to be a crass transaction and we completely compromise our moral authority. Instead of preaching that Jesus Christ cancels our massive debt of sin with his righteous sacrifice, we convey that forgiveness can be bought by political favors. We convey that faith and repentance aren’t necessary to maintain relationship with God, all that is needed are the right political positions. We can avoid this problem completely by simply saying we support his policies (if we do). Full stop. There is no need to spiritualize politics. Doing so profoundly undermines our witness.

    • Dawn, I think you’ve pinpointed their error in the theology of forgiveness. As I reached the end of your response, it reminded me of when the church went off track by selling indulgences before Pius V cancelled that practice at the Council of Trent. Except I would say this is worse, because these people are offering and accepting God’s forgiveness for Trump. As you say, that is not theirs to offer nor theirs to receive vicariously on Trump’s behalf. They aren’t the ones who have been sinned against. Forgiveness is freely offered from God but you accept it in the context of relationship with God. As you say, Trump has made clear that “forgiveness does not come into” his relationship with God. He says it strongly. “I don’t like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad. I try to do nothing that is bad.”

      Imagine that someone suggested Larry Nassar got a mulligan for his crimes. Imagine someone declared that he is forgiven for his sins when he had neither asked forgiveness nor repented. The idea turns our stomachs, as it should.

  2. Jean

    Thank you for bringing Rachel’s grace forward. Thank you for calling out the shining example she is. Thank you, as always, for sharing your honesty – I doubt my own capacity for forgiveness as well and your words help me examine that shortcoming.
    For purely selfish reasons I say, please keep writing.

    • Thanks, Jean. It’s such a powerful story I felt like I had to write about it and I would like everyone to read it and wrestle with her willingness to forgive. I know it’s getting out there through many channels. Keep sharing it, in whatever form!

      I don’t think we can accurately judge ourselves when we haven’t faced something this horrible. Usually the error is to imagine, “Oh, of course I would do that if I were in that person’s shoes.” That’s just pride. But trying to compare what I’ve been through and forgiven, this would take a mighty work of God in me. I suspect God gives us the grace we need when we need it. Reading Corrie Ten Boom’s description of meeting face to face and forgiving a Nazi guard from the concentration camp where they held her, where she watched them kill her sister Betsy, shaking his hand and telling him she forgave him and believed God forgave him, too, that has always blown open my view of the limits of forgiveness.

      That leaves you and me working on our own forgiveness. Certainly it’s healing for us. Who knows, maybe that’s a testimony to someone, as well.

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