Yang-won Son and Radical Forgiveness

Yang-won Son grew up in Korea before World War II—before that nation was divided into North and South. At that time Korea was occupied by Japan, and Son grew up in the difficult position of being a Christian under the authority of the Japanese emperor. As an adult, Son was ordained as a Presbyterian pastor and led a church for people with leprosy.

At that time Japan practiced a state-version of Shinto religion, and the Japanese emperor was viewed as a god. Citizens of the nation, including Koreans, were expected to bow down in homage to the emperor. Son’s denomination had formed a policy that allowed its members to participate as an act of national ritual, but Pastor Son refused on the basis of Christian conviction. He would only bow in worship to the one true and living God.

As a result, he was thrown into prison where he endured beatings and mistreatment. He would remain in prison for nearly five years and was released only upon Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. That was not the end, however, of Pastor Son’s suffering as a Christian.

Three years later, Communist rioters took control of Son’s city, kidnapped his two oldest sons, beat them, and shot them dead. Witnesses to the murders said that both boys died calling on the name of Jesus and urging their captors to repent and believe in Christ.

Upon receiving the heartbreaking news, Pastor Son fell down and wept. He also thanked God for the privilege of allowing him to be the father of two martyrs who were willing to give their lives for their Lord. A young man named Chai-sun was eventually arrested for the murders. As he faced his executioners, Pastor Son’s daughter intervened with a message from her father. He wanted Chai-sun to be released.

With some hesitation, the soldiers eventually released the confessed murderer, and Pastor Son adopted him and eventually led him to faith in Jesus. The murderer of his two sons had become his son.

Stories like this rightly challenge us. We tend to hear such a story with self-reflection, asking, “What would I do?” However, may I suggest a better question? Perhaps the best way to respond to the story of Pastor Son’s radical forgiveness is by asking, “How did he do that?” For only by asking that question do we come to realize that Pastor Son’s response was not human but divine.

The Lord’s Prayer contains a petition that we often skip over without much thought, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). The importance of the petition, however, is demonstrated by Jesus revisiting it immediately after the prayer concludes: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).

In fact, this teaching on forgiveness is so controversial—so hard for Jesus’ followers to get—that he revisits it again later in his ministry by telling a story about a king who forgave a servant an insurmountable debt only to witness that very same servant refuse to forgive a fellow servant for a much lesser debt (Matthew 18:21-35). The point that Jesus keeps reiterating is clear: For forgiven people, forgiveness is not an option. As one commentator has put it, to refuse to forgive is to cut off the branch you’re sitting on.

How did Pastor Son forgive his sons’ murderer? He realized that God had forgiven him for much worse. He saw the connection between divine forgiveness and reconciliation and the need for human forgiveness and reconciliation. He prayed “Father forgive me” so much that his softened heart moved him toward his enemies with love and compassion.

Pastor Son realized that his hope depended completely on a God who forgave the sinners who murdered his Son. The reality of that love changed him forever. The circumstances of our lives will likely not provide us with such a test of faith. Having to bury martyr-sons is not a common experience for believers in our part of the world.

Nevertheless, the call to forgive has not changed. The moment we received God’s forgiveness through Jesus was the moment we forfeited our right to begrudgingly refuse forgiveness. As we celebrate the coming of our Lord this Advent season, may we seek the reconciliation he came to achieve. Who do you need to forgive?

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