Mandie and Carrie Wagner were bright, active teenagers. On September 22, 2001, they spent the day with their parents at a Luis Palau outreach event in Santa Cruz, California. On the way home, their minivan was crushed by a Chevy Suburban driven by a woman who was high on coke, meth, and alcohol. Their parents were severely injured; the girls were killed.
Dan and Lynn Wagner live today in the same house where they raised their daughters. A beautiful painting of their girls hangs in the hallway by the front door. They decided that their horrific loss would not cripple their lives or their witness.
They continued trusting God with their indescribable pain. They continued serving their Lord faithfully. And they decided to reach out to the woman who killed their daughters.
As a result of the crash she caused, Lisa Tegenkamp was serving a seven-year prison sentence for gross vehicular manslaughter. The Wagners began writing to her. Lisa had become a Christian in prison and began writing back to express her repentance and grief.
In 2008, she was released from prison and met the Wagners face to face. She now devotes herself to helping people struggling with addiction. She has appeared publicly with the Wagners to speak about the accident and their shared faith in the Lord.
The Wagners know that forgiving Lisa is vital for her sake but also for theirs as well. Their testimony is remarkable proof that Jesus is real and that his love transforms.
The need for such forgiveness is much in the news today.
Members of the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tennessee, gathered for worship and prayer Wednesday night, three days after a gunman attacked their congregation. Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the Townville Elementary School shooting that killed a six-year-old boy and wounded two other students and a teacher.
God calls us to respond to those who hurt us in a very counter-cultural way: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord'” (Romans 12:19). Let’s explore this principle for a moment.
If Joseph had sought vengeance against his brothers, would his family have survived to become the nation of Israel? If Moses had sought vengeance against his critics, would his nation have survived to produce our Messiah? If Jesus had sought vengeance against those who were crucifying him, would he have become our Savior?
We need not worry about justice in this life or the next. “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). If we ask God for the strength to pardon those who hurt us, we free them from the cycle of vengeance and ourselves from the prison of pain.
And we show a skeptical world that the hope of heaven can transform lives on earth. A few days after Mandie Wagner died, her father found a poem she wrote. It ends: “I always felt safe, like we were untouchable, unbreakable.” Now she is. So will we be.
This is the promise, and the grace, of God.
NOTE: For more on today’s theme, please see my latest website article, How to Forgive What You Can’t Forget.