Have you ever heard of “Amish forgiveness”? This phrase came to us through great tragedy. Perhaps you remember the story.

In October 2006, a gunman named Charles Roberts entered an Amish one-room schoolhouse in Pennsylvania and shot ten girls, killing five, and then taking his own life. It’s a storyline that has become all too familiar to us. A dark-hearted person goes on a killing rampage, taking the life of those who were where they were supposed to be and doing what they were supposed to do.

Every time it happens, we grieve. The world is a dark and evil place.

This time, however, something unexpected happened, something extraordinary. There was light.

The light came through the men and women of the Amish community—many of them family members of the victims.

What did they do that was so unusual? They forgave the family of the shooter. They didn’t let their loss and their emotions keep them from the courageous obedience that enabled them to forgive in word and in deed.

Grace and forgiveness

One of the first members of the community to reach out to the Roberts family—within hours of the shooting—was Henry Stoltzfoos, a board member of the three Amish schools in the area. He was also their neighbor. When Mr. Stoltzfoos came to visit, Chuck Roberts, the shooter’s father, was slumped over at the breakfast bar in their home sobbing uncontrollably.

As Mr. Stoltzfoos arrived, dressed in his formal visiting attire, he immediately walked over to Chuck, placed his hand on him and said “Roberts, we love you. This was not your doing. You must not blame yourself.”*

Terri Roberts, the mother of the shooter, said she was amazed by the grace and forgiveness extended to her family by the Amish people of her community, even the parents of the victims. As her neighbors reached out to her, she kept coming back to Ephesians 4:32, “forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

These men and women chose to ignore their natural inclination in order to respond as they knew God wanted them to. Because of their faith in God, they knew that only forgiveness could heal their families and their community. Retaliation would only make matters worse. Chastising the shooter’s family, their neighbors, would solve nothing. Only forgiveness, followed by compassion, could heal and restore. They chose obedience.

Three misconceptions about feelings

Far too many of us live on the level of our feelings. Invariably we allow feelings to control our lives. When we feel slighted, we sulk. When we feel wronged, we take revenge. When we feel lonely, we binge. If we fail to check our feelings against the truth of God’s word, they can take up permanent residency. When this happens, our outlook on life becomes distorted and toxic, and we may end up doing things we would never have imagined.

Our feelings mislead us because we don’t fully understand them. It is important then, that we identify our misconceptions so that our feelings become subject to truth.

Misconception #1: Faith is just a feeling.

My friend, Ney Bailey, wrote a book entitled Faith Is Not a Feeling. A survivor of the 1976 Big Thompson Flood in Colorado that took nearly 150 lives, Ney reminds us that no matter how bleak things look, no matter how we feel, we need to believe and obey God’s promises and commands. The appearance of things is never the full truth about them. This is why fear so often gets the upper hand, because we believe only what we can see. Don’t let your feelings become your identity, or worse yet, your god.

Misconception #2: Love is just a feeling.

Our highly romanticized view of love has weakened its meaning. Marital love fueled only by feelings runs out of gas eventually, sometimes in less than 12 months. In its essence, love is a commitment. It’s bedrock obedience to keep your promises, to honor, respect, and give preference to your spouse even when you don’t feel like it.

Of course you want romance in your marriage. Who doesn’t? And commitment will bring the romance. But romance, as we so often think of it, is such a powerful feeling that it can also destroy marriages. If the feeling is all we’re after, we’ll go where the feeling is the strongest.

I think this is what happened to many of the Christian leaders we’ve seen fall morally over the years. Based on the stories I’ve heard, I’m reasonably certain that the downfall of these men started with small concessions. Their feelings for another slowly overtook their commitment to their spouse and ultimately Christ. In the end, feelings trumped their promise; compromise followed. Failure is usually not a blowout, it’s a slow leak. Just follow your feelings.

Had these men and women recognized the dangerous path their feelings were about to take them on, had they known the devastation they would bring to themselves, their families, and to the cause of Christ, they would have extinguished the catalytic chemistry of attraction to another person. They would have turned back before temptation gave birth to sin. They would have obeyed God rather than their feelings (James 1:12-15).

As someone once said, “Sin would have fewer takers if it’s consequences occurred immediately.”

Misconception #3: Forgiveness is just a feeling.

Many people are under the false impression that in order to forgive, they must feel like forgiving. However, forgiveness is a choice to obey the commands of Scripture: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). When we forgive, we choose to give up the right to punish another. We choose to no longer hold onto or rehearse the hurt caused by the offense, and we choose to relinquish any right to retaliate, even if friends try to persuade us to get even.

A number of years ago I was in a business partnership with a man who wronged me repeatedly. The man had been a good friend, but he took advantage of me. The result: I was faced with not only a sense of profound betrayal, but also dissolving a partnership headed for bankruptcy. The wounds were deep and the temptation to get revenge was very real.

God provided three friends, Merle, Al, and Scott, who helped me sell the company. In the end, I was left with over 150 boxes of records spanning the last ten years of business. Legally, I was told that I could burn each box after its contents reached the ten-year mark. So, on January 1 of each year I’d carry the relative boxes to my fire pit and light them up. This became an annual spiritual health checkup for me: Had I continued to forgive my business partner, my friend? It wasn’t easy, but I have forgiven him…at least ten times!

How does God respond to faithful obedience?

Do you want to know God more? Do you want to experience more of Him? Do you want to have a fuller understanding of God’s ways and purposes? Do you want settled peace, stronger faith, and uncorrupted courage? Then you must come to Him through the door of obedience. Daily. Moment by moment. It is a lifetime’s journey and an adventure of immense proportions and privilege.

Never underestimate the significance of even the smallest act of obedience—or disobedience. Heed the words of C. S. Lewis: “Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That’s why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which a few months later you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparent trivial indulgence today in lust or anger may be the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.”

You have no idea what you’re opening yourself up to when you let your appetites have their way.

Perhaps it’s not the issue of dealing with bitterness or asking for forgiveness that is your point of obedience today. Whatever it is, I remind you of James 4:17, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”

Obey God, not your feelings.

For years Dennis Rainey has been sharing seven principles by which we should live our lives. Hear Dennis talk about the seven decisions you’ll never regret on FamilyLife Today®. And check out Dennis’s new book, Choosing a Life That Matters, to explore the seven principles in depth.

*Story adapted from Forgiven by Terri Roberts and Jeanette Windle; 2015, Bethany House.

Excerpted from Choosing a Life That Matters, © copyright 2017 by Dennis Rainey. Used with permission of Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group.