An Impossible Forgiveness: When the Words Become True

After a radical act of forgiveness, a mother works to have her son’s killer released from prison.


This essay appears in Issue 23 The Mockingbird, now available to order.

The journey of my life to understand not only God’s mercy for me, but how I was called to be merciful as well, began in the depths of indescribable pain. It began with a phone call late on a Sunday evening in Vienna, Austria, where my husband and I lived and worked as missionaries. I was watching television and doing some ironing. My husband and son were at their desks writing letters. When I answered the phone, a voice asked, “Are you Mrs. Collard, and do you have a son in Concord, California, named Timothy Scott Collard?” With growing anxiety, I answered, quietly, “Yes.” The caller identified himself as a detective from a police department in California. He explained that my son had been “involved in an incident” during the night and that he would call me within thirty minutes to explain the situation. He requested the name, phone numbers, and addresses of our parents, who also lived in California, before he said goodbye and hung up.

Panic began to rise in me, and I called out to my husband and son. We immediately went to prayer, but we did not know how to pray. Had Tim committed a crime? Had he been in a car accident? Nearly three hours later, we still had not heard anything. We called the police department back and said, “We don’t know where he is or what he’s done. You have our son, and we want some information!” The operator asked us to hang up once again so that a detective could call us. Instead, the call came from our distraught daughter, Wendy, and her aunt.

Wendy had been alone at the house, where she lived with my parents while she attended university, when the local police came to tell her the terrible news. When she collapsed, they had called my sister-in-law who lived nearby. “Mom, Tim is dead,” Wendy cried. “He was murdered!” That phone call from our daughter changed our lives forever. The journey had begun.


Very little was known then, except that the murderer had been caught and had bragged to the police that he had not only murdered his own wife but had murdered “her lover” too. He was in error presuming she and Tim were lovers, but the horrific, undeniable fact was this: Our precious eldest son was dead.

Tim had a weekend job in the concession stands at a local outdoor amphitheater. That Saturday evening a coworker, Donna, told him that she feared going home to her abusive husband. Since this was the last production of the season, the crew stayed for a tailgate party, but Tim had already gone on home. An hour later, however, he still could not get his coworker’s situation off his mind and returned to find out if he could help her. By that time, she was the only one left in the parking lot except for the security guard. Donna was drunk and unable to drive. Tim told the security guard to continue with his duties and promised he would either drive his coworker home or stay with her until she could drive. He sat in the passenger seat of her car with the door open, leaving his own car keys in his ignition. Within five minutes of the guard’s departure, Donna recognized the pickup truck of her husband, Mike, entering the parking lot and, in a panic, turned on the ignition to speed away. In the resulting car chase, Donna’s car was forced off the road. Mike then pulled his wife from the car, drove her home, and shot her multiple times on the front lawn of their home. He then returned to the amphitheater parking lot to wait for Tim, who was walking back from Donna’s car. Mike locked Tim’s car and threw the keys into the tall grass.

When Tim arrived back at his car, Mike was waiting for him there. We do not know exactly what occurred on that hillside, but it is suspected that Tim tried to reason with him — telling him the truth about the situation — and had turned to walk away from the scene. He was then brutally shot at least three times in the back of the head, his body mutilated. He died instantly.

In the meantime, police were looking for Mike to solve the attempted murder of his wife. When he was finally arrested, Mike exclaimed that he could solve a murder yet unknown to the police. That murder was of our son, Tim.


Dazed and weeping, we left Vienna for the long trip to California. To our shock, the head of security and the director of the airline met us at the San Francisco airport. They whisked us into a private room, seeking to protect us from the media who had gathered to interview the missionary parents of the victim of this gruesome murder. Mike had assumed that Tim was sexually involved with his wife, and the early newspaper reports endorsed his version of events, calling it a sordid love triangle. This was repeated on TV and shared along with graphic pictures of my son’s slain body. It was a nightmare.

Eventually the truth was revealed, and one reporter stated, “Tim was a friend with a listening ear — at the wrong place and wrong time.” Of course, all murder is senseless, but the murder of my dear son was absolutely without any justification.


The following months of grief — the waves of pain — were accompanied by perennial questions that demanded answers. Why did God allow this to happen? Where is the hope we need to go on living? Is God good? These were only some of the questions that punctuated my journey toward healing.

Louise Lawler, Grieving Mothers (Attachment), 2005. Silver dye bleach print on museum box, 46 × 41 in. Courtesy of the artist and Sprüth Magers.

Today I can unequivocally declare, “Yes, God is good — even in the midst of a life that is unfair.” I’ve surrendered the question of “Why?” to a new question: “God, what can you do to both glorify yourself and to heal others through this horrible situation?” Yet in those first weeks following Tim’s death, when the despair of grief overwhelmed me, I knew that if I did not have God’s care, compassion, and strength, I would not survive. I could not go on living. There was a stark realization that without God, I could not handle the grief.

And the one question that haunted me was, “Could God really expect me to forgive — to show mercy — to the murderer of my child?”

As a young girl, I had trusted in Christ as my Savior and knew that God had forgiven me, that I was completely accepted as a child of God and did not have to “earn” His love. I had learned of the depths of God’s mercy as I read in the Scriptures about Christ, hanging on a cross, crying out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And I had experienced that mercy when I embraced His forgiveness for myself. I also knew that as God’s child, my life could only be all God desired it to be. I firmly believed that all of God’s commands were either to keep me from harm or to allow me to experience all that is best — but how could this be true of God’s command to forgive my son’s murderer? How could I forgive this man who had brutally taken my son and hurt my family so deeply?

God’s expectation that I forgive my son’s murderer seemed unfair and totally beyond my understanding.


My stark, driving need of God at my weakest moment thrust me into the study of the Scriptures. How is God’s forgive-ness defined and demonstrated? Colossians 2:13-14 is clear:

For you were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ. He forgave all our sins. He canceled the record that contained the charges against us. He took it and destroyed it by nailing it to Christ’s cross.

Could this be the standard of forgiveness God expected of me for this murderer? Was this the reality of mercy that I was to express? I continued searching the Scriptures for God’s intent, and it quickly became abundantly clear what His expectations were.

Here are some of the other verses that I found (emphasis mine):

And so, as those who have been chosen by God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. (Col 3:12–13)

And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Eph 4:32)

No room for questions or doubts here. God’s forgiveness of me was complete, even though it was not deserved. As such, I could not plead ignorance or pick-and-choose the commands to obey.

But it is the free gift of God’s forgiveness — his mercy — that lays upon us the willingness of a forgiving spirit for others. If we understand the depths of our guilt and our dependency upon the grace of God, naturally we will extend forgiveness to those who sin against us. To state it another way, my forgiveness of others is the proof that I myself have been forgiven. I could not, as God’s child, choose to do anything but forgive.

But for me, the most powerful aspect of forgiveness was the realization that I must choose, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to live with the consequences of another person’s sin. This is what Christ did for me on the cross. It is what God teaches me to do towards others. It is “forgiving as God, in Christ, has forgiven me.” This was the deep expression of mercy that is the characteristic of life in God’s kingdom.

So, with a prayer that God would make me “willing,” I chose to show mercy and to forgive the murderer of my child. It was not always easy, but God gave me the power to obey His command.

It began with me writing simple letters expressing my forgiveness and explaining that he could be completely forgiven by God also. Over time, God showed me how simple “acts of forgiveness” would bless this man, and would increase my freedom from anger and bitterness. I realized the murderer and I were both on a pilgrimage of mercy.

The initial “act of forgiveness” was to pray for my son’s murderer by name. I had never uttered his name because he had become a monster in my mind. But when I started praying for Mike, he became a man, one whom God loved and for whom Christ died. Eventually, when this man responded to God’s offer of mercy and forgiveness, this man became my brother in Christ.

We worked to have him released from prison. And, as impossible as it sounds, I can honestly say, I love the murderer of my child. This is only through the mercy and love of God.

This journey, as difficult as it has been, has taught me so much. I truly wonder if I could have ever understood and delighted in God’s mercy for me without experiencing what it took for me to forgive the killer of my child. I am far more aware of the cost of God’s forgiveness and His love for me now that I have learned to express mercy and, as a result, have been blessed with love, grace, and freedom. It was not a lesson I would have chosen, but I am so grateful for what God has taught me.

My first exposure to a Shakespeare play was as a fourteen-year-old freshman in high school. It was The Merchant of Venice. I’ve never forgotten Portia’s statement, “The quality of mercy is not strained.” “Strained” is an Old English word for “constrained” or “forced.” Mercy has to be freely given; no one can force someone to be merciful. This is true of God’s mercy towards us. It is freely given; and that was true when I chose to forgive the murderer of my child.

As I was writing these thoughts, I heard a song written by Bill Gaither and sung by the Gaither Vocal Band. The song title is “Something to Say.” The chorus begins with words that sum up what my experience has been: “But you’ve never lived until the words become true; until forgiveness and mercy mean something to you.”

I think that says it all. Forgiveness and mercy now mean something to me. I have lived. Thanks be to God.

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2 responses to “An Impossible Forgiveness: When the Words Become True”

  1. Sharon Wilson says:

    As my cousin, Diane, was going through this, I never knew the whole story until I read her book. I’m still amazed at her Faith and willingness to trust God to see her through this whole ordeal and come out on the other side even more trusting in His word! She and her husband are Anazing♥️♥️

  2. Joy Davis says:

    What a beautiful testimony of love you’ve shared. Love for Tim and ultimately love for Mike. Thank you for sharing your heart of forgiveness and mercy in such a meaningful way that challenges me to look at forgiveness in a whole new way! Thank you sweet friend

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