Lewis B. Smedes, 81; Theology Professor Studied Forgiveness

Times Staff Writer

Lewis B. Smedes, a pioneer in forgiveness research and author of more than 15 books, died Thursday at Methodist Hospital in Arcadia after a fall Tuesday while putting up Christmas lights at his home in Sierra Madre. He was 81.

A professor emeritus of theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, where he taught and wrote for 27 years, Smedes was known for thought-provoking ideas on issues ranging from forgiveness to human sexuality. At times, he broke the mold within evangelical Christianity, the faith that nurtured and formed him throughout his life, as when he allowed for a more nuanced understanding of homosexual relationships rather than uncompromising condemnation.

But it was his insights into forgiveness as not simply a godly virtue but a human necessity for getting on with one’s life that propelled Smedes from the academic cloister to the public marketplace.


He said a misconception about forgiveness is that an aggrieved individual must wait for an apology. To wait, he said, is to leave your future peace and happiness in the hands of the person who injured you in the first place.

He rejected the idea that unconditional forgiveness -- even when the offender fails to apologize -- amounts to self-centeredness by the victim and cheapens the value of forgiveness.

“They call it American egoism,” he said last year in an interview with The Times. “I think they’re all wet. They see it as cheap forgiveness. I don’t think it’s ever cheap. It’s costly.”

Its costliness would come as the aggrieved party worked his or her way through four stages, described Friday by book editor Roy Carlisle as: We hurt. We hate. We heal ourselves. We come together.

Carlisle edited Smedes’ 1985 “Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurt We Don’t Deserve,” which he said sold more than 500,000 copies.

Smedes “said you go through this experience of being hurt and then you go through this experience of having what he called that ‘unfair pain.’ Then you respond in anger; ‘the tiger snarling in the soul’ was his wonderful phrase,” Carlisle recalled.


That leads to a decision to forgive, and then to express that to another person, said Carlisle, now a senior editor at Crossroad Publishing in New York.

Jon Pott, executive editor at William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. in Grand Rapids, Mich., which published Smedes’ “Sex for Christians” in 1976, said the author had the rigorous mind of a theologian and the heart of a pastor.

“It was not only a matter of being able to bring theology to bear meaningfully to the most important human concerns -- the kind of things that keep us awake -- but his sensitivity to the complexity of human life didn’t allow him to settle for easy theological answers,” Pott said. “He wrestled with God, and he wrestled with human problems.”

In a 1999 interview with the Detroit Free Press, Smedes’ knack for eloquence and metaphor was evident when he spoke of Jesus’ death as “opening the sluice gates to forgiveness from God.”

Everett Worthington, chairman of the psychology department and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said Friday that many, including himself, have followed Smedes into the study of forgiveness.

“When you look at the literature that existed in 1984, it was pretty thin and pretty diverse and didn’t use what I called once the ‘F word’ -- forgiveness. He made it legitimate to talk about that,” Worthington said. He said Smedes’ 1985 book opened the door for forgiveness to be examined not only by theologians but by psychologists and others.

Among Smedes’ other books are “Caring and Commitment,” “Keeping Hope Alive,” “Mere Morality: What God Expects From Ordinary People” and “A Life of Distinction: What It Takes to LiveWith Courage, Honesty and Gratitude.”

Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller, on Friday called Smedes “an influential interpreter of our kind of open evangelicalism.”

Rabbi Allan Schranz of Sutton Place Synagogue in New York said Smedes was a man of “soaring intellect” whose devoutness was “the bloom of his mind and soul.”

Born in Michigan in 1921, Smedes married Doris Dekker in 1948. They had three children: Catherine, Charles and John.

He studied at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1947. He earned a master’s of divinity at Calvin Theological Seminary, also in Grand Rapids, in 1950 and a PhD in 1953 from the Free University of Amsterdam. He also studied at Oxford University in England and the University of Basel in Switzerland.

After several years of pastoral ministry in the Christian Reformed Church, he became a professor of religion and theology at Calvin College. He came to Fuller in 1968 and accepted a chair in theology and psychology in 1990. He retired in 1995.

Mouw said Smedes’ classroom prayers were often as notable as his lectures.

“More than one of his former students has said that, while his class lectures were unforgettable, it was worth coming to class just to hear his opening prayer,” he said.

Besides his wife and children, he is survived by two grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. next Saturday at Pasadena Presbyterian Church, 585 E. Colorado Blvd.

Memorial gifts may be sent to Child SHARE, 1544 W. Glenoaks Blvd., Glendale, CA 91201.