As a parent, I often find that the struggles I see in my kids are a reflection of a similar struggle in me, because we are all human and our weaknesses are common to us all. Lately, when something bad happens, Audrey seems to always be looking for someone to blame. Just yesterday she was playing with Ben and Willa, jumping on the couch, and she somehow fell off. Her immediate exclamation was “I don’t know WHAT Willa did, but somehow she did something bad and I fell off and got an owie!!!” Hmmm….yes. Let’s just say the old, tired, Genesis story of “the woman made me do it!” and “the snake made me do it!” pretty much repeats itself every day in our house.
In discussing the pitfalls of the “blame game” with Audrey, I’ve tried all the tricks: “sometimes things are just accidents” or “blaming others doesn’t make anything any better” and on and on. After a whole lot of NOT success, one day I decided to just hit it head on, so we discussed Matthew 5:44.
“But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!”
We talked about how even if we could blame someone for bad things, even if they really did do bad things to us, Jesus says to love and pray for even those people. Not only does it not help to blame others for our problems, but even if it really is someone else’s fault, we still need to forgive, love, and bless them. Following Jesus means letting go of the blame game, and extravagantly pouring out love on the good, the bad, and the ugly.
That very evening, after I had so confidently taught Audrey from this passage, I myself was given an opportunity to practice it. How did it go, you ask? How did I respond? Well, let’s just say that loving your enemies is a LOT easier to preach than to practice. I will also say that I am thankful for the mercy and forgiveness of God, because I need it so constantly. I am regularly amazed at the malice and venom in my own heart, even if only expressed in my thoughts or to my spouse. The same violence I condemn in others resides in me, and if I do nothing about it I will be destroyed by it.
As I prayed the St. Francis prayer today, the last two lines particularly stood out to me. “…it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.” Pardon and death are inextricably linked. In forgiveness, we have to die to whatever offense we’re holding. We have to die to the expectations we had. We have to die to truly pardon others. Our flesh-self, the self that sets itself up as more important than Jesus and his Way of forgiveness and sacrificial love, has to be crucified. It doesn’t mean the hurt isn't real, or even valid. On the contrary, the hurt is very real, but we have to acknowledge the only way to true healing is through forgiveness.
It feels rather satisfying to hold onto that anger just a little longer—trust me, I’ve been doing it! I keep saying, “Not right now. I’m just not ready, Lord. I’ll forgive, but not right now.” One of the beautiful things about God is that he’s patient, even when I’m throwing a 2 year old tantrum. It’s very clear that I’m doing what is decidedly NOT best, for me or anyone else, but he won’t come down with an iron fist and force me into anything. Even though he knows I need to get to point B, he doesn’t rush me or cajole me, or condemn me for my “late obedience.”
But it’s hurting me. Every second I choose to stay mad and clutch tight to my poisonous anger, it does more damage to my heart. The danger of holding out on forgiveness is that it quickly irritates and hardens my heart more, so that eventually bitterness will set in and it will become all the more difficult to forgive. In my foolishness, I somehow think it will get easier to forgive tomorrow, but it actually gets harder.
Lately as I pray The Lord’s Prayer through the second time in the morning, I pray “Lord make me a quick forgiver.” If I want to be an ambassador of God’s peace and love, I have to start by dealing with the violence in my own heart. It has to start with me. It will only happen by recognizing the malice and hatred trying to take up residence in me, and by flat-out killing it. I have to die to my own wicked desires for revenge and judgment. If I want to be shown mercy—and oh how I desperately need mercy—I must be merciful.
I won’t pretend that it doesn’t hurt. It hurts to be wounded, and yet to slowly loosen your grip on the one who has done the wounding, to peel back your fingers one at a time and let go. But it hurts far more deeply to keep the wound bleeding and open, or infected and festering, holding onto every ounce of bitterness. When I do this, I’m only standing in the way of my own healing.
You see, Jesus is the Way. His life and death and resurrection shows us the way of true life. He went first, to be the example, and to show us the hope of his victory. He went first in death. He didn’t defend his rights, he didn’t try to justify revenge, or even bringing his offenders to justice. He had complete trust in God his father. He knew his Daddy, and he trusted not only his heart, but his ability to be his defender. He trusted God to put everything right and to justify him in the end. And because of that trust that led to his death, we now get see the power and victory of Jesus’ resurrection! God DID justify his son. God raised Jesus from the dead, showing the world who Jesus truly was, and where his meek, humble, sacrificial, loving way of life would really lead. Because Jesus is resurrected, we have the assurance that he WILL put the world completely to right again.
So when I’m working through forgiveness, I always spend a moment mulling over the resurrection, and the redeeming power of God at work in the world that will someday finally be complete. I know that all will turn out right in the end, because God is perfect, and God is coming to our rescue. He will not stand for violence and injustice, and someday it WILL all come to an end. So I can, with confidence, release my hurt and any injustice I suffer to him with the knowledge that he cares, that it breaks his heart, and he is doing something about it, even if I don’t see it right now this minute.
What also helps me is to humanize my offender instead of villainize them. It’s easy to try to see things as black and white, and to set yourself up as the good victim and the offender up as the literary “bad guy” with the black cat and the evil laugh. The problem with that is that we are all gray. None of us are completely good and none of us completely horrible. There are always two sides to every story, and no side is complete and perfect. So I visualize the person who has wronged me making their coffee, reading the paper, or even their Bible. They put their shoes on one at a time, like me. They burn themselves with the curling iron, like me. They have fears and insecurities, like me. They have been wounded, like me. Maybe their wounds or their insecurities cause them to act in ways they wouldn’t otherwise, probably like me.
The point is that we are all human and we all hurt each other, and the only way to get through this life and come out healthy is to forgive. Constantly, generously, and extravagantly. It will certainly look foolish to the world, but Paul told us that already:
“For the message of thecrossisfoolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
I thank God every day for the power of God, forgiving me and empowering me to forgive, and I pray I choose forgiveness daily.