I thought I was over it.
At a women’s retreat with our organization, I shared some of my most recent struggles with a member care counselor. Memories from long-ago seemed to rear their ugly little heads and as I shredded a box of tissues with my snotty tears in that bright and airy Athenian hotel room, my counselor looked at me and asked, ever so gently,
“You’re describing years of trauma, doubt, loneliness and betrayal. Why exactly would you be over it by now?”
Stunned, my sobs stopped in wonder. “Because we agreed to forgive and forget. That was the deal. In order to make a life here again, I had to get over it and move on.”
Again, she asked, “And why is that? Who would make you agree to that?”
The truth is that no one asked me to do that. It was a deal I made only with myself, and I was breaking it.
The conclusion to our first term was not a perfect case study in “ending well,” leading to a few years of exile back in the US. Repatriating is always a little traumatic, but with three children under 7 in tow, zero assurances of our place at home and abroad, and a long list of flaming hoops to jump through, traumatic is a pretty accurate word. Grief, confusion and anger might even add a little more color to the emotions I felt over those three years.
During that time, forgiveness was not a thing I felt I could offer, and it certainly wasn’t asked for. My main priority in that time was keeping my children alive and happy, loving my husband enough so that he didn’t give up on his calling, and painting a smile on my face so our supporting churches and friends didn’t see that it was so bad.
In fact, I’m sure I uttered that phrase a few times.
“It’s not so bad,” I’d say.
“It’s just the end of our term,” I’d say.
“We’re raising more support, doing the odd bit of training,” I’d say.
“We’ll be heading back soon,” I’d say.
In hindsight, all those things were true, but what I really wanted to say is, “I am absolutely heartbroken. We feel homeless and unwanted. We have no idea where to go from here and we don’t know how to forgive.”
Of course, you know the end of the story, or at least the next chapter. We healed, we came back, we moved on. We agreed to wipe the slate clean and accept the fresh start offered. A new location in country and new ministry partnerships helped us thrive. In fact, we even felt thankful – not for the way it happened, but for what it produced: fruit, good works, new relationships, and a healthy family.
And yet, I didn’t forgive. I skipped right to forgetting. Ok, maybe I was pretending to forget, right up till that meeting with member care.
If you try to define forgiveness, chances are you’ll get stumped. My daughter had this very word on her spelling list and as she tried to fit it into a defining sentence, she struggled. Forgiveness is the act of forgiving, we were tempted to say. But what did forgive really mean?
Trying not to cheat via dictionary, my husband put it this way, “Forgive is to say that the debt you owed – or the debt someone owed you – is no longer necessary. Someone has either paid it for you, or it has been wiped clean away.”
It’s funny how we think of these big redemptive life issues in financial terms, but this is how we humans deal, right? We trade in resources, time and money. I think perhaps that’s safer than to say what we really feel, to forgive that which cuts to the bone:
“The damage you did to my heart, my mind and my spirit is being healed. I don’t expect or want you to do the healing; it will, and is, being done. I make peace with it and will no longer hold it against you. In fact, today I make peace with you.”
I make peace with it and with you.
I still had one big issue to consider after that meeting with my counselor. My misunderstanding of forgiveness had eked into other areas of ministry. Partnerships which had run their course, friends who had moved away, misunderstandings that were prone to occur – all these things added to the mishandled weight I refused to remove from my shoulders.
Every incident, every harm and foul led back to that first, great hurt and my part in it. Evidence seemed to pile up against me; evidence of my wrongdoings, of how my failure to move on kept tripping me up, of a path which circled in on itself, going nowhere.
I didn’t just need to forgive my peers and my leaders, I needed to forgive myself. As much for my mistakes as for theirs, I needed to let God wipe me clean, too.
Friends (for that’s how I see you, on the other side of this screen and world), I don’t know the hurt you’re holding on to. But if confusion, anxiety and anger are your travelling companions as of late, perhaps unforgiveness is up there on your shoulders, just waiting to be set down. I don’t believe it’s a spiteful act, the carrying of these bitter boulders. I think maybe we just misunderstand.
It’s not about forgetting, moving on, sucking up our pride. Forgiveness is the very intentional – often painful, but never wasted – act of releasing the debt someone owes you. It’s balancing the accounts, undigging the knife, letting the wounds close and heal.
And what happens after the skin heals? Oh, it’s shiny and new. Tender, sure, but is that not what we long for? A sensitivity to the pain and injustice of this world? If a broken and contrite heart is a sacrifice we make to the Lord, how much more must He value the healthy rebirth of our spirit and the reconciliation of his sons and daughters?
We don’t have to keep tripping ourselves up, and we don’t have to just get over it and move on. What we need is a bit of that mercy offered for us, and a willingness to pass it on, even to ourselves.
When have you been tempted to just get over it and move on? How have you forgiven a hurt, even when forgiveness isn’t asked for?
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