Yesterday’s article in this space was Mark Shea’s examination of the beatitude “Blessed are the Merciful.” If you have not been reading all of Mark’s meditations on these pithy words to live by from Life Itself, you are really missing something. I very much appreciated Mark’s thoughts — so much so that I was prompted to continue the discussion here.
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Insistence on forgiveness is really the defining gospel call of Christianity. But before the good news comes the bad news — sin is real and we are really sinners. Forgiveness is not merely God’s way of covering our sin with a veneer of righteousness (pure white snowfall covering a dunghill as Luther would have it) but is a medicinal application of grace whereby the Great Physician cures us of what kills us. And a good part of the medicine of grace involves swallowing our pride, recognizing the single most obvious truth — we are not God and we cannot judge. To withhold forgiveness is to attempt to stand where we cannot stand — even with our shoes off.
Here our outraged dignity must yield, for even our most despised enemy is not exempted from “those” as in “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Mark nailed that and the sin against our own desperate need for forgiveness that holding another in contempt is.
However, I would like to explore with you a couple of other emotions — besides contempt or angry hatred — that I think often block us from forgiveness. I am thinking of grief and fear.
It is very hard to forgive while one is anticipating being hurt once more. The recent bombing attack against Christian students in Iraq comes to mind as the kind of situation in which the mind reels at considering forgiveness in the midst of vigilance against another attack. It is one thing to turn the other cheek in anticipation of a second slap, and quite another when turning the other cheek exposes all that is left of your face to an enemy actively seeking your annihilation. Women who live with abusive men often find themselves operating in a similar state of hyper-vigilance lest any random innocent act or word prompt a new violent rage.
Of course, forgiveness does not preclude self-defense. It is quite emphatically not an invitation to “go ahead — hit me again.” Fear of what is truly fearful is a healthy, protective emotion. But dealing with fear can create a barrier to forgiveness. Even once you have forgiven, re-emergence of the fear may require you to forgive — yet again.
Adults who were victimized as children in some way frequently confront this issue of forgiveness linked to fear. Trying to forgive as an adult, after you have “gotten away,” can feel like inviting yourself back into relationship with people you may have good reason to avoid. Here it is important to spend some time prayerfully considering — perhaps with help from a counselor — what is going on inside and disentangling feelings. If thinking about forgiving someone who hurt you when you were a child prompts fear, you need to understand first of all that this fear is based on a memory, not on a current situation, and second, that it is not true that forgiving means you have to get back into a relationship with people who hurt you. Not forgiving ties your emotions to them more firmly than you can imagine. Forgiving is letting go. It is placing them into God’s hands. It, not holding onto anger, truly releases you.
Even so, memories may be elicited unexpectedly or there can be a new realization of pain, such when a young woman felt her mistreatment at the hands of her parents with new keenness when she held her own newborn and thought, “I would never do THAT to my child.” Each time this happens, there will have to be another attempt at forgiveness. It is a process, not a one-time event.
Like fear, grief can make forgiveness an arduous process. Consider the person dealing with a disabling injury caused by another. He comes to terms with the initial sense of loss, but the grief can reemerge as life’s changes confront him anew with what robbery has been committed upon him. Grief over the loss of sight may arise anew with the birth of a child. Grief over loss of mobility may stab again the heart of a man unable to aid a loved one. Grief over the loss of a home may hit again and again as a family struggles to adapt to new, less pleasant, surroundings. Interruption of a career track or of educational opportunities may haunt for years, even decades, as one toils to catch up. Once again, forgiveness in such situations must be seen as an ongoing process.
A look around — perhaps a look at your own life, someone you know, or more distantly, the news of the day — impresses us with the searing losses that people face. Loss of financial stability and social status. Loss of home, even of country. Loss of health. And worst of all, the loss of a loved one in death. Helpless, we writhe with inchoate grief as these losses befall us. And the flip side of helplessness — rage. Especially is this true when a parent loses a child in death.
In the movie, Steel Magnolias, Sally Field deftly captured just this emotion, playing a mother whose diabetic daughter died of complications caused by giving birth while in a medically fragile condition. Leaving the graveside, she whirls on her friends and screams, “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine. I’m fine! I can jog all the way to Texas and back, but my daughter can’t! She never could! Oh God! I am so mad I don’t know what to do! I wanna know why! I wanna know why Shelby’s life is over! I wanna know how that baby will ever know how wonderful his mother was! Will he ever know what she went through for him! Oh God! I wanna know why? Why? Lord, I wish I could understand! No! No! No! It’s not supposed to happen this way! I’m supposed to go first. I’ve always been ready to go first! I-I don’t think I can take this! I-I don’t think I can take this! I-I just wanna hit somebody ’til they feel as bad as I do! I just wanna hit something! I wanna hit it hard!”
Those words capture the rage and sense of a universe suddenly out-of-whack experienced by parents who lose a child. When my own 22-year-old daughter died in 2005, I remember the sense of shock — had I filled a pan with water, placed it upon the stove, lit the burner under it, and watched it turn to ice before my eyes, I could not have felt more like something in the fundamental way of things had gone awry. But as with the girl in the movie, there was no one to blame — it was a single-car accident. What parents confront in the way of forgiveness who do have someone to blame for their loss, I can only imagine. It is like so many other kinds of grief — only more so — something that recurs, as must the forgiveness.
How then do we get the strength to forgive when the wound is, by fear or grief, ripped anew and the pain comes on afresh? I think there is a key to it. “We do not grieve,” St. Paul said, “as those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4: 13). Our hope is what unlocks the bolts of our heart to allow forgiveness to flow out. Hope says that no matter what we fear from our enemy, no matter how he may injure us in this life, God will fix us. Hope says that no loss is so great that God will not make it up to us.
It is not that the loss is not real. It is not that the enemy is not frightening. It is not that the injury is not painful. It is that God has said, “Behold I make all things new.” We really can forgive anything because He has promised us everything.