The following is a lesson presented yesterday at Dayspring Church by my good friend Robin Acker. I wanted to save this so that I could read it often. Thank you Robin for such a thoughtful lesson!
by Robin Acker
Speaking on our topic today makes me think about when I was in school, when there were some topics that just didn’t want to sink in and stay put. For a lot of us, that was fluid & electrolytes. I’d be on a rotation, learn about it, it would seem to make sense. I’d use the knowledge, then go off on another subject and just completely forget about it. It just wouldn’t stay put. It didn’t seem intuitive.
Forgiveness may be much more intuitive, but it doesn’t seem to get much easier. How many wonderful, thoughtful lessons have we had on the forgiving nature of Jesus, the grace of God? And how often, when the topic of forgiveness is raised, do we think, “Boy, forgiveness! That really is a tough one”? “What I do know about forgiveness is that it’s really, really, difficult. I hope there isn’t a quiz.”
For me, as I ponder the subject of forgiveness, it’s alway from the, “Am I doing this right?” perspective. And I’m speaking of the times when we are deeply wounded, and the ‘perpetrator’, or ‘perp’ as I like to call them, either sees no need to ‘make it right’, or for some other reasons chooses not to. How do I forgive them? How is that accomplished? Is it that way for you?
I wonder if I’m doing it right because while I may not dwell on it (one of the few elements of forgiveness that seems to have gotten easier over the years), a lot of the ill will that was there comes bubbling up pretty quickly when I’m reminded of the people or events.
I can’t seem to let go of these people (I say ‘people’, but truth be told, but my mind goes mainly to one person). I have prayed many, many times that God would bless them. And I think that’s important. I’ve prayed many, many times that God would soften my heart. And I believe that’s important. I’ve prayed many, many times God would give them what they truly needed (if I’m honest here, I gotta say it’s crossed my mind that some smiting might be in order). I’ve taken time to recognize to myself (and, in a way so typically generous of me, recognize to others) all the good this person has accomplished. But when they come up in conversation unexpectedly, I feel, quite literally, a discomfort that goes from my throat into my chest and abdomen. Like when Grandma used to serve that sausage gravy at holidays. Heat then goes up in my head, and I find myself saying all manner of things about them, of course, couched in terms of a reasonable Christian, all the more evidence that this person had to REALLY be a jerk in order to offend a non-threatening, loving person like me! And so, to answer my own question-no, I don’t think I’m doing this right.
What I first learned about forgiveness came from my parents and from the Bible. One of my parents taught that grace can come before formal repentance, and that was blissful. The other taught it came only after performing penance, perhaps reflecting the Bible’s own somewhat dichotomous teaching. I love the message from Paul to the Corinthians when he says, “When someone offends the group, be gentle with them because they will be punished by the majority.” How loving and thoughtful that is! That passage, and some others, seem to mitigate the scriptures (such as Matthew 6) that remind us that unless we forgive others, we won’t be forgiven. Ouch! I’m hoping that God is going to let that slide, like not counting Sunday nights. And I don’t mean to be flippant. But if that is absolutely accurate, can ANY of us be really forgiven? Hmmm.
But basically, I do know this: forgiveness is elemental. It’s important. It’s not just for extra credit. My own forgiveness is somehow wrapped up intimately with how well I forgive others. But still I falter.
Some other things about forgiveness, and the opposite, resentment, I have learned from recovery. About how resentment is a poison that we sip at, willy-nilly, and that forgiveness is a gift that we can give ourselves, a wonderful release. That hallmark of resentfulness, self-pity, and thinking “Poor me! Poor me!” can lead to “Pour me another one!” And this insight really does help immensely. It’s helped keep me sober. But the help has been limited for me vis a vis this one, calcified case. And still I falter. Where’s that poison? I’m thirsty.
Try as I might, the poison would still present itself, and I would still drink it. I gradually came to realize, “I’ve got to be getting something from this, there is a pay-off somewhere!” As I replayed in my mind those times when I felt compelled to dish on my favorite “unforgiven,” I noticed there was a part of me that got a kick out of talking about this other person. There was a pleasure in it, yes, I’ll go ahead a say it, a perverse pleasure. And the best I can fathom, this pleasure came because it felt like, when I outlined the enormous flaws of the other, I was momentarily absolved of my own culpability. Because, by most measures, I had failed. Was I unable to forgive that person because they seemed to agree with my worst opinion of myself? Perhaps. But I had also, in turn, made this person my secret pal. Together we would tell lies about me, and keep me from growing.
In the way our Savior reframed how people saw a blind man into a way to glorify God, in the way he reframed a stranger in need encountered on the road as our neighbor, in the way he reframed children, non-entities in that culture, as the penultimate of spirituality, we can reframe those who ‘wrong’ us as our teachers in a divine curriculum. This particular teacher taught me that I was sacrificing more important aspects of my life for shiny, but misplaced, ‘priorities.’
They also taught me, perhaps more importantly, a lot about how I handle resentment. I’ve never thought of myself as a rancorous person, oppositional, confrontational, grudge-bearing. But if I am truly honest, I carry some grudges around like good luck charms in my pocket. Every once in a while, when the need arises, I’ll take them out and rub on them. I don’t need a name to come up accidentally to haul out a resentment. It doesn’t even have to be about a person; a pet hot topic can work fine.
And so now I ask myself, as you may also choose to ask yourselves when conflict arises, what if some deeper, spiritual movement is taking place? What if God has sent this person into my life to teach me more about love? About how I might be a better servant for others? It seems much tougher to fault someone who has been sent, albeit unknowingly, on a sacred mission.