Thursday, March 6, 2014

Lessons in grief and forgiveness

“Please, Lord, teach me a new way. Open my mind, my heart to your wisdom, not to my own failed, flawed thinking. Help me to learn from the example set by Jesus to forgive all wrongs. Yes, it’s hard. I want to own my hurts, to hold on to them, and I don’t know what replaces them. But it’s time. I don’t know how to do it. Just teach me. Please teach me.”

That prayer I wrote in my journal about a month ago. And I am writing this, here and now, to testify to the amazing power of God. He listened. He answered my prayer and my heart is filled with gratitude. God has been leading me further and further down this path I am trying to describe. I didn’t see it coming, but now I recognize that, all along, the pieces were coming together. He was showing me the way, teaching me how to forgive.

For the past few months I have been participating in a wonderful weekly Christian support group called GriefShare. I joined the group because I could not seem to get past the grief of losing my father, my brother, and my friend Mike in little over a year’s time. Three deaths in a row, including the murder of my brother, was a big load to carry. In late January the group worked on the topic of forgiveness. After the session, as I worked at home through the forgiveness exercises, I became more and more angry. Reading that God expects me to forgive others as He has forgiven me made me so furious that I threw the GriefShare workbook across the room. “What have I done that is so bad to deserve this injustice? Nothing compared to what was done to me—being mistreated by that SOB, my brother murdered by that lunatic, my father’s death, Mike’s death, my aloneness.” I seethed. But I began to sense that holding on to the anger and bitterness was only hurting me more. It doesn’t hurt God when I am angry with Him. It just leaves me frustrated, withdrawn, with an aching emptiness in my chest. I wanted to cry, wail, and scream. I wanted to punch God in the stomach, throw rocks through plate-glass windows, slam my car into something. I kept cycling through this little dance—retreat, move forward, retreat—without accomplishing anything, without learning how to forgive. The workbook said to keep praying about it, so I prayed. I realized that God is stronger than my feelings and I had to turn it over to Him because I can’t do it myself.

The following week, the GriefShare lesson was on getting stuck in grief. I knew that I was stuck and I didn’t want to acknowledge why I was stuck. “No, not that, Lord. Don’t ask me to forgive. It’s just too hard.”

Everything I have read and heard about forgiveness says that for me, a Christian, it is what God requires me to do. Forgiveness is what I need to be more Christ-like as well as what I need to heal emotionally. I don’t want to be a bitter, nasty old woman. Can I detach from and give up my “story” of heartache, my litany of woes, the list of all the wrongs done to me? I have developed a relationship—an unhelpful, sick relationship—with my story. But do I really want this sad story to define who I am for the rest of my life? Do I still need people to understand how deeply I was wronged? What good does it do me if it keeps me wallowing in the pain? O, the pain—how dramatic! Seeing the dysfunctional cycle for what it is was one step in the journey. Jesus knows my whole story. He has felt everything I have felt and He emerged triumphant. Can I aspire to be more like Him? There is nothing for me to gain from the retelling. Still I know so well how hard it is to forgive—it continues to be the most difficult thing I have ever done.

 “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”
C.S. Lewis

The following Sunday in church, the pastor spoke about why Jesus had to die; He died for our sins. And the root of our sin, of my sin, is living for myself and simply believing that I know best. My self-reliance, my stubbornness have not necessarily been good traits. Obviously my own perceived strength was not useful—it kept me stuck inside my grief and my sense of having been treated unfairly. Who am I to think that I know better than God? I have to stop stepping in to tell Him how to run my life. I don’t know best.

And then that moment—that one sure moment, the epiphany when I felt the Holy Spirit smack me upside the head. I was in the laundry room putting clothes into the dryer and thinking that the next day was my son’s birthday. As I left the room, it hit me—I had spent 38 years adding chapters to the sorry story of my life. That was it. I wanted it to be over. Not one more day. I fell to my knees at the foot of the basement steps and cried out to God to forgive me for my arrogance. Until I see my own flaws, my own sins, I cannot begin to forgive others, therefore never setting myself free of bitterness and resentment. I sinned by thinking I was too good to have bad things happen to me. I thought I had been treated unjustly. I had ignored God’s goodness, His multitude of blessings, the death that Jesus suffered on the cross for my sins. In my arrogant, self-centered life, only my feelings were important to me. I realized that I was not going to move beyond my grief and sorrow unless I forgive hurt that I’ve been carrying around for 38 years.
    “When the Lord shows us what’s wrong in our lives, He always provides a remedy for change.”    
David McCasland
I admitted to God that I could not figure it out by myself, that He would have to teach me, to show me the way. He gave me eyes to see so that I could trace back the sadness in my life, well beyond the deaths that I have been grieving in recent years. I saw that my own sheer willpower wasn’t working; it just kept me stuck in a cycle of feeling sorry for myself instead of trusting God’s will. I saw that I needed to do what I thought was impossible for me to do—to truly forgive. “I can’t do that,” I told myself. “That is just too much to ask. How can I ever forgive that?” And when I recognized that forgiveness is beyond my ability, I had to give it over to God. So I prayed that God would take this unforgiveness from me and lift the burden from my heart.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
2 Corinthians 12:9 (ESV)

When the Holy Spirit begins to move, just step back and watch the awesome power of prayers answered! I found a Christian book on forgiveness that is changing my perspective. A hand-out in the GriefShare group walked me through, step by step, what I needed to do. I saw that forgiveness doesn’t just happen. Time does not heal all wounds—Jesus heals wounds. Forgiveness is a choice. I chose to forgive, by name I prayed for the people who hurt me, asked God to forgive everything, and prayed that they would be blessed in their lives. No holding grudges. No hanging on to one little bit of the wrong and maybe throwing out a zinger at some point. I have to keep doing this again and again. I have to keep trusting that God’s way is infinitely better than mine.
See that no one repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Thessalonians 5:15

Note that it doesn’t say “to those you want to forgive” it says everyone. Everyone! This is reason enough to forgive, to hold no grudges, to wish no ill befalls those who have wronged me.

Every day I ask Him again to forgive my arrogance and to help me to choose to forgive those who have hurt me. Every day I ask Him again to renew my trust in Him. And every day I walk deeper and deeper into a life closer to Him. Ultimately it is this that will heal my heart.

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