Monday, June 8, 2015

Forgiveness revisited

Yesterday Ben Freeth, a farmer from Zimbabwe, spoke at church. He and his family were farmers in Zimbabwe until the government brutally ousted all white property owners from their land. He told a compelling story of how he and other family members were abducted by thugs and taken to a remote area where they were bound and beaten. (Freeth’s skull was fractured and he had many broken bones. His father-in-law later died of his injuries.)

The most compelling part of his story is his account of how he forgave his captors in what he describes as a supernatural experience, something that only could have come from God. His hands and feet were bound and he was lying face-down in the dirt. He recounts his experience in his book Mugabe and the White African:

I saw a leg right in front of my face and I knew what I had to do. I managed to reach out and touch it and said, “May the Lord Jesus bless you.” I saw another and I reached out again, saying, “May the Lord Jesus bless you,” and another, and another.

This kind of forgiveness is beyond amazing. After Freeth spoke, our pastor prayed and challenged each of us to forgive someone we have not been able to forgive. He guided us through prayer and called on us to insert the name of a person we have been unable to forgive. So I did it—I prayed and called the unforgiven one by name. This was at the end of the service and I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. I went through the motions but left the church in tears and spent the rest of the day in a funk because this issue, this unforgiveness that keeps rearing its ugly head. I think I’m over it and then it overcomes me again. I know all the pop-psych adages about by not forgiving you only hurt yourself, and so on. I’ve pounded my fist and prayed and said I was done with it. But I wasn’t done with it. Why can't I forgive like Ben Freeth?

So last night I sat and prayed some more. I told God it wasn’t fair. (Like He hasn’t heard that one before.) I said I needed Jesus beside me, needed the intercession of the Holy Spirit, pleaded for this to be resolved for good. I could not connect with God, didn’t feel His presence, not a word. I felt the frustration of knowing that I had been unable to resolve this forgiveness thing and I felt that God was absent. I acknowledged that He must be there, just like He’s always there, so the disconnect must have been my fault. I asked Him, “Is there some reason I’m hanging on to this? Am I getting something out of this victim role? I don’t need it, Lord—do something!” No response.

He wasn’t responding and I wasn’t going to sit there any longer talking to the walls. So I turned on my computer and typed in “Why can’t I forgive” into the search box. The very first entry that came up was an interview with a contemplative Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr. I knew of Richard Rohr and had read other work of his. The mere fact that this was the first thing that came up on my computer blew me away. Okay, Lord, forget what I said earlier—obviously He heard me and responded with a message, exactly what He wanted me to hear. These are some of the things that Father Rohr said in the interview:
  •  "Forgiveness is a decision, but making that decision doesn't override the emotional residue that often takes much longer to release. That feeling of wanting revenge or wanting to assert your rightness or your victimhood—depending on the depth of your wounding—can take days, weeks, months and even years to dissipate. On certain days, when you're in a down mood, your psyche will want to grab onto that hurt. You have to go through that necessary period of feeling half dead, half angry, half in denial—this is the liminal [transitional] space in which we grow for some reason.
  • "I don't know why God made an imperfect world. . . But recognizing that there's an essentially tragic nature to life, one that you have to forgive and accept in a foundational way, allows you to forgive the smaller daily dramas with much greater ease. As much as we want to see the person who hurt us as an evil person—as if they were a major exception to the rule, since we have falsely imagined a perfect world—we need to realize that we're all an exception to the rule of perfection and expectation. Humans are inherently imperfect. That is what differentiates us from the Divine level.
  • “Surely people have hurt you and you wish you could punish them, but whether you recognize it or not, you yourself were forgiven when you also were broken and mistaken. All, without exception, live under the waterfall of divine mercy. There is, of course, an essential and direct connection between our receptivity to undeserved love and forgiveness and our ability to forgive other imperfect people. There is not much point in weighing which fault was the greater; that is merely the ego protecting itself. When you understand your own limited but lovely place within this universally imperfect world, you will find it almost natural to become more patient and forgiving with other people too."
  • “If we can find a way to live inside of a deep gratitude for our own undeserved grace and mercy, past hurts have very little power to cause us pain in any lasting way. They are not worth our time or energy. They are mere sludge and dredge in the great school and journey of life. The gratuitous surrendering of hurts ("forgiveness"), the refusal to make them our identity, is almost the heart of the matter. If you do not transform your pain, you will with 100 percent certainty transmit it to others. And, I am afraid, you will have pain! Both the Buddha and Jesus seem to say that pain is part of the deal, and its overcoming is the very shape of enlightenment."

So, God led me to some guidance on this issue of forgiveness in the form of words from Richard Rohr found on the Internet. (1) Forgiveness is a decision, but I should not be surprised if I see it rear its ugly head from time to time. So I guess I shouldn’t beat myself over the head about this. (2) The world is broken, imperfect and it’s full of broken, imperfect people. That surely includes me. I do not deserve the love and forgiveness—the grace—that God has given me. Is it my ego that makes me think I deserve special consideration? Wrong again. (3) Focus on God. Keep my eyes on His overwhelming blessings. Move out the hurt and the pain (the "mere sludge and dredge") and fill that space with gratitude.
Once again I am incredibly moved by our awesome, awesome God.

Interview with Richard Rohr accessed on June 7, 2015. Online at

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