Sunday, June 13, 2010
The Freedom of Forgiveness
There are prisons without steel bars. There are chains that incapacitate and confine--chains without iron links. At first glance, when I think of a prison Joliet or San Quentin or Alcatraz or Devil's Island or Folsom come to mind. This morning I was re-directed to consider the prison of my own "heart."
Forgiveness is a tough act. A brutal process. I'm not, by nature, a forgiving person. My initial impulse is payback. Sweet revenge. As is my second, third and thirtieth inclination. Yet, as a Christ-follower I am called to lead a life of forgiveness. As God has forgiven us, we, in turn, are to forgive others--a fundamental principle of Christianity. I don't do that very well at all.
Years ago a family member had deeply offended me, wounded me with their incessant criticism, a criticism that lasted years. I became very bitter toward that person. I harbored a grudge in my gut. I carried that grudge--or did it carry me?-- for years. The phone would ring and I found myself physically tensing up, hoping it was not this person calling. No caller I.D. in those years, I cajoled my wife into answering the phone, so if, by chance, it was this individual I wouldn't become so angry or anxious by talking with them. Even when there was no trigger such as a phone call I found myself ruminating over the past and what this person had said and how they had treated me. I was living a life of reaction. So much of my time and emotional energy was spent reacting to what had happened, rather than living in the present.
There are prisons without steel bars.
Time passed; years plodded along. I'm at the office and one of our daughters, who at the time was 16 years old, called me and, sobbing, said she couldn't take it any longer and needed to talk to her mom and me. I couldn't imagine what was going on. That evening she sat down with us and confessed to us that when she was 13 she was babysitting for an acquaintance and his wife. The husband had "groomed" her, manipulated her trust, and cultivated a sexual relationship with her. It had continued all this time, until the shame had become unbearable and she could no longer live with herself. He had bought her silence and told her she could tell no one or he would go to prison and she would have that responsibility on her head the rest of her life. This girl was a good girl; she had a great heart and a beautiful spirit about her--and he raped her mind, body, and spirit.
I was enraged. Initially, I was consumed with an unbridled desire for revenge. I plotted ways to harm him. I concocted schemes in which I could destroy him without being apprehended. I wanted to rip him apart and could picture myself bludgeoning him with my fists, and standing over the bloody pulp lying at my feet. The intensity of those early months ebbed, in spite of the perpetrator not spending one solitary day in jail. However, I spent years--yes, years--in my own prison. The prison of refusing to let go; the chains of resentment enslaving me to revenge. To hell with forgiveness! Little did I know that my withholding forgiveness was creating my own hell.
There are prisons without steel bars.
This morning our pastor directed our attention to a parable, a story, Jesus told. A king had some debtors and wanted to settle the accounts. One of his servants owed him a sum of money that would take a lifetime to repay. The man pleaded with the king and the king canceled his debt and let him go. This same man, in turn, found a fellow-servant who owed him a few dollars. He jumped him and demanded immediate payment. The fellow-servant pleaded with him, but to no avail and he was thrown in prison. Word spread and the king got wind of what had transpired, and he had the brash servant appear before him. The king confronted the servant, "I canceled all your debt. . . shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?" The story concludes, "His master turned him over to the jailers. . . " (Matthew 18:21-35)
The unmerciful servant was turned over to prison; the unforgiving servant was confined in chains. I wonder if God, rather than overriding our wills, our intent, grants us our desire not to forgive and, to our dismay, we find ourselves in a prison of our own making? The hot anger will consume and confine us. The cold bitterness will imprison us. The death of the offender or perpetrator does not assure--at all--my freedom from prison. The perp didn't construct my prison; I did.
It seems it is the painfully difficult path of forgiveness that alone grants me freedom. It is the agonizing, gut-grabbing process of forgiveness that will eventually throw open wide my prison doors. Can it be that forgiveness is what shatters the chains that lock my heart and mind in the past? Can it be that my embracing forgiveness allows me to live in the freedom of the present?
God, would you free us from the prison of our own choosing?