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Are You Mired in Your Past by Unwillingness to Forgive?

Blogging Through the Book Part 5

We have arrived at week 5 of our project to blog through Mike Glenn’s The Gospel of Yes. It has been a great experience so far to explore personally some of the ideas in this book. The book is both inspiring and challenging. It inspires us to believe Christ’s promises, and it challenges us to personal disciplines and faith that may demand more from us that we are comfortable to give. Be sure you visit Dana Pittman’s blog where you can find links to other blogs exploring this book.

No discipline asks more of anyone than forgiveness. A new reader skimming the chapter headings of this book may wonder how forgiveness can possible be a “yes.” We have all prayed the Lord’s Prayer. We have dutifully recited the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We can say the words, but it is dauntingly difficult to forgive. Yet it is a subject that occupies a central place in the thinking of Christians. We chew over the problem, and we want to justify our anguish and our anger and our feeling of betrayal. What do I do with all those emotions if I forgive? Who will ever sympathize with me again if I forgive? What if the person who hurt me so deeply does not deserve to be forgiven? Don’t I have a right to be hurt? Angry? Shouldn’t the person who hurt me make up for it before I forgive? Shouldn’t this person at least recognize how wrong he was and ask for forgiveness first? I can’t just let go of this incident and pretend it never happened. I’m scarred. I’m crippled. The consequences of this person’s wrongdoing can never be removed from my life. Why should I forgive?

Many people remember the novel Great Expectations from high school. In that story, a woman became trapped in a single moment of her life and never could escape. She was so deeply wounded and so completely incapable of forgiving that she was trapped in her history. It was a tragic story.

The deepest wound of my own history was my relationship with my mother. We had a thousand different ways to hurt each other. We kept doing it right up to the day she died. I can’t count all the times I reveled in justifying my attitude toward my mother by explaining to complete strangers how she belittled me and mistreated me. Mike Glenn talks about the way the past bleeds into the present when we are unable to forgive, and I can tell you that it does exactly that. Things that happened when I was seven years old, or eleven, or sixteen, or twenty-five, were still rankling when I was forty-six and fifty-two. My past bled into my present and poisoned every interaction with my mother. Even during the happiest times we ever spent together, I suffered terrible trepidation that in the midst of the fun, she would throw a verbal brick at me, because it had happened before. I could not forgive the past, and I could not forgive what I thought might be the future. During a phone call shortly before she died, she blindsided me with a jab about things I could not possibly change even if I had wanted to. Once again I felt justified in not forgiving her, because, I asked myself, what would be the point? We would inevitably be at each other’s throats again, and I would have something new to forgive. When she died, I asked myself why my relationship with my mother could never be healed. I fretted over the blackness in my life where my misery and anger fed the loneliness of a motherless child. I felt motherless, because I felt I never could trust my mother.

Mike Glenn says that “[God] can heal the past right now so it will no longer bleed into the present.” He is right, but “right now” can only happen when you make up your mind to let him work. For me, it happened on Ash Wednesday, about nine months after my mother’s death. The pastor preached a sermon whose central message found a home in my deeply wounded heart. He said that each of us must throw onto God’s altar all the things that are barriers to God’s work in our hearts. We must allow God to consume the barriers with his holy fire. I realized that my unwillingness to forgive my mother, even though she was dead, was a barrier to a rich relationship with God. I made it my Lenten project to learn how to forgive my mother. By the end of that season, I was ready to attend the service of Healing and Reconciliation that preceded Holy Week, and I thought I had forgiven my mother fully. I soon learned that Satan is very tricky and can resurrect pain and anger we think we have buried, so we can never really be finished with things we think we have forgiven. Nevertheless, learning to forgive makes it possible to stand in Christ and reject Satan’s temptation to wallow in that dark, miserable past. As Mike Glenn says, “In the power of God’s ‘yes’ to us in Jesus, we are not victims of our past.”

The broken relationship with my mother is a very real memory still, but it no longer stands between me and my ability to love and serve God. Forgiveness heals the way I remember those ugly truths. Learning to forgive my mother opened the floodgates of forgiveness, enabling me to forgive others for a lot of wounds, major and minor. Learning to forgive my mother enabled me to forgive myself for a few self-inflicted wounds as well.

Maturing in faith requires growth in many areas, but I am beginning to think that forgiveness might be the most needful. When I teach Bible classes, no matter what the subject of the class is, someone in the class always wants to talk about forgiveness, and everyone else is always glad the subject came up. Life wounds us in many ways. Life is not fair. People are not fair. There is a great deal to forgive. If we can learn to forgive and if we can continue to forgive and forgive and forgive, we can let God burn up a lot of barriers that impede our happy and fulfilling relationship with him. As Mike Glenn says, “Forgiveness is how we … get a firm hold on the ‘yes’ of God offered to us in Jesus Christ.”

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Blogging Through the Book is a group of bloggers who literally blog while reading the book. It’s different than merely reading a book and posting a review. We have a chance to read and share our thoughts in community. Click HERE to learn more or visit www.danapittman.com.”

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Why do we Need to Forgive?

When Jesus taught us how to pray, he included a petition that we learn how to forgive: Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. The word here translated as debts is sometimes translated as trespasses, a pretty heavy word for our contemporary culture, and sometimes it is even translated as sins, and nobody likes that word. No matter how the word is translated, it points out that we are all flawed, and we all need to learn how to forgive the flaws of others, because we absolutely want everyone to forgive us our own flaws.

I began thinking about this prayer after a recent conversation with my brother. He was talking about a particularly miserable time in his life due to deep conflict with our parents. His story brought to mind any number of parallel issues in my own relationship with them. We both have some very painful memories about our upbringing. In fact, some of the fractures persisted and splintered into our adult lives. Yet both of us agreed that our parents never actually intended to hurt us at all. They devoutly wanted the best for us. Their idea of the best and our ideas simply did not mesh.

We would both be basket cases, I believe, but for a decision somewhere along the way. I don’t know the details of my brother’s thought processes, but I know mine. I made a decision to forgive them. For both of us forgiveness would have been impossible when we were teens. We could hardly do it in adulthood, because the issues continued. Because our parents moved to a very distant location in retirement, we seldom saw them in person during those years, but on my last visit with my mother, about 3 months before her death, she was still trying to instruct me to undo a decision she had opposed years before. It was extremely hard to learn how to forgive my parents for hurting me in so many ways, even though my mind knew that injury was not their purpose.

Even though I chewed over the problem for years, I might never have been motivated to put that issue at the top of my priorities but for a sermon on Ash Wednesday. Lent is a penitential season, and any Ash Wednesday sermon points us to self-examination. Most such sermons have led me to focus on personal disobedience. Most such sermons lean toward a legalistic interpretation of my need to repent. One was different. Reflecting on the ashes each of us had received as we entered the sanctuary, the pastor asked us to think about what things in our lives needed to be cast into a sacrificial fire.

It was hard to wrap my mind around that concept. But then he asked us what things in our lives stressed or broke our relationship with God. That hit home. Recognizing the pre-eminence of filial respect in God’s scheme of things, I saw for the first time how my anger and resentment of all the wounds my parents inflicted, intentional or not, kept me from growing in my relationship with God. My inability to properly honor my earthly parents threw a huge barrier in the way of my relationship with my heavenly father. As the pastor developed his point and led us to a deeper understanding of the things that necessitated Christ’s death on the cross, I finally realized that my need to cling to the memory of injustice and pain between me and my parents had destroyed that relationship. My unwillingness to let go of my need for people to sympathize with me at the expense of their respect for my parents was destroying me, it was destroying my memory of my parents, and it was poisoning my life of faith. I needed to forgive them in order to heal, because Christ had died in order that I might be healed.

It was hard to absorb the truth that Christ died because I could not learn to love my parents. I kept saying, “But look at what they did!” I kept reciting my litany of complaints. Over that Lenten season I committed myself to learn how to forgive them, and by Holy Week, I felt I was making progress. It is one of the great blessings of my life that our pastor scheduled a service of healing and reconciliation that week. After all my prayers and tears and prayers and gritted teeth, I needed healing and reconciliation.

I thought I had finally forgiven all the physical and spiritual injuries as I arrived at the service. It was a beautiful and worshipful experience. All who wished to do so were invited to the altar for prayer and anointing. Any who wished to stand in support of those being anointed were invited to stand behind and lay their hands on our shoulders. I knelt at the altar and it was no surprise that my husband came to stand behind me and lay his hand on my shoulder. It was a real surprise that two other women from the congregation, neither of whom could possibly have known my reason for being there, came forward and laid their hands on my shoulder as well. In my hour of deep need, three people touched me and shared themselves to give me courage. When the pastor came to me, he anointed my forehead, and then he prayed for me. I know that it was the power of the Holy Spirit using that setting,and in that moment the dam broke. I wept torrentially. I truly felt released from the grip of a lifetime of pain and anger and resentment. I saw clearly the faces of my parents and the love they intended to express in their own way. I knew that Christ’s death for me and for them was not in vain. I truly forgave them. The poison was finally withdrawn.

It would be wonderful to say that that was the end of it, but it wasn’t. It was only the beginning. A lifetime of pain and poison does not simply vanish like morning fog. The recovery after forgiveness of something so deep is like recovery from major surgery. You start feeling a lot better very quickly, but you don’t completely heal for a long time. Of course, my issues with my parents would never have been so deep and prolonged without the instigation and motivation of Satan who whispered constantly, “That is so unfair. You deserve better!” Satan’s whispering is not shut down by one intense spiritual moment. I find that I am not finished learning to forgive even now. Even now, Satan can still bring some old memory to mind in a weak moment, and once again I start to recite my anger. Fortunately, by the grace and transforming power of the Holy Spirit, I am getting better at donning the spiritual armor Paul wrote about in Ephesians. I am learning that the real problem with my parents was always Satan, not my parents.

But most of all, I am learning the blessing of forgiveness. By learning to forgive, I open up my memories. I can remember my childhood as a time of light, not darkness. I can remember all the wonderful things my parents did for me and with me, and those hateful, miserable moments can be put in their proper perspective.

In light of the kinds of things reported regularly in the news, I must hasten to assure you that my brother and I were neither sexually assaulted nor physically beaten as children. We were simply reared by two people whose idea of the right way to rear children was to keep them children until the magic moment,that never really came, when the parents declared them to be adults. The details of our upbringing are irrelevant except to say that we were reared more in the admonition than the nurture of the Lord. Their strict rules and punishments were the outgrowth of what I believe to be a horror that we might turn out bad.

When apartheid came to an end in South Africa, Bishop Tutu worked with a Truth Commission seeking to pull the poison of that horror by structuring opportunities for forgiveness. He documented his work in a book entitled, No Future Without Forgiveness. I think he is right. It is a cosmic truth that we need to forgive. Jesus tells us this truth and invites us to take it into our hearts in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”