Monday, November 26, 2012

The Choice of Obedience When Forgiveness Is Difficult

When we suffer injustice as Christians, the process of healing takes time. We must prepare ourselves emotionally and spiritually to be able to fully do what God requires of us: the release our offender from the debt they owe to us in payment for what we've suffered

Amidst the best of circumstances and under the best of conditions, we eventually move into the fullness of forgiveness to consider reconciliation as we grow in trust, but the start of the journey looks and feels nothing like the end. As this recent post points out, when we sustain deep wounds, we feel threatened by the idea of pardoning those who hurt us. How does one go about working their way down the path when it feels so foreign at the start? We start with the determination to choose obedience, and we take the risk by faith.

Forgiveness transforms us, and we are reshaped in the process. We... we... we... we...must do so much work – work that we'd likely rather not do which is why so many people end up roaming down the Path of Denial or through deceptive analysis in the Path of Bitterness. Before we can release the debt we're owed, we must first grieve all of the things that we've lost, working through the denial, anger, the attempt to undo the situation, and the sadness we feel. We must “move through” the pain to make it a part of ourselves, “owning” that unpleasant thing that we wished had never happened to us. We have to raise our voice to find justice when we confront those who wronged us. Our safety may depend on making changes to protect ourselves, something that justice can hopefully bring us. We do well to respect the right times for each step of the journey at the right moments. We must first take time for our emotional wounds to heal and for a sense of safety as we take the next steps when we're ready. Those next steps may not be comfortable or easy, and we must avoid complacency in our healing rest during this stage. We must avoid “'shoulding' all over ourselves” by trying to rush the process, too. In the beginning, it can feel like walking a tightrope.

Why would we do this? The alternative of staying in that place of victimization and loss is a worse option. If we stay where we are, we remain wounded forever and trapped within that loss. We turn into people whose lives become all about getting restitution for ourselves. We become too much like those who had no regard for us.

The journey becomes easier when the offending party takes responsibility for their actions, asking for our pardon in a spirit of contrition. When the offender makes restitution for the losses we've suffered (if they are able), we make those transitions more smoothly. Virtue in both the attitude and motive in the words and deeds of the offender also helps, building our trust in the process and in others as we go. In the fullness of forgiveness, we may then choose to embark upon reconciliation.

But what do we do when we see none of these conditions? What if our offender denies wrongdoing, minimizes our loss, and continues to repeat the harm? What if our offender is no longer available to talk with us or make any kind of restitution? What if they've died before we have a chance to work these things through? What if they are incapable of understanding because of immaturity or even just because they're lost in their own brokenness and bitterness? What if we're denied all justice from all of those around us, leaving us to suffer in silence? Why would we make such a journey if it is difficult and requires us to stretch and change, especially when we feel pain?

What's Required?
Easy Yokes, Light Burdens, and Soulful Rest

The Christian life begins with faith, and though living has its yokes and burdens, we find them easy to take because of the life and power that we find in Christ through faith. We naturally recoil from difficulty and pain, protecting ourselves when we've been injured. But yet, we also know that Jesus lovingly calls us to follow Him as He walks down His own journey of forgiveness. We are called to forgive others because we were offered forgiveness. We take that contrition and gratitude for the forgiveness we've received, and we offer it to those who have wronged us. We learn how to treat others by the way that Jesus treats us. When we repent and forsake our sins, He forgives us. What we receive, we learn through the process to freely give to others.

We tend to forget when our pain is still fresh that God gives us everything we need along the path that He calls us to follow. Here is the challenge of our faith as we put the promises to the test. God's favor is sufficient, and He works in us to will and do every good thing that He began in us. We don't have the power in and of ourselves to complete the task which is why it seems so hard, but we learn as we step out in obedience through faith, God pours His love, power, and sound wisdom into us as we need it. The work along the journey of forgiveness is our work of fear and trembling as we work out our salvation, especially as we consider that our debts are forgiven as we forgive others. God uses forgiveness as an opportunity to show us how deep His love for us reaches and gives us a tiny taste of what He suffered for us when He pardoned our sins. Something about that process draws us closer to Him, teaching us on a deeper level just what He did to buy us out of bondage. Along the way and at each step, that gratitude in us becomes renewed. Before we know it, the path of forgiveness becomes into a celebration of what God did for us.

How do we do it?
Reaffirming Obedience in the Practice of Faith

In a particularly trying time in my life, I felt that I was driven to the Rock. I had many abilities which allowed me to get through life very well, and suddenly, I found myself stripped of them. I lived in South Texas, and it was indeed a foreign land to me, complete with scorpions that came into our house looking for water in the heat of the summer. So many people that I counted on disappointed me, and we had a series of experience with con artists who exploited us when we went to fix some damage to our home.  The further damage seriously aggravated health problems that both my husband and I wrestled with on a daily basis, our daily temptation to be angry and bitter people. In his state of illness at the time, my husband withdrew emotionally, as he needed that energy to cope with his own internal and external challenges. Our church didn't quite know what to do with us Yankee misfits, and they started to almost recoil from us, if I had to offer a single word to describe it. Along that path, there were many that I had to forgive in this desert experience: people known to us, strangers, people we loved and knew for years and years. And I felt like I'd been entirely running on empty for a long time at that point. This square peg that I am couldn't even find a reasonably large round hole to wobble in, just to get out of the way.

Through what amounted to a period of several years, I learned a hard but tender lesson about the discipline of obedience through forgiveness. Faced with situations that were difficult every day, I faced every day by what most would call “pulling myself up by my own boot straps,” but I had no strength to pull them if I could have even found any straps to pull. Determined to move forward and to be ready when opportunity opened a door to change things, I found the obedience of faith and forgiveness. And it was regular work. When faced with a discouragement or cruel treatment, I treated every instance as a single choice that God gave to me to make. I could chose life or death, hope or despair, resignation or anticipation of a new season. I did nothing but choose constantly, over and over again, all day long. Every rudimentary things became a choice, as I felt cut off from the land of the living in all the ways that mattered most to me.

I told God that I wanted him to see each choice I made and each moment of my heartbreak as a prayer without words, affirming that I believed that He held a future and a hope for me. I found myself borrowing some words from Isaiah 53, and I asked God to see this as the “travail of my soul” as a prayer for His continued help and a sweet fragrance of worship. If it wasn't sweet and satisfying to Him, I asked that He would consider that I was counting on Him to make it sweet by changing me. In the beginning, these were deliberate prayers I prayed until they became an attitude and a feeling that would gush out of my heart in a fraction of a second as a consolidated prayer. I took that experience of pain and transformed it from one of suffering harm and helplessness to one of dependency on God, because that was indeed all that I had anymore. My body and soul were empty, and friends and things and events were not there to distract or encourage me through most of it. Those things were certainly not enough to get me through anymore.

I thought much about the Twelve Steps and a section of Niebuhr's entire prayer which says, “Living one day at a time, Enjoying one moment at a time, Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace...” I also knew that God promised streams to those who wandered in the desert, too. I found that for a long time, living one day at a time was too big of a chunk for me. I didn't exactly enjoy each moment, either, but I spent many single moments in the course of a day at a time reaffirming my desire to be obedient, especially when life felt so cruel and I had no goodness in me anymore. I found days wondering why my heart even continued to beat because I felt so empty. Much of that time included choice after choice to do what I needed to do to be safe and wise for my own sake, but not to let that turn into anger and bitterness against people with whom I interacted who had more concern for the care of their coffee cup than they did for how their actions affected me. Forgiveness became a discipline and a pathway to peace for me, but it also became my choice of obedience in pure faith.

For one particular con artist that created a great deal of difficulty for me during that season, I decided to count how many times I prayed for him when I felt anguish and anger. I eventually learned in my dealings with him that he was a pathetic soul who did little but use and abuse all of the people in his life, making my heartache just a drop in a huge bucket filled with the suffering that this man had caused to others. I prayed for his life to change so that my little experience could be a moment of change for him. I also imagined that those closest to him probably found it quite difficult to love and pray for him anymore. I stopped to pray for him and for both justice and mercy in the resolution of matters some thirty times by the late afternoon. I came nowhere near seventy times seven, and I was weary. When I saw him in the local supermarket a few years later, I was grateful that I'd spent that time praying for him. I still found it hard and was angry because neither contrition or restitution were ever attempted, but I found that I'd come to a place of acceptance. I maintained self control and was able to look back to glorify God for moving me through the misery of that hard place where I'd spent so much time in such intense pain.

Walking the Prayerful Labyrinth of Forgiveness

For those who have been hurt deeply, and when there is no way to resolve or restore the loss that the offense took from you, there will be many days when you revisit the moments of pain of the past. Especially if you remain in relationships with those who have harmed you, there are cycles and seasons, and there are many days you must walk the Via Dolorosa. We also have memories that awaken old scenes from our past as our minds talk to us about how similar memories felt, all while we sleep at night. The past is with us and comes back to us, not only through consequences, where those consequences have taken us, but also in that human experience of memories that we forget and remember. We will even remember more of the early ones with ease as we advance in age (all while we start to forget what we did a day or so ago). And our emotional healing takes us through the deepening process of peeling that onion, reminding us that our hearts experience that labyrinth of self on a different kind of winding path.

So remember that as you make the decision to follow the path of forgiveness, walking the labyrinth of obedience and introspection as a pathway to peace. This is not some “contemplative prayer” that puts a person into La La Land of meaninglessness and altered states of dissociative bliss that tricks a person into believing that they've found some kind of higher spirituality. This isn't a strange path of Christian mysticism. 

It's a path of understanding Jesus, the Savior who came to walk along side of us to show us how to forgive like He forgives us, and through such experiences, He deepens our understanding of how much He loves us. On that path, we learn ever more deeply and in the sweetest way of tenderness that we are not God, but that He is a compassionate and loving God on whom we can depend. We find on that path that he knows our pains and our limitations and our losses, and He weeps with us. And when we come to that center of that forgiveness, we experience the joy of peace and comfort, having become a little more like the Savior who died to pardon us, satisfying and establishing justice through a very unexpected method. We find our strength again in His joy. We find there that the author of justice and abundant life has transformed what was meant for evil or someone else's gratification as a pathway and a blessing that delivers to us a new element of life in Him.

There are benefits in forgiveness that we don't see and cannot even comprehend at the beginning. It's one of those foolish things that confounds what our human minds know as good sense. But it is a path of faith, and we can find the resolve to do it as an act of obedience because of the love that God puts in our hearts. It becomes a prayer that we live out in an act of worship to the God who first loved us.

Much more yet to come concerning 
specific examples of difficulties in forgiveness.