I guess the issue of forgiveness became thing for me when I left the mission field for the second time. That was a year after I’d done my discipleship training class. That part of the adventure had started badly, but had actually ended well… SO well, that a year later, I found myself signing up to be a member of the crew. I was supposed to be their Communications Officer. It was going to be my job to ferret out the stories of what God was doing through the ministry and then write about them. My plan was to commit the next five years of my life to missionary service and I had done so willingly. I gave up everything I had, packed a bag, and caught a flight to Australia where the ship was stationed between outreaches to the South Pacific.
When I went on the mission field, I was full of hope and zeal. When I left the mission field, I was bitter and broken because of two of the leaders on board the ship. They didn’t think the ship needed a writer. They thought I was taking up a bed that a real crew member could use. They didn’t want me there and made sure that I knew it. The husband told me to my face that I was “too big for my boots” and that he needed to “take me down a few pegs.” The wife went out of her way to needle me and micro-manage everything that I did. My mental and physical health started to suffer, so I contacted the home office in New Zealand and begged them for help.
From that far away, however, they weren’t in a position to do anything to help me, so I quit. If they wouldn’t help me, I couldn’t stay. I gave up my dream of being a writer for Jesus because of two leaders who hurt me and because of the other leaders who couldn’t help me. Unfortunately, the two leaders on the ship held everybody’s passports and when I asked to leave, they wouldn’t accept my resignation. They wouldn’t let me leave the ship. That only served to make me feel trapped and my mental health began to rapidly unravel. My health got so bad that the ship’s doctor and the Captain had to intervene on my behalf.
I didn’t know how to mentally process the destruction of my dreams. It didn’t help that I left the ship as a pariah with my faith in tatters while they continued to smile and nod for the cameras. Ours was a very public philanthropy… and they had the Colgate smiles. The day I left the ship, I was set ashore in some podunk town on the island of Vanuatu… I was sick and delirious; nearly penniless and all alone; and I couldn’t do much more than lay crying in a bed in some tiny room in a nameless hotel.
Self-Pity had waited for just such an opportune moment to start whispering in my ear: What had I done to deserve their treatment of me? All I’d wanted to do was serve the Lord. I was finally getting to use all my gifts and talents for God and his glory. I felt like he had designed me for just that purpose. So, how had things blown up so badly??!
If I had continued to listen to Self-Pity, it would have gone badly for me, but things changed in an instant. As I lay in that bed feeling like I was dying… I heard singing. I heard the high-pitched voices of local school children singing en masse from the nearby school. They were singing praise songs to Jesus. I can’t remember if they were singing in English, French or the local dialect. Whatever language they were singing in, though, I knew the song:
This is the day (this is the day)
That the Lord has made (that the Lord has made)
I will rejoice (I will rejoice)
And be glad in it (and be glad in it)
This is the day that the Lord has made.
I will rejoice and be glad in it!
This is the day (this is the day)
That the Lord HAS made!
And in that moment, self-pity was defeated by worship of the living God. Hearing that song reminded me that God was still God. He knew exactly where I was and he had seen everything that happened to me. He knew that I’d been badly broken and that my faith was nearly destroyed…and he cared. Yes, I would need to forgive those leaders, but in THAT moment, I needed to be loved and comforted by the God of All Comfort. I needed my Father and he showed up with singing.
That failed missions experience became the backdrop for all future lessons on forgiveness for me because it showed me what forgiveness isn’t. Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of messages in church and read a lot of books about forgiveness because I knew I needed to forgive a lot of people who had hurt me. I sought out forgiveness the way I’d sought out truth (with dogged determination), but when my pain and brokenness persisted, I felt like I had failed…. like I was failing at the Christian walk.
At the time, I didn’t know that I had a mental illness, but even after I was diagnosed… I thought that forgiveness would make the pain and depression go away. Well-meaning Christians would see my depression and my brokenness and would be quick to tell me that my problem was unforgiveness. If I could just find it in me somewhere in my heart to forgive everybody who had hurt me over the years everything would be ok (as if that thought never occurred to me).
For years, I have listened to “well-meaning, but soul crushing” advice from Christians who were quick to diagnose unforgiveness as the cause of all the world’s ills. Don’t get me wrong, forgiveness is central to the Christian faith, but people in their zeal to forgive have lost sight of what true heart, forgiveness really is. I honestly don’t know if I can always say what real forgiveness looks like, but in a tiny hotel room in the middle of the South Pacific, I learned what true forgiveness (from the heart) IS NOT:
I. Forgiveness Is Not Denial
Some people would have you act like the hurt never happened. All you have to do is slap on a mask and act like everything is ok… even if you’re a bleeding mess on the inside. Forgiving people who hurt you isn’t pretending that the hurt didn’t happen or that the bruises don’t still exists. Scriptures says that we are supposed to confront a brother who “sins against you” and that we “should speak the truth in love” to our neighbors and not “let the sun go down” on our anger.
God is not a God of denial.
Saying that somebody hurt me or confronting them about the hurt that they caused isn’t being a bad or unforgiving Christian. It’s being a good communicator who knows how to set healthy boundaries. It’s understanding that real reconciliation can only happen after real forgiveness has been given and received. Stuffing the pain until you’re ready to blow? That’s not only unhealthy, but it’s unscriptural.
For me, this has never been an issue. When people hurt me, I am quick to slap on the “Victim” label. And while there is a place and time for acknowledging and remembering the victims of violence or abuse, God never meant for us to camp there. Self-pity is straight from the pit. It’s idolatrous. It makes you question the goodness of God. It puts you and your pain on the throne. How could a good God let you be hurt like that? Doesn’t he care??
Two words: The cross.
I spent years wearing the Victim label. I couldn’t forget that the pain had happened because it still hurt. I wanted to be healed. I wanted to be vindicated. I wanted them to apologize and then I wanted them to pay. I wanted justice. I wanted the spiritual equivalent of a public flogging.
Clinging too tightly to the “Victim Label” will quickly cause the wounded party to become the Prideful Debtor. The hurt was real and the person may owe you an apology. They may even owe you damages. But if you put yourself and your pain on the throne, then you start to feel entitled… like God owes you something and then you morph into the Unforgiving Debtor. How are you supposed to forgive them? They had hurt you immeasurably. “Nobody knew the trouble you’d seen.” You would forgive them when they settled the debt– when they gave you what they owed you.
Four words: Cannot surpass the cross.
II. Forgiveness Is NOT Condoning or Excusing the Offense:
“Laurel, I’m sorry I hurt you.”
“Oh… that’s okay.”
Actually…it’s NOT okay. Any time somebody hurts another person whether it is intentional or not, it is not “ok.” This has never been my issue either. If somebody cares enough to actually apologize to me, the correct response from me is, “I forgive you.”
One year I taught third grade at a private (and very entitled) school. The parents were not happy with the new owners and chose to direct their anger at me since I was present and the out-of-state owners were not. We had what I call the “Back-to-School Night-MARE” where those rock throwing parents hurled all their anger and insults at me. I stood in front in my classroom in front of an angry mob of parents who verbally abused me until I started crying. And it was NOT okay.
I nearly quite that job that night, but I needed that job to live so I stayed. The wounds from that night, however, took years to heal. After that, I was afraid to do my job because I was afraid of the parents… ALL parents…which made teaching elementary school anywhere a nightmare for me. I would not wish what they did to me that night on my worst enemy’s worst enemy. In time, I was able to forgive them even though most of them never apologized. In time, I even came to see that they had a right to be angry with the new owners, but they didn’t have a right to take it out on me. That will never be “ok.”
III. Forgiveness Is Not Avoidance
That’s my issue. While my basic nature is confrontational and I’ve been named “The Canary MOST Likely to Sing”… I tend to run from confrontation in favor of finding the nearest corner to hide in and lick my wounds. Historically, I’ve been afraid to deal with the problem (any problem) especially when it involves people in authority over me. Scripture says that we are supposed to submit to the authorities over us… but I have a tough time believing the blanket interpretations of this.
If we are called to unequivocally submit to all authorities over us, including unjust rulers, then the Israelites shouldn’t have gotten the hell outta’ Egypt. David should have slowed down and let Saul catch him and kill him. Mary and Joseph should have stuck around so that Pharaoh could have killed the baby Jesus. I mean… after all, he’d given a royal decree that all the boy babies should be found and killed. Again, don’t get me wrong, submission is also central to the Christian faith, but I can think of many instances where people have disobeyed those in authority in favor of a higher good.
Consequently, my sketchy understanding of submission puts me in “flight mode” when a leader is the one who hurts me. Then my passive/aggressive Canary-isms kick in and I feel compelled to “Say What I Need to Say” because my mental health is beginning to suffer under their leadership. I end up having imaginary conversations with that person where I tell them how much they hurt me or how things need to change. I write them letters that I will never send because I need to vent. I start to lose sleep because I’m having bad dreams and nightmares. I start to feel tense and emotionally fragile because none of the mentally stable people around me will say anything to right the situation.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It is usually the weak who suffer when the strong don’t act. My mental illness has put me squarely in the “weak camp” for years. I never speak up because I’m trying to be a good person. When my mental health starts to be shaken… I start to sing like a canary because I want them to stop hurting me. I want them to go away. I want God to do something. I want justice! To hell with mercy.
And that’s where the Unforgiving Debtor went. When faced with the choice to forgive the lesser debt of a peer, that guy in the parable forgot that he’d been forgiven a greater debt. The King in that parable turned the guy over to be put in jail and tortured. The guy was turned over to be… torture.
Something just doesn’t compute with that equation, but it’s there in scripture if you don’t believe me. A pastor once pointed out that the torture comes to us in our own minds. The people who hurt us? They’ve gone on their oblivious little way with nary a thought about us or what happened. They have been eating, drinking, and making merry not caring (or not knowing) about the hurt and devastation that they have caused.
I have been hurt by a lot of people…and all the while I’ve tossed and turned for years of mental and emotional torture. Years of bad dreams, nightmares, and gnashing of teeth caused by the anger that I let the sun go down on. I was trapped in the prison of my own mind. The air in the Bipolar Bubble was getting really toxic. With each new hurt that happened over the years, I started saying stuff like, “Why does this kind of stuff ALWAYS happen to me?” It became harder and harder for me to forgive new offenses.
Just before I moved back to Maui I had another lesson in forgiveness. I couldn’t forgive my employer at that entitled school in California. She wasn’t an educator, so her rigid and unrealistic policies did not make any sense to any of the teaching staff. They used to call her a Nazi behind her back. The entitled parents would just grumble and complain to us about the owners. All the mentally stable people had ways of coping with the stress she regularly threw into our yards, but Bipolar Girl didn’t and I began to crack under the pressure of her demands. I just became more and more depressed and afraid. She told me that I was the “weakest link in the chain” and made me feel like a total failure as a teacher and as a Christian.
When she came to town just before I left for Hawaii, I didn’t know how I’d face her without wanting to scream at her. I asked God for wisdom and courage to know how to confront her. His answer came the first day of staff meetings. I confronted her in truth without robbing her of her dignity and without dishonoring or disrespecting her. The next day, I was excused from the rest of the meetings. I had already resigned, so those meetings didn’t pertain to me.
I was determined to avoid her at all costs. She would only be in town a few more days. I could coast under the radar and not say anything at all. Or I could have if I hadn’t told God that I was committed to forgiving her in the three days that I had left in her employ. I told God to do whatever it took to teach me about forgiveness and reconciliation.
His answer was the meeting on Monday where I could finally look her in the eye and tell her how her words and actions affected the staff. Being excused on Tuesday was a godsend. I needed a break from her, so I could pray and be still before God. I had another one of those imaginary conversations with her… and then… somewhere along the way I just stopped being mad. I was working in my classroom when she came to see me.
FLIGHT MODE ACTIVATED.
Only thing is… I couldn’t hide. My classroom only has two doors and she was standing in one of them. I couldn’t very well run out the other. Where would I go? What would be the point? I couldn’t avoid her any longer. God was still God and knew exactly where I was.
So… I looked her in the eye and asked if she had time to meet tomorrow. She was leaving the next day and I couldn’t avoid the issue of forgiving her. Yes, she was in authority over me. Yes, she hurt me. No, I wasn’t denying or condoning it… but in that moment, I wasn’t avoiding it either.
I’m not sure what forgiveness actually looked like between us. I blogged about it, but that post disappeared in cyberspace. I don’t remember what happened. I just know that God brought me to a point where I wanted to forgive her as I had been forgiven. He led me to a point where I had the courage to meet with her. She and I did not become BFFs. I never saw her once I moved to Maui… but I know that when we parted, God gave me closure. Real forgiveness had taken place, because I had submitted my hurt, my pain, my need for justice, and my fear…to Him.
Five words: Lay it at the cross.