I knew a woman whose daughter was murdered. The courts called it a “crime of passion” – an act of domestic violence. It seems her estranged husband visited her, lost his mind momentarily, began choking her and didn’t come to his senses for the 4-6 minutes it took to squeeze her life out of her body. A story like that will certainly grab the attention and outrage of most readers. If that isn’t enough, it happened in front of the couple’s daughters who were just 2 and 4 at the time. He was sentenced to 18-months in prison and given full custody of the girls upon his release. Really!!!??? The scenario gets even more bizarre – the woman I knew forgave him.
I doubt there is anyone who hasn’t attempted to figure out what forgiveness is all about. It doesn’t take long to forget the guy who cut me off in traffic. I have been known to blast my horn and offer a hand gesture or a few expletives before letting it go, but ultimately, I go about my business without giving it another thought. How about the neighbor who calls the police every time the cat finds their garden mulch to be an attractive litter box? It’s getting a bit harder now. Then there are the families like my former acquaintance. We all have that point where we find it easier to hate than forgive, and we all hope we never have to come face to face with that spot. She did in an unimaginable way and chose forgiveness. How does that happen?
I guess we have to ponder the question, “What is forgiveness?” Is it something we have to do because of Christian ethics? Like, does it give us points on the Divine tally card? Yet, if faith is all we need, than what happens to our perceived brownie points? Are they real or something we think we need so we can feel better about our actions when we compared our lives to someone else’s? It feeds into a questionable theology that there is a maximum number of people God can love so we are chosen by some nebulous valuation. Some theologians hypothesize that our actions are not as important as our motivation behind the actions. They call it, “the intention of the heart”. If it’s true that what we do is not as important as why we do it, then what happens if I have become bitter and broken because of how I have experienced the damaging actions of someone else? Certainly I have become who I am based on how I perceive the situation and it affects what I do. But, is it who I am as I was created or who I have become because of life’s roller coaster events? Maybe, just maybe, therein is where we find the key.
If who we are is the result of our deepening faith in God, then what we do is also a direct result of that relationship. In accepting God, we begin to realize how broken we are. Isn’t it awesome to refer to it as ‘broken’ – not damaged beyond repair or, worst yet, made wrong in the first place! It means we can look at our foibles as the result of things that have happened to and around us, often because of events that we may or may not have had the ability to control. Our poor choices, the choices of others, how we see the world and how we perceive the world to see us all lead to the damage imposed on who we were created to be. When we understand that everyone is broken, just as we are, we can develop an empathy or understanding for the assaults imposed on the lives of others. This can move us to compassion for their situation and help us to realize that their “crime” against is a result of their brokenness, our brokenness or simply differences in how we see our place in the world around us. If we learn anything from the example Christ gave to us through his life, death and resurrection, it means that we are encouraged to extend grace to those who offend us. Who are they? What events have shaped and formed their lives? How does that affect their response to the people around them? Grace might even soften us enough to recognize what part, if any, we may have played in the situation, helping us to bridge the impasse between us and the other(s) so that conversation can begin.
One must also remember that forgiveness is never one sided. What happens when the other person feels as deeply hurt or as righteously right as I feel? What if they aren’t willing to meet me half way…or 25% of the way…or even budge a smidgen off of their position? Then what?
As we live a life consistent with the lessons Christ modeled for us, we find our ability to love others deepens. We realize we are all equal in God’s eyes (Galatians 3:28) and we all have sinned and fallen short of God’s intentions for us (Romans 3:28). We might even realize we are in all this together. And, when we truly believe that, we might come to that place where we place less emphasis on our own comfort and how it has been interrupted by another. In doing so, we become compassionate regarding another’s trials and tribulations. That compassion allows us to forgive. Again, it is all about love, a love that flows from us in all directions as we live as God intended for us to live. Forgiveness might be regaining a full and meaningful relationship with the person. It might also be simply letting go of anger and frustration long enough to allow the other person to walk away without my need to scream everything I want them to know about how awful they are at their back.
I still don’t understand how a mother can forgive her daughter’s killer. Although, as I continue to ponder the mystery of forgiveness, I am humbled with the reality of God’s freely given grace. That humility kicks my righteous pedestal squarely out from under me, forcing me to be open to people and actions I just don’t understand. Then, little by little I find myself forgiving…