It’s late at night and I really should be sleeping. Sooner than I want to think about, the demands of the day will set in, and I’ll pay the price for this in yawns & brain fog, probably drink too much coffee, and feel sick by noon. My mind won’t be satisfied, though. For weeks I have been pondering, my thoughts restless and unwilling to be suspended.
I like to say things like, “I’ve been hurt a lot in my life,” as though this is a problem unique to me. Which of us has not endured our fair share of wounding? So many people in my life bear the scars of far deeper cuts than mine. The blood of Abel accuses us: we are forever predisposed to kill our brothers, marked by the sin of our fathers. The wounds we inflict upon our fellow man will not cease until Jesus returns and wipes away every tear. Hurting people hurt people.
My personality appears from the outside to be impenetrable. Thick-skinned. Well protected. Just beneath that façade, however, there is a soft heart that is almost too easy to pierce. From an early age I learned that, given enough time, most people will let you down. Sadly, church culture allows for the pastor’s public humiliation. His alleged missteps laid bare, he is assumed guilty regardless of evidence or a fair trial. All it takes is a few willing participants for rumours to spread like weeds, detrimentally altering public opinion. The pejorative effect is swift & rarely redeemable (barring a miraculous work of the Spirit). What makes the people of God, called to be like Christ and offer the grace & love we received while we were yet sinners, behave in ways that fly in the face of every “love thy enemy” command in Scripture, I do not know or understand. How many times have I cried this question to Jesus on the heels of another dagger in the night? In the case of the pastor’s family, and especially if that pastor is a gracious man who prefers to avoid conflict like my father, there will be no reckoning. There will be no closing argument in which the perpetrators are indicted and the pastor vindicated.* Even those who shed tears as you exit, expressing their grief over “this strange turn of events,” wondering how this could ever happen, will not be the ones to come to your defence or shut the mouths of the gossipers. You leave, and you wonder if anybody believes the good about you anymore. You wonder if your ministry even mattered at all or if it has all been laid to waste. You wonder if the people you called friend still hold that title, and you watch even the most well meaning people fall away.
This was our song and dance time & again as a ministry family. Watching our dad, whom we loved & adored, be accused, gossiped about, and slandered by people we thought were our friends. She said what about Daddy? She gave me a sucker last week at church. I thought she liked us. Pastors’ kids everywhere have shared similar experiences with me – this is not a unique-to-us ordeal. As I got older, the justice seeker in me cried out with indignation against every slight. It just isn’t fair. My dad was always quick to remind me that we are all sinners, plagued by the same abilities to offend and pierce as anyone. But for me, this wasn’t enough. People needed to be held accountable, exposed as we had been exposed. A pit of anger has been simmering in me for far too long- a black hole, the implosion of joy. I have declared myself judge & jury, and, unbeknownst to others, I hold trial in my heart and find them all guilty. Everyone I’ve ever overheard in the church bathroom. The groups I’ve scattered by walking up mid gossip session. The men & women who have shaken their finger & raised their voice at a church meeting. The peers who cancelled my friendship after forming their opinion about my dad. The person who outright called my father a “jackass” to my little sister’s face. The friends who’ve left the church with no explanation, no apology, and no thought to how that would hurt us. The congregants who willingly consume all the sacrificial love a pastor has to give until he makes an unpopular decision – then the betrayal happens.
All of them. Guilty.
I have lived too long with my score card pressed tight against my chest, the ticker tape of guilty names ever before my eyes. It is true what they say: unforgiveness hurts no one but the grudge holder. All those I’ve found guilty are walking free, unbothered by the accusations I’ve laid upon them, meanwhile my steps grow ever slower from the weight on my shoulders. I am a beast of burden to my own desire for justice and the unlikelihood that I will ever get it. I am weary. And I don’t like who I’ve become.
Maybe it’s that I’m turning 30 soon, maybe it’s the birth of my brand new child who is completely unmarked by life as of yet, maybe it’s the time I’ve had away from the Church as of late. Something, though, has changed. I just don’t want to carry this burden anymore. I just don’t want to be alone anymore. I know it is God’s grace over my life, the Spirit working tirelessly in my heart to reveal its ugliness to me. I knew that forgiving everyone on my “list” had to be part of this journey of moments. How can I live to the fullest if my heart is full of anger?
I am reminded of the parable Jesus tells in Matthew 18:21-35. A king forgives the large debt of his servant, a debt that would be otherwise impossible to repay. That same servant later refuses to forgive another man a much smaller debt, and when the king hears of this, he revokes his prior forgiveness. Jesus says that this is how the Father will treat us when we do not forgive. Now, our forgiveness is bought by the blood of the Lamb and is completely independent of our works. Jesus is not threatening to revoke our salvation. But this parable images the willingness to forgive as a reflection of the extent to which we understand grace. We’ve been offered grace beyond what we deserve. We’ve been given salvation, which we could never earn. We’ve been forgiven of much more than we could ever repent. How, then, can we not offer grace to others? I fear my lack of grace is an alarming echo of my lack of understanding of, and inability to accept, grace. This rejection of grace is, put simply, to say to Jesus, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
My unforgiveness is born of a desire for justice, but justice is never the result of unforgiveness. Instead, it roots in deep and sprouts bitterness, which strangles joy and quenches the Spirit’s voice. It creates a foothold for Satan to derail my faith and whisper his most appealing lies to my heart. Unforgiveness also has two allies in me: pride, and a lack of trust in God’s justice. My pride says I am somehow superior. I’m not as bad as that person, therefore I can judge their sin. My lack of trust says, “God cannot be counted on to hold others accountable, so I must take matters into my own hands.” A few truths emerge here. First, thank God he has chosen to forgive & forget my sin. His justice is satisfied by Christ’s sacrifice. He chooses to put my sin out of his mind. I have not been held accountable, by the grace of God. Second, forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation necessarily. In the same way God has forgiven the sins of the world, though many will never repent & believe, I can choose to offer forgiveness to those who may never seek reconciliation from me. Forgiveness is not to downplay a wrong, or pretend it didn’t happen. Rather, we release one another from their indebtedness to us. Third, God is a just God. There is coming a day when we will all stand before him and give an account. He will right all wrongs. He will wipe all tears. He will dole out his justice with a swift & mighty hand. I will not receive my dose of justice, for Jesus stands before the Father and pleads for me. I must remember that I am covered & forgiven by blood that I did not shed, by grace that I can not earn, for a debt I cannot repay.
Forgiveness will be a constant choice. I can say now, “I forgive them all,” and tomorrow harbour anger in my heart again. I believe forgiveness is a journey of small steps in a consistent direction. However, I am crossing this one off my list because I know I’ve turned a page. I no longer want to hold onto this burden, and therefore I am ready to submit it to God’s authority, as many times as needed. His shoulders are broad and strong enough to carry it all – and he carried it already, straight to the cross, along with my own sin and brokenness.
#46. Forgive them all. Check.
*Please note: I am aware that there are pastors who have committed egregious wrongs against their congregations and need to be held accountable. I also know that my father is not a perfect man and has made mistakes, as all pastors have. This piece refers to pastors, like my dad, who have been punished for things they didn’t do, decisions which were simply misunderstood, or disagreed with as though he were intentionally sinister. It also refers to rumours & lies that became accepted truth or those who have fallen victim to churchmen who simply didn’t like him/her. In these cases, I simply do not see in Scripture any basis for the kind of treatment our family has received on numerous occasions and which, sadly, has hurt many, many pastors the world over.