Philip Yancey tells a powerful story that took place in his church. During their worship service, it was typical for the presiding minister to reserve a brief time for the people in the pews to offer their prayer requests aloud in a time of corporate prayer. Yancey says that most of them were nice and polite requests until, one Sunday, a prayer full of raw emotion was offered.
In a clear but wavering voice a young woman began with the words, God, I hated you after the rape! How could you have let that happen to me? The congregation abruptly fell silent. No more rustling of papers or shifting in the seats. And I hated the people in this church who tried to comfort me. I didn’t want comfort. I wanted revenge. I wanted to hurt back. I thank you, God, that you didn’t give up on me, and neither did some of these people. You kept after me, and I come back to you now and ask that you heal the scars in my soul.
That is illustrative language the scars of our soul. God does indeed desire to heal the scars of our souls, these scars from our past. And the way that we deal with these scars is through forgiveness. There is real power in forgiveness, and that is how God heals us.
It starts with our receiving forgiveness, particularly as it relates to guilt and shame. I think of the apostle, Paul, who very easily could have carried around the burden of his history, as Saul of Tarsus, of persecution of Christians sometimes to the point of their deaths. But he had sought God’s forgiveness and had been absolved from his past actions. Paul did not carry around shame and guilt from the past as he reveals in the book of Philippians, in forgetting what lies behind, and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on. (Phil 3:13-14)
Though we don’t know this for sure, Paul might have very well sought forgiveness from those whom he had persecuted as he encountered them on his missionary journeys. Paul emphasized the great importance of asking people’s forgiveness when he said that we should seek each other’s forgiveness, just as Christ has forgiven us. (Ephesians 4:32) I have found there is a great opportunity for healing and reconciliation when you are willing to humbly ask someone, Will you forgive me?
Finally, the really hard part of dealing with the past is being able to forgive someone who has hurt you, wronged you, or betrayed or deceived you. It is particularly difficult if you carry a burning anger or, maybe, even a hatred towards him or her when you are convinced that there is just no way that you could ever forgive. But we must indeed forgive if we expect to be truly liberated and genuinely to live with joy in the present.
Some of you might remember the classic rock and roll band, Credence Clearwater Revival. They were quite popular and experienced tremendous success, yet that did not keep them from a complete fracturing and breaking-up of the band. John Fogerty, the lead singer, would not talk to any of the former members, nor would he ever sing any of their old songs. And then he realized what had happened to him. He said, Bitterness is a poison that we drink, hoping it will cause the other person to die. Think about that Bitterness does great harm to us, the one who harbors the ill thoughts, yet it does not affect the other person at all.
This is why novelist William Young says, Forgiveness is for the forgiver. It is to release you from something that will eat you alive and that will destroy your joy and your ability to live fully and openly.
You might be thinking that you just do not have it in you to forgive someone who has hurt you deeply that it is just not possible. I had a woman tell me those very words several years ago.
My response was that only God and his grace could enable her to forgive. I suggested that she needed earnestly to ask Him to deliver her from her anger and bitterness. She might be at a point where she had to acknowledge that she was powerless to do this on her own.
She sought God’s strength and power to forgive the person who had hurt and betrayed her. Several months later she was healed and set free from her imprisoning anger.
There is power in holding a grudge, yet the power entraps the one who holds the grudge. The extension of forgiveness is a greater power that frees the grudge-holder.
A number of years ago I read a powerful story from a woman who had written a letter to Dr. James Dobson. The letter said:
Four years ago, my beautiful, three year-old daughter was accidentally shot in the head and killed by the eight year-old boy next door. Needless to say, my life came to a screeching halt. My daughter lay dead in my front yard, and my five year-old had witnessed the whole thing. My life went from normal and routine and beautiful to a complete mess, filled with psychiatrists for both my son and myself as well as plotting and planning how I would not only kill the little boy who shot my daughter, but also the entire family. I felt justified. I felt that I should do it.
Well, it’s been almost four years now. I never did harm the family next door, nor did I harm myself. Instead I got down on my hands and knees after trying to make it on my own. I asked Jesus into my heart. I told him that I wasn’t the supermom, super-wife, superhuman being that I thought I was. I couldn’t do it on my own anymore. Once I prayed that prayer, Jesus started to work in my life. He’s still there so powerfully, in fact, that I can almost feel his breath sometimes. He’s that close to me.
She goes on to share how she and her husband decided to have another child, though her tubes had been tied years before. She underwent the surgery to reverse the procedure. Then to her surprise, after undergoing in vitro fertilization, she was told that she was pregnant with triplets. As it turned out, it appears that one of the three fetuses was not going to survive. The doctors suggested that she abort it, but she refused. At the age of forty, and on the exact three-year anniversary of her daughter’s death, she gave birth to three, healthy children. The little boy that nobody seemed to think would survive, they named Sean Michael.
She then closed her letter with these words:
Oh, yes, one more thing. I mentioned that God is working so powerfully in my life. Let me just end this letter by telling you that the people next door the parents of the boy who killed my daughter are now the godparents of Sean Michael. Tell me that God isn’t alive and working in my life!
Clearly there is power in forgiveness, especially forgiveness that comes through Christ who has forgiven us. (Matthew 7: 24-27)