The weekend’s terrible events gave us two new people whom it would be so easy to hate. But they’re dead, so why waste the energy? Concentrating on the living, let’s go back to last week and the now infamous, privileged Stanford University swimmer-cum-rapist.
We heard about Brock Turner’s receiving of a paltry six months in prison for brutally raping Emily Doe (her assumed name, to protect her anonymity).
As this case made the news, twin reports came with it. First was Turner’s father’s appeal to the judge for a light sentence, that his son not be penalized for twenty minutes of bad behavior. Second was Emily’s twelve page letter in which she eloquently wrote of the devastating effects of this sexual assault, in which she says, “I learned that my ass and vagina were completely exposed outside, my breasts had been groped, fingers had been jabbed inside me along with pine needles and debris,” resulting in her reaction, “I wanted to take off my body like a jacket and leave it at the hospital with everything else.”
I cannot even begin to imagine.
And many cannot even begin to imagine what she said next to this criminal. “The world is huge . . . and you will make a space for yourself in it where you can be useful and happy. . . . I fully support your journey to healing, to rebuilding your life, because that is the only way you’ll begin to help others.”
And our jaws dropped at her crazy-huge ability to both possess and display a forgiving heart toward the man who devastated her.
You can cite as many cases as I in which people have forgiven a la Emily, who returned forgiveness for deep offense, for brutality, for lives unjustly taken, so I will let you reflect on those as I turn in the other direction.
As a pastor, I dealt with many people who were not able to forgive. I learned quickly that being a Christian did not mean you necessarily understood, were able, or even interested in forgiving.
“Pastor, Dad had a heart attack. He’s doing okay, but I need you to know something that I hope you can talk to him about.” Thus began a revelation which was one of the more dramatic cases of grudge-holding with which I would deal.
The interesting thing about the man, whom I’ll call John, was his age. He was 92. When the daughter told me, “I think it’s time Dad dealt with the grudge he’s been holding since the 1940s, when he felt he was not given a fair share of the family farm,” I marveled at the fact that NOW it was time—when he was in his NINETIES?
I entered John’s hospital room. Sitting on the edge of his bed as he ate lunch, John greeted me with a big smile. We covered the necessary ground, discussing his heart attack and prognosis, then I wasted no time. “When your daughter called, she told me about the deal with the farm and the hard feelings you’ve always carried.” John was unable to keep tears from welling in his eyes.
He detailed what had happened. If John were being accurate, it certainly was possible that he had been unfairly treated. I didn’t care. I proceeded to ask John all of the “so what” questions I could conjure: “So what resulted for you? Did it ruin your life? Did you have a lousy life? Did those who got the land have a better life, prosper more, or enjoy more blessings?” John didn’t have a single good answer, so I asked, “What have you gained by holding onto this grudge?” Now, he really cried. I never thought I would see THIS man cry, and certainly not like this.
I now led John to the Lord’s gift of forgiveness for him, hoping it would lead him to forgive those whom he believed had trespassed against him. His repentance rang with sincerity, so I gladly spoke in the stead of Christ, pronouncing him forgiven, then fed Him Christ’s body and blood to nourish this blessed gift of faith.
I left John, wondering. He was a lifelong Lutheran and faithful worshiper, active in our congregation. He had heard the Gospel of forgiveness hundreds of times. He had prayed in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Yet, he held this grudge, and the bitter taste of it lived in his mouth for decades.
I don’t know what allows some to forgive and some to find it impossible. I have learned that it does not matter whether or not one practices a religion, whether or not one specifically knows and believes in the free forgiveness won by Christ and has spoken scads of times, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” or whatever station in life a person holds. There is no rhyme, which allows me to find no reason.
As a Christian, I know the Holy Spirit works with our spirit to lead us to a Christlike attitude, who prayed from the cross for the forgiveness of those who were crucifying Him, but I also know the Holy Spirit forces nothing on anyone. The Spirit gives Christ, who is the Good Shepherd, and as a Shepherd Christ speaks and leads and guides, but never screams, pushes, or coerces. He wants no one to walk off the edge of a cliff, but He will pressure no one into the fold of His forgiveness.
Because of what I have witnessed, what I have here described, it seems to me that the ability to forgive is a full-bodied part of our being: one part nature, one part nurture, and the final part personal decision.
I also know this: I know that hearts can change; I’ve seen it too many times to give up on hoping for it.
When I read about the Emily Does of the world, I both rejoice in their ability and hope that grudge-holders will be smacked upside the head with the reality of what they are doing. When we live as a nation in the wake of horrific crimes such as the Pulse massacre, I pray that we can react peacefully—even as we express appropriate pain, horror, and anger—so that we might find ways to heal, to improve our citizenry, to forge a better and safer future.
I have observed grudge-holders. I have seen families in turmoil because no one would budge. I have watched how grudges are only one aspect of many negative behaviors in people. And I certainly would call none of it good. None of it beneficial. Not for families and communities. Not for the person who bears the grudge.
Forgiveness is way less about the one who hurt us than it is about us. Forgiveness brings healing, and healing begins at home. It begins in MY heart.
It works the same way it works in Christ, who provided for our forgiveness by dying for us “while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8),” not first calling for us to be sorry for our sins. “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them (2 Corinthians 5:19).”
Thank you, Emily Doe, for your magnanimity toward Brock Turner. You have played the role of healer to the one who harmed you. What an exquisite gift you have given!
May all who bear grudges see that those grudges lead nowhere good, never bring healing.
Far more, may they be enlightened to the ability which they hold in their own hands, the ability to heal from within through the possessing of a forgiving heart.
Forgiveness reconciles people who had been at odds. Reconciliation is the foundation for peace.
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.