In the time that I have worked in youth ministry and retreat work, I have come to realize that the single hardest thing to grasp is forgiveness. I wish that I could say this limitation were unique to the youth, and that, at some point, adults got it. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Adults are as bound in the world of grudges and anger as any teen I have ever met. I am no exception. The only exception that I can claim to this is that I am aware of the weakness in myself. Of course, that just means that I struggle daily – with a whole heap of grace of God – to overcome it. Some days, of course, are better than others.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If I am to take that phrase seriously, it is truly one of the single most challenging prayers that I utter. In effect, I am freely and openly asking God to extend to me only that forgiveness that I extend to others. If I refuse to extend that forgiveness to others; I am inviting God to withhold the same from me. Could I propose a more petrifying option to God?
Several years ago, now, I was betrayed by several people I wholly trusted. This post is not about that, instead, I want to reflect for a moment on my time to heal. Initially, I was angry. There is no other way to put it. I went to church, and I was angry. I went to work, and I was angry. I drove down the street, and I was angry. As I reflected on that, I knew that the anger really came from a sense of hurt. Knowing that didn’t help, though. It didn’t make it so that I was no longer angry; it just meant that I could claim to know from where the anger came.
I once saw a speaker who said that when you hold a grudge or refuse to forgive, it is like taking a big drink of poison and praying the other person gets hurt by it. I’ve quoted that speaker on many occasions, but, all the time, I knew that I had to fix that problem in myself, too. I had to forgive. Part of my problem was that the people against whom I held this anger didn’t think they needed forgiveness. They felt entirely self-righteous in the events. As time went on, I read of the man who attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II, Mehmet Ali Agca. In his book about the late Pope, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who was, at the time of the assassination attempt, John Paul II’s private secretary, described the encounters between the pope and the would-be assassin. Like so many, I have seen countless images of the pope sitting talking to the Agca in the man’s prison cell. I had heard many times of the fact that John Paul II forgave him for the attempt. What I didn’t realize that struck me from Dziwisz’s book was that the forgiveness did not come from an apology or request for forgiveness of any kind. Agca did not ask for forgiveness from the man he tried to kill; instead, he repeated the question, “Why aren’t you dead?”
Over time, these two things gnawed at me until I had to take action. The first step, as is the case with so many things, was to ask God for a healthy dose of help for what I was about to do. For a few years, I remembered each of the people involved in the incident in my prayers. Let me tell you, calling this difficult would be among the great understatements of history. The task of sincerely praying for the well-being of someone for whom the mere thought causes grief is daunting, but, with the help of God, I did so. After that had gone on for a long time, I undertook the next step. I reached out to several of them for two things: first I extended my forgiveness for the events to each of them; second I asked each of them for forgiveness for any hurt I may have caused them over time.
As of this writing, I have not yet contacted a few people with whom I need reconciliation, but I no longer hold constant ill will toward them. I will grant that once in a while, Satan does tempt me to feel that anger toward them again, but, at those times, I am forced to simply call on the grace of God to dispel that darkness of anger, and I again utter a prayer for them. I am unlikely to be able to contact the remainder of those in this story. Some I have no effective way to contact; others made it clear that they would prefer I not do so, so I have respected that; a few more I have decided that prudence calls for me reconciling with them in my heart alone since they are likely unaware of the issue, anyway. By way of epilogue, of the people to whom I have reached out, I have gotten little response. A part of me is disappointed in that, but, I know that the act of reaching out for reconciliation – even though the friendships can likely never be recovered – is its own reward.