I felt like I’d had the forgiveness process under control. I was sure I’d forgiven them, if not the full 70 x 7 Jesus called for, then I’d probably logged at least 389 times. Why wasn’t forgiveness getting any easier?
I had moved past the rush of adrenaline that came in the early days, after a pair of coworkers first betrayed me in our Christian workplace. The tensions had been rising between us for months. While they appeared amenable in staff meetings to working through our differences, they were skilled spiritual gaslighters who seemed willing to work overtime to force me out of my job. In the weeks following my resignation, my body was in constant fight-or-flight mode as I processed all that had unfolded in the stress-filled months prior to my departure from the job. My broken heart was sending messages to my body that things weren’t safe, that the threat still existed, and that I needed to be ready to fight or run. I tried telling myself I’d chosen the latter by resigning, but my body was telling me that I didn’t yet feel safe enough to prayerfully reflect on the entire miserable experience. In his kindness, God sent some Good Samaritans my way, friends who would walk with me to a place of relative safety in the following months.
Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future. – Dr. Louis Smedes
Day by day and decision by decision, I began the long journey to learn a new way to remember,. I did some serious self-examen about ways I’d failed in this pressure-cooker situation. There were some significant sins on my part as I’d vented about the pair to a couple of sympathetic people in the organization who weren’t directly involved. (O.K., let’s call that venting it what it really was: gossip.) And I wasn’t honest about my concerns early in the process of working with these two toxic individuals. Given what unfolded in the organization after I resigned, I’m not confident that I could have changed anything for those who stepped into the dysfunctional workplace, but I would have had clarity much earlier than I did about whether it made sense to continue working there. I gave a lot of my emotional energy to trying to bring change to a situation where most of the key players were being rewarded for maintaining the status quo, and at the end, nothing changed for them, though others who followed me in that role didn’t seem to last any longer in the organization than I had.
Time and distance were a balm that allowed me to gain perspective on the situation. But by themselves, they didn’t offer me healing, growth, or a way forward. The actions of these two individuals sent my career and faith in a direction I never anticipated and didn’t want. I knew the right theology around this mess was that God was at work in my life – even through the willful and manipulative behavior of other believers, both those who’d done some egregious things, and others in the organization who winked at their actions – for my good and his glory. But knowing the right information was very different from living it out. It would take the heard work of forgiveness to do that.
When I was working on my book Translating Your Past: Finding Meaning in Family History, Genetic Clues, and Generational Trauma, I ran across this quote from psychotherapist and pastor Nancy Collier, who described forgiveness as “…a decision to let the past be what it was, to leave it as is, imperfect and not what we wish it had been.” She noted that unforgiveness keeps alive in us the impossible desire for a different past than the one that actually occurred, adding, “(Forgiveness) takes the focus off of them; off waiting for and wanting them to be different, and moves towards ourselves, our own experience, our heart.”
At a few key points during the long journey to forgive, I found myself stuck. If the popular definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result, then my stuck-ness had to do with replaying the events of the past looking for the key that might unlock a different, happier ending to the story. I could not understand why these people who’d acted as my enemy seemed to be getting away with such wickedness. Why wasn’t God fixing this obvious problem? Why was I suffering while these people who claimed to be followers of Jesus didn’t seem to be suffering any consequences for their sinful actions?
After the resurrection of Jesus, Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. In response to Peter’s yesses, he asks Peter three times to take care of his lambs, take care of his sheep, and feed his sheep (John 21:15-19). Immediately following this exchange came another bit of conversation with Peter, who was looking for clarification as to what this sheep tending charge meant. I can almost hear “Why are you picking on me, Jesus?” in his question:
Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”
Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” (John 21:20-23)
Jesus told Peter to stop comparing himself to another person who was as close to Jesus as he was, saying, in effect, “Peter, stay in your lane.”
And I have had to learn the same thing. It takes more faith than I possess most of the time to say, “Lord, I am staying in my lane and trusting you with my past”, but each time I choose to forgive (for a 391st time, then a 392nd), I recognize that my trust muscles are growing. Instead of wanting the past to be different, I am recognizing that God wants me to be different because I am learning to forgive just as he’s forgiven me…again.