by Kelli Ra Anderson
When I opened the mailbox and saw the envelope in my father’s handwriting three weeks ago, I was stunned. I hadn’t heard from him in 28 years. I hadn’t seen him in 32. When I finally sat down with my husband to open it I was surprised to see it was 4-pages long. And saddened to realize not a thing had changed. Narcissistic behavior, I am told, is nearly impossible to cure.
My heart, however, even in the face of his manipulative, gaslighting text, began to move toward compassion. Years of surrendering my grief and loss over and over to God in prayer has done its work. I no longer see my parents as those who wounded me but as those who remain wounded themselves, now well into their 70s.
Forgiveness, I have learned, is not a one-time 800-pound lift over the head. It is, as Jesus told his disciples, a kind of marathon. A lifelong race of repeatedly surrendering 70 times 7 back to God those pains and wounds we have received at the hands of others.
I remember the long process of grieving and those early years when my anger and tears were so easily triggered and I wanted to right the wrong that was out of my control. To restore a relationship they had no interest in mending. But I learned over time to give my memories and my parents back to God. Again and again and again. They were now His responsibility. Only He could work in their lives. Only He could understand them and love them and turn their hearts toward Him. So I continued to pray for God’s mercy toward them and for their healing.
But today I find myself fighting a new battle of forgiveness that feels almost as hard as that first formative one. After a bewildering transformation of friends and family toward a more nationalistic form of Christianity in the last few years, I am struggling anew to find a foothold of forgiveness.
When I hear old friends laud the latest sermon of my former pastor or hear that our former church’s food pantry is breaking records helping so many food-insecure families, I struggle against resentment, reluctant to admit to the good work the Holy Spirit is doing in the lives of others who are, in the wider scheme of things, still very much a part of my family. I want it all to be black and white. All good or all bad. I don’t want those who have hurt me and hurt others in these recent political and theological divides to be anything more than 2-dimensional villains undeserving of God’s ability to work through them in other ways. Undeserving of recognition for anything good.
Unless that standard is applied to me.
The other morning as I progressed through the Lord’s Prayer, taking each section and making it my own, I came to the familiar phrase, “Forgive us our transgressions, as we forgive those who transgress against us,” and I paused. Images of my former pastor and friends came to mind. A familiar heartache returned.
Reading in the book of Luke that same morning, I recognized a pattern in Jesus’ many parables and conversations with the Pharisees. And I realized, when applying it to my own life, it put me uncomfortably but squarely in the seat of Jesus’ nemesis. Like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal, my cry also is for fairness and justice. But when we hold rigidly to that metric, not applying it also to ourselves, it makes us incapable of seeing and celebrating God’s patient grace to work through others even when they are flawed. It makes us incapable of humility and compassion to see that others are just as limited as we ourselves.
Jesus told his disciples to forgive 70 times 7 (Matthew 18:21,22) if someone sinned against them and asked for forgiveness. However, when no apology is forthcoming and when abusive relationships continue to be abusive, forgiveness is still not optional. Rather, it just becomes the byproduct of prayer for those who sin against us (Matthew 5:44), enabling us to release them to God’s care. Forgiveness in the face of those who are unrepentant doesn’t mean we lower the drawbridge. Boundaries need to remain in our effort to be wise as serpents but gentle as doves. Jesus’ call for discernment cautions us not to throw pearls before swine who will otherwise trample us and tear us to pieces (Matthew 7:6), even while we are also to pray for those who have abused us.
Each morning, now, as I pray the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer and I come to the request to be forgiven, even as I forgive, the pain is still there. But I hurt a little less when I remember God is also gracious to work through me inspite of sins I do not know of or am stubbornly slow to change. I am thankful for His slowness to anger with me and am reminded that similarly, He is slow to anger with others who are also in the difficult process of becoming more like Christ.
It is a slow process, this kind of “letting go and letting God.” Humility and compassion, two traits essential if we are to succeed in the long journey of forgiveness, are easier to come by when we are able to remember we too have sins and weakness. And also easier when I remember there is enough of God’s love to go around. More than enough. Thank God.
Kelli Ra Anderson imprinted on her British childhood home where she lived for 9 years but her heart never strayed far from her midwestern roots. Her articles on topics of faith, autism and marriage have appeared in Christianity Today, Today’s Christian Woman and Focus on the Family. The author of two devotionals, Divine Duct Tape and Life on the Spectrum, and a cookbook ladened with humorous family stories, “Welcome Home: Food is Story. Food is Family. Food is Love.”, she is currently a regular contributor to several magazines. She enjoys a renewed love of biking (thanks to e-bikes) with her husband, Adrian, adventures in veggie gardening, long prairie walks and tasting the world through travels in her kitchen. Kelli and Adrian have been married 32 years, have three adult children and a pet menagerie including 2 laying hens in the western suburbs of Chicagoland. You can learn more about Kelli by visiting her website, Kellira.com.