Forgiveness: Telling a New Story

Have you ever tried to re-tell a familiar story from a different angle or perspective? That was the challenge for this week. To re-envision my story of being hurt, and telling it in a way that realizes I’m not a victim, and that I can learn and grow and be a wiser, more loving person because of what’s happened to me. I take responsibility, and stop being a victim.

I was trying to think of a biblical example, and immediately the story of Joseph (in the Old Testament book of Genesis) came to mind. Joseph’s brothers did terrible things to him: beat him, then sold him into slavery. He was a slave, then ended up in prison, before eventually being freed and becoming 2nd in command only to Pharaoh.

Years later, Joseph, looking completely unrecognizable – probably like an Egyptian? – is stunned to see his brothers entering the room, seeking grain with which to feed their families back home. Now, Joseph does give them a bit of a hard time, understandably, but in the end he reassures them of his forgiveness, then shares his perspective on his past (Gen. 50:15-21), “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (v.20).

Joseph wasn’t saying that what his brothers had done was all right – he names it as evil: they intended harm. But what Joseph now realizes, the perspective he now adopts, is that sees God at work in difficult, bleak times. God was at work through all of that to place Joseph in his current position, so that he could save many lives. The hardships had given Joseph opportunities he otherwise would never have had, and made him into the person God intended him to be.

What about your hurts, and mine? What can we learn from them, to move onward and even use those injuries in ways that can honor God and show his love to others?

Forgiveness & Honesty

I’ve been blogging about my experience with the Forgiveness Challenge created by Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho. When I started this challenge, I didn’t have realistic expectations of what this road would be like – as in, I imagined somehow abstractly learning to let go of minor past hurts. As often in my life, I wanted to play it safe: I pictured myself taking this challenge, but dealing with minor frustrations; instead, I’ve realized that if I want to truly learn and grow from this, I need to take the risk of examining a more significant hurt I’ve experienced.

The challenge of the past two weeks is to work on naming a specific hurt: telling the story of my experience, as well as reflecting on just what emotions that experience caused, and being willing to grieve over that pain. Naturally, Desmond Tutu, who has been instrumental in bringing reconciliation to South Africans, has a great deal of experience with forgiveness and just how it works. He and Mpho urge, “Often it can seem easier or safer to simply dismiss a hurt, stuff it down, push it away, pretend it didn’t happen, or rationalize it, telling ourselves we really shouldn’t feel the way we do. But a hurt is a hurt. A loss is a loss. When we deny our feelings, we lose some of our aliveness.”

I admit, I’m sometimes tempted to deny my feelings, often because I’m ashamed to admit to a particular feeling (like anger). It can feel selfish or petty to admit what emotions are currently at work in my heart. Yet in denying the feelings, I’m shutting a door and pretending something doesn’t exist – it’s like closing a door in my house, and refusing to enter that room. And eventually, the more doors I shut, the smaller my house – my heart – will become. Not only am I less alive, I’m developing a habit of dishonesty, with myself at the least, and probably with others.

Another reason it’s important to try and name my feelings is because, “We can’t let go of feelings that we don’t own” (the Tutus again). Why do I expect and hope it’s possible to move past a hurt without admitting that there is indeed pain there? It’s like an infected wound: the infection must be dealt with if there’s to be any healing.

I can type all this easily enough, but it’s taking me time to process these truths, and learn to apply them to my life. And in that time, I’m finding it helpful and encouraging to remember the gospel story, which clearly demonstrates the depths of God’s love and forgiveness toward us. If he’s at work in my heart, and I’m seeking to be like Christ, there’s hope that I too, by the Spirit of Christ, can become a forgiving, grace-dealing person.

Forgiveness and the Image

The past two weeks of the Forgiveness Challenge required that I think of a specific time I was hurt by someone, and then imagine speaking with that person, writing out what I might say to them. The challenge is to address the other person in a way that recognizes and affirms their humanity. Mpho Tutu describes this as “honoring their humanity,” but just what does that really mean?


One aspect of theology that I think could use more emphasis is the fact that all humans, every single one, are created in God’s image. There’s a lot of debate about what exactly that means – what trait or traits set us apart from other creatures and make us ‘like’ God – but regardless, the Bible makes it clear that to represent God is an honor and great responsibility! This means that every person has worth, for one thing. Every person deserves respect not because of any achievement on their part, but because God has commissioned them to bear his image. The image is damaged, but not destroyed, when sin enters the world. In fact, it’s specifically because all humans carry this image that murder is forbidden in Gen. 9:6.

And the question every high school student likes to ask is appropriate here: “So what?” Well, when I am hurt by someone, regardless of whether it’s a large or small hurt, it’s easy to speak disparagingly about that person. I might criticize them, or call them names in my head (“jerk!”), and so forth. When someone disagrees with me or opposes me, I might accuse them of being a horrible, uncaring person. (If you need an example of this, see current American headlines as candidates for president have begun to attack each other in preparation for next year’s election.) The assumption is that I, wonderful person that I am [<that would be sarcasm], am not at all like the other person, who clearly doesn’t care about others, or something along those lines. I’m acting as if I am a better person than the one who offended me. I’m assuming the worst about them.

Basically, I’m neither respecting the image (that we both have) nor loving the other person. I’m not trying to understand their actions, I’m just concerned with justifying myself. Attacking those who have hurt us is easier to do than trying to view them with respect and empathy, regardless of what they have done. So here’s the most recent challenge I had: thinking through that incident when someone hurt me, I had to then imagine a conversation with them that would name the hurt while respecting the other person. I’d challenge you to try this yourself: write out what you would might say to someone who has hurt you, while sharing it in a way that honors the image of God in that person and does not assume the worst about them. It’s not easy, but it will be worth your time.

Forgiveness: at the junction

A famous Christian (St. Augustine, from North Africa) once said, “Give me chastity, but not yet.” He wasn’t ready to live as God wanted him to, even though he knew what was right and his conscience was bothering him a bit.

The most recent ‘Forgiveness challenges’ have reminded me of Augustine’s dilemma, his sense of being at a junction in the road but unready to follow the correct path. With forgiveness, there are many moments of choice, where you can move toward forgiveness, or toward anger and bitterness. And even knowing that forgiveness is right, and that it will free you, doesn’t mean that you necessarily want to forgive at that point. You don’t feel ready to let go of the anger and hurt – perhaps because it makes you feel strong, or because that hurt has become such a part of your identity that you’re not sure what you’d do without it. So I found Mpho Tutu’s thoughts on this powerful (listen to that here).

My friend Heather Drew, a counselor who’s made several trips to Rwanda to partner with counselors there, has been sharing thoughts from her most recent trip earlier this summer (see her blog here). This one caught my eye, for obvious reasons:Rwanda_Forgiveness

One particular thing that I’m frustrated about at present has felt like an unending, unconquerable roadblock. And that’s when I realize that I’m letting this hurt, this pain, become a larger part of my story and identity than it should be. The larger, more important story is God’s, and the identity he gives me is more foundational. It tells me that I’m his child, ever in his hands. And as his child, his love for me gives me the ability to choose to forgive, in radical ways, as Rwanda Christians show me.

And if I do not feel emotionally ready to forgive at present, I can pray for God to soften my heart, and give me the strength to obey regardless.

Forgiveness challenge, part 2

This is one of those moments when you think, “Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all.” In this Forgiveness Challenge, you have a daily (in my case, weekly) ‘assignment’ of sorts. This week’s is to list people that I need to forgive.

I don’t want to do this. For one, because I like to tell myself that surely I’m not a person who holds grudges, or is angry at anyone. Surely I’m a ‘better Christian’ than that, a mature person who forgives, gives grace, and trusts that God will bring justice where there has been a wrong. And secondly, if I am angry, I’d like to think that my anger is ‘righteous anger,’ the sort of burning anger Jesus displayed when he saw an injustice being committed.

But…neither of those two things is true. Often when I get angry, it’s simply because I didn’t get my way – things didn’t go the way I wanted them to. That person cut in front of me, without using a turn signal, and then drove very slowly up the road (yeah, this happened on Thursday afternoon). Well, it did happen, and it may be inconsiderate and not great driving, but really most of my frustration is that I couldn’t drive as quickly as I wanted, or that I didn’t arrive at my destination when I had planned to. And then there was last week, where I really was outright angry for an entirely different reason. Yep, most of my anger is not about things that anger God: it’s not righteous anger.

And as for the first point? Ah, that would be self-deceit kicking in. In Jeremiah 17:9-10, God is addressing Judah and their failures. He reminds them that “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind…” It is uncomfortable to think about and admit, but if I’m honest, I do get frustrated, irritated, and yes, outright angry at times, and I am often (unfortunately) good at remembering events and people that have angered me. I’m sure that I have, in turn, angered and hurt others whose forgiveness I need to ask. That’s the second part of this week’s challenge: listing people whose forgiveness I need to seek.

If you’re still thinking about the Forgiveness Challenge, I encourage you to sign up here (you can sign up and select the ‘scholarship’ option, to do this for free like me). The challenges will be worth your time!

The Forgiveness Challenge

ToForgiveI’ve been debating for a while about whether or not I wanted to do this forgiveness challenge – obviously I finally decided to go for it. Back in my seminary days, I read a great book about giving and forgiving, by Miroslav Volf, titled Free of ChargeIt challenged me to think about how God freely, repeatedly gives grace. He forgives us, over and over, and this is central to telling the story of Jesus. God forgives; he is a giving, loving God. Forgiveness is central to being a follower of Jesus, as we see in the prayer Jesus taught his disciples (Matt. 6:12-14).

Forgive us for doing wrong,
    as we forgive others.
13 Keep us from being tempted
    and protect us from evil.

14 If you forgive others for the wrongs they do to you, your Father in heaven will forgive you.”

Then there is the history of South Africa, where Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu showed the whole world the power of forgiveness and reconciliation in pulling a country back from the brink of civil war. I don’t usually sit down and read history books, but Mandela’s autobiography and some of Tutu’s works are on my bookshelf!

Forgiveness is powerful…but not easy or simple! It’s often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean saying that something wrong doesn’t matter, for one. Nor does it mean forgetting. And it is also unfortunately easy, at least for introverted thinkers like myself, to keep thinking of hurtful words, to find yourself holding onto a painful memory for no reason, turning the memory or the words over and over in your head until it seems to be stuck on “repeat.” No, forgiveness isn’t easy. Speaking of letting go, I find myself reflecting on an incident from 2011, where I did something rather silly, and am still kicking myself (mentally) for it. I’m good at holding on, and it’s not something I’m proud of. I don’t want to be a person who holds onto pain, a person warped by bitterness.

So I’ve joined the Forgiveness Challenge created by Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho Tutu. I don’t have anyone specific in mind at present; I just know that this is an area where I need to grow, if I’m to be a grace-giver, a better representative of Jesus. If you’d like to join me, click on the link above, and feel free to let me know, if you want to discuss it. It’s set up as a 30-day challenge, but I’m going to be taking it slower, and doing one challenge every few days. Regardless of whether or not you actually sign up for the Forgiveness Challenge, I’d challenge you to ask God to show you more about forgiveness and letting go of specifics hurts in your life. The good news? God wants to transform us, make us more like him; with his Spirit in us, actual change is possible. Wonderful news!

Veterans Benefits Admin.

To anyone who reads this blog, this week I’m asking you to do something for a friend I’ve known since I was a kid. I had something else in mind to write about this week, but then I read Ryan’s recent blog entry, and decided it was more important to share that.

Please read this, and pass it along to others; if enough people speak up and are aware, the situation could improve!