Jesus encourages us to us to “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28).
I recently took part in a pastoral leadership class led by a university professor who focused on Ignatian spirituality, the basic tenets of which encourage us to “assume best intentions.” But as soon as I heard the professor’s words, I immediately disconnected. I remembered my first call, to a parish in rural Ohio where an individual tormented my family and threatened, “I’m gonna shoot that (n-word) pastor.” I was stuck. In such a situation, what would assuming best intentions look like? Even if we assume best intentions as a guiding principle, in dangerous situations, don’t we need to temper that assumption with self-care?
Sometimes adversaries seem to pop up everywhere, just as they do in so many psalms—kind of like the Whack-a-Mole arcade game. You know the one: Plastic moles pop up and down, and the player has to whack them on the head with a padded mallet. Just when you think you’re making headway (ha!), another one comes into view, then another and another. Or maybe it’s more like trick candles on a birthday cake. You inhale deeply, close your eyes, make a wish and blow them out. But before you know it, they are back—again and again.
Forgiving enemies is just plain hard. There’s no forgiveness on/off switch in our hearts. But lately I’ve been wondering if forgiveness is a lot like love. You know: When you give it away, it multiplies and comes back to you.
Sometimes it seems as if we Americans are more concerned with punishment than peace, more concerned with revenge rather than reconciliation. We find it easier to fight than to forgive. No wonder some of us find it difficult to accept God’s extravagant gift of forgiveness and love. And even when we are receptive to God’s mercy and forgiveness for ourselves, we may still be reluctant to offer mercy and forgiveness to others. Maybe we fear giving away our power when we forgive. Perhaps we simply dread being hurt again and use our grudges to help keep ourselves safe. But at the end of the day, ministry involves risk.
Forgiveness is not an event. It’s a lifestyle. God doesn’t expect us to forgive perfectly every time. But God is encouraging us to live our lives with forgiveness as our North Star. In doing so, we honor God, and we help heal the body of Christ. C.S. Lewis illustrates forgiveness as part of our baptismal identity as Christians.
“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” This is both gift and challenge.
To be clear, forgiveness cannot erase pain or eliminate the need for justice. But forgiveness is God’s gift to us. The Holy Spirit empowers us to share that gift with others. Fortunately, forgiveness, like most things, gets easier with practice. The more we remain open to the Spirit, the more able we are to forgive. Forgiveness can be extremely difficult, but it is possible. In fact, God makes all things possible for us. This is good news.
WHAT IS FORGIVENESS?
I used to think the primary evidence of forgiveness was the absence of anger or desire for revenge. My basic logic went something like this: Clearly, I’ve forgiven John Doe, who called me the n-word, because I no longer want to choke him. But a few years ago, I discovered a different litmus test. While participating in a small group Bible study, we watched a video reflection by Rob Bell. Bell said that we know we have truly forgiven someone when we can wish them well. I couldn’t believe my ears. Wish them well? Is he crazy? But his definition encouraged me to reexamine how I walk in forgiveness. I quickly flipped through my rolodex of adversaries. I was confident I could wish them well. Yes, even the man who repeatedly threatened me and my family. But there remained one person that I struggled to offer any active well-wishing. Rest assured; I did not want anything bad to happen to him (unless, of course, I could inflict the injury myself). But there was no way I wanted to wish him well. Funny thing, I don’t even know his name. Let’s just call him Dr. Jack. (Hmm, I wish I could think of an adequate last name for him…)
Even though it has been over a decade, the pain is fresh in my heart. On the worst day of my life, I had a bizarre encounter with a doctor who further compounded my agony. My husband, Benhi, and I were expecting our first child. But at a routine doctor’s visit, we learned that our baby’s heart had stopped beating. She had died in my womb. We were devastated. Since I was seven months pregnant, I had to check into labor and delivery. Even after all these years, I still cannot find adequate language to describe the torment of laboring for a baby you know is already dead.
My doctor met me at the hospital to induce labor. The contractions were strong right away and constant, but the nurses repeatedly assured me if the pain became unbearable, I could receive an epidural. After about four hours of intense labor, I thought to myself, “Why should I suffer this harsh physical pain in addition to the emotional anguish? I have nothing to prove.” So I asked for the epidural. But the anesthesiologist flatly refused. “A woman with your diagnosis should not receive an epidural.” He did not offer an explanation, nor did I ask for one. He made it clear that he wasn’t going to help me. At that point, I just wanted him out of my room. Over the years, I’ve learned that there was no medical reason for denying any woman an epidural during a stillbirth. But Dr. Jack had power over me, and he chose to wield it, brutally. Of course there was nothing he could do about the emotional turmoil I was experiencing. But he had the power to eliminate my physical pain. When he denied the epidural, it unnecessarily increased my agony. He had power over me then, through the epidural, and now through my lack of forgiveness. That has to change. Today as I write these words, I am choosing forgive
Dr. Jack. I cannot believe I’m saying this, but wherever you are, Dr. Jack, I wish you well.
The Rev. Angela T. Khabeb is a pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. She has an amazing husband, Benhi, and three spectacular children, Konami, Khenna and Khonni.
This article is from the July/August 2019 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.
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