Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Forgiveness: It’s Not Just for Them.

Recently I have had a huge life change. Let’s just say that after 13 years of marriage, the single life seems quite daunting. To clarify, the idea for divorce was not mine and it came virtually out of nowhere. Both my sons and I were equally confused about my wife’s sudden and abrupt departure. But out of the devastation, God revealed so many wonderful and new directions.
I think the most important is the relationship that developed between my boys and I. We have such a better understanding of each other. We spend more time together, talk more, and just the way we deal with each other is different in ways I can’t explain. Also, God has called me into ministry. It’s something that he’s been saying for years, but I always ignored. Since my wife left, I’ve heard him loud and clear. In fact it is so loud that he is really moving me to leave the military at 17 years (three years short of a retirement check) to go into full time ministry. Sounds crazy I know, but that’s another blog. The other direction he has moved me toward is the way I look at and deal with…well everything! From anger, to helping others, my language, the way I think, what makes me happy and how I handle and offer forgiveness.
Jeff (my church’s lead pastor) did a sermon series on exposing the real issues surrounding Christmas (awesome series called “Dirty Santa”, you can find it at Element Podcasts ). One of the sermons had to do with how to handle forgiveness when a family member hurts you. At the point of that sermon, my wife had only been gone 3 ½ months. Her leaving was too new for me to even be thinking about forgiveness. Both of my sons and I were still very hurt and very angry (we still are but its different now). But as always I tried to keep an open mind and heart to what Jeff was about to say.
He started out by explaining that the hurt and anger caused by a family member’s betrayal can very easily turn to hate and bitterness and poison our souls. Basically, if left to fester, hurt and anger turns into hate and bitterness and seethes inside us until it destroys us and those close to us. The only way to prevent this destruction is through forgiveness. The basic idea was sound and really didn’t sound different from what I kind of already knew. Then Jeff talked about three things you needed to do to get past that hurt (involving forgiveness). The first was to make the decision to forgive that person. He said it is not enough to just be “cordial” or “nice”. It needs to be more than that. It needs to be a real and conscious decision to forgive. Second, you have to act on that decision. Just deciding to forgive them isn’t enough; you have to tell that person. Even if they don’t care, or accept it, or even if they respond with anger you have to tell them. Ultimately you are not forgiving them for them. You are forgiving them for you. That person may NEVER accept your forgiveness, but the fact that you offered it and freely gave it, releases you form the bond of that anger and eventual hate. Again, the destructive power of unforgiveness is to devastating to not offer it. The third thing really made me angry. Jeff said to treat them undeservedly. Literally, treat that person in a way that they don’t deserve to be treated. In the case of my wife, with the way she ran out and the hate and meanness she displayed toward me, she definitely deserved to be treated with nothing less than anger. But Jeff stood in the pulpit and said I had to be nice to her and not just be nice to her, do nice things for her. I was angry to the point that I almost turned him off. But I quickly realized that it wasn’t Jeff Maness’ instructions, it was God’s. So I walked out of church that day determined to forgive her.
I didn’t know how, but I figured I’d start small. I changed the way I spoke to her. I bought her a gift card for a grocery store (I knew she was struggling financially) and I even brought the kids to see her when she had her truck taken by the bank. Through all that I figured out how forgiveness is supposed to really work. I think there are two different types of forgiveness inside us. There is the rational brain level forgiveness and the emotional heart level forgiveness. It is so much easier to convince the brain that it is important and time to forgive. In our consciousness we know it is the right and healthy thing to do. But our heart takes a bit more coaxing. Dependant on the depth of the wound, if you wait for your heart to be ready to forgive you may never get there. That is why I think it is important to move forward with the actual act of forgiveness without the heart being on board.
I really believe, much like real true love, forgiveness is an action more than a feeling. If you make the decision to forgive and do the things that show that you are forgiving, then eventually you will start to feel like you are forgiving. There is a tremendous amount of peace that comes with doing the right thing. Eventually your heart forgiveness will sense what the brain forgiveness is doing and will feel the disconnect. To me it kind of seemed like the heart felt like it was left behind and wanted to be on the same level as the brain, so it was forced to catch up. I think a lot of it is actually the whole “do something for a certain amount of time and it becomes a habit” thing. If forgiveness is more of an action, then doing the act of forgiveness over a certain amount of time forces it to become a habit. Once it is a habit, it becomes a normal part of who we are.
It’s only been 5 months since my wife left us, but I feel like I am so much farther than I should be in the healing process. At least farther than I thought I would be. But just over that last month and a half of treating her undeservedly, making the conscious decision to forgive her and telling her I did, I have a peace that I didn’t think possible. The grace of God is an amazing and unexplainable phenomenon. Truly without that grace and mercy, forgiveness for anyone wouldn’t be possible. But through His great example of forgiveness, we can learn how we are supposed to forgive. After all, without the action of giving up His son for sacrifice, forgiveness wouldn’t be there.