the other side of forgiveness

When I was in my second year of university, a friend and I watched an outdoor show put on by the UC Follies, a drama troupe at my school. It was a late October evening and there were no more seats, so we sat on a blanket on the grass of the quad, huddled against the cold. It was the kind of show with minimal props and a small, rotating cast. It also was over two and a half hours long. We shared body heat in order to make it through the show, constantly shifting around because of the discomfort of the freezing ground on our butts.

This was a production of the heartbreaking Lebanese-Canadian play Scorched, about a young mom who has to give up her son in a time of civil war. The play follows this mom as she ages against the backdrop of violence. She becomes a combatant fighting for her home. She experiences horrific evil. And she speaks the line in the play that I remember most clearly: “The only way out of the cycle of hate is to forgive.” With little to no music in the production, that line hit like a freight train, echoing in the silent quad as we held our breaths from the tension. What a revelation from someone who had been so hurt.

Growing up hearing the story of Jesus, I internalized the idea that forgiveness is something of a silver bullet: it restores life to dead relationships and has the power to bring healing and an end to pain. It’s an ultimate act of restoration – which, of course, is embodied by the way that Jesus forgives us. It’s like no matter what happens, forgiveness is where it ends, and everyone can go home happy.

Naturally, on my healing journey after a wreck of a breakup, I thought that forgiveness would help me feel normal again. I thought that the pain of the situation would right itself once I stopped being angry at the person who hurt me, and that forgiveness would be the final destination on the long road I’d walked – a summit, almost. But when you get to the top of a mountain, you remember that there’s work to be done in order to get back down to the bottom. For me, forgiveness wasn’t the end of healing: it was only another step towards it.

While forgiving did add a new dimension of freedom, it didn’t take my pain away. Instead, it transformed the way I saw my pain. Rather than being upset at the person who hurt me, I was upset at the circumstance. I grieved the bad timing, the unchangeable fact that neither of us could be what the other person needed, and the simple shame of our failure to reach our own expectations, in relationships and beyond. Forgiveness caused my grief to become broader than just my situation: I was saddened by sadness itself, and sad for who I used to be. That was the other side of the mountain that I had to look down on once I reached the top.

I didn’t expect this. I wanted to “forgive and forget”, as the saying goes. But I know now that forgiving and forgetting is unrealistic. It’s impossible to selectively forget things, especially things that are deeply hurtful. It’s also harmful to act like something didn’t happen – to discount our wrongdoings, or other people’s wrongdoings against us, is to shrug off the true weight of sin. If we don’t confront someone’s hurtful actions, they have no reason to confront them, either. To ignore our sin also means that we’ll never grow – we can’t improve if we don’t learn.

The crazy thing is that God actually is capable of “forgiving and forgetting”… just not forgetting in the sense that we think of it. Instead of literally forgetting our offenses, he wipes them clean from us. He sees us in all our brokenness and chooses to extend us grace. When we come to him with hearts that are truly repentant, Psalm 103:12 says that “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (ESV). How beautiful. I love poetry. To me, that verse conjures an image of God taking my sin and flinging it, like a stone from a slingshot, to the other side of the earth. He doesn’t forget it. He doesn’t shove it under the rug. He holds it in his hands and acknowledges it. He understands it deeply enough to have died for it. And then he casts it away and sets me free – no longer any walls between us. 

When we reach true forgiveness, it’s a reflection of the way that God forgives us. It’s not brushing the hurt away or even saying that what happened was okay. Instead, forgiveness stares the hurt in the eyes and says, you don’t have power over me anymore.

I held on to the hurt for so long that it followed me like a disease.  I had nightmares about it, and during the day it lived on my shoulder. I’d ask God why I couldn’t forgive. I desperately wanted to… but I couldn’t. Part of it was because of trauma I hadn’t dealt with. But maybe it was also because I made forgiveness into an idol, thinking it would fix me, and forgot that only God could do the job.

I remember the specific day I was walking through downtown Toronto to visit a friend, caught up in worry over how I was ever going to feel better. I was so bowled over by fresh pain, thinking thoughts like I don’t know what I’m going to do. I might have to talk to my pastor. I might have to leave my church. And then there was a distinct thought that did not come from my own brain.

…You could just forgive him.

It washed over me like a salve. It felt sweet, even. And I thought, Oh, yeah. That’s an option.

Here’s to climbing that mountain. Not just to forgiveness, but to the one who leads us there.

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