Monday, January 24, 2011

Forgiveness and New Life

Remember, Seek, Surrender
My Testimony in Scripture

2004

Forget the former things
Do not dwell on the past
See, I am doing a new thing!
Do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert and
streams in the wasteland.

Isaiah 54:18-19

This passage was offered to me by a woman whose marriage had survived an affair.  She spoke it when I came to her because my marriage was not surviving one - an ongoing affair - with sexual addiction.  In fact, I had very nearly not survived it, and the fact that I was alive to see 2004 was no small miracle in itself.  I know her hope was that we would come through as she had, marriage intact and with some sort of testimony of reconciliation and redemption for others.   Surely this was the "new thing" that we hoped and "looked" for.  Surely this was the promised oasis in the midst of a desert place.

But we looked and saw the symptoms.  God looked and saw the heart. As much as these passages were messages of hope in painful circumstances (that, coincidently, only got more painful, by the way), I could not have known then how God would use them over the year - and over the years - to teach me about something bigger, something vital, something about the stewardship of being human and about the fruit of His Spirit being born in my own.

You see, probably the greatest irony is that...

The only way to forget the former things, to be free in their influence and in authority among their patterns, is to remember them, to look them squarely in the face, to see and accept them as they are.  The only way to do not dwell on the past is to take an account of it, to grieve it, and to offer forgiveness and amends for what has happened, offer forgiveness to yourself as well as others, and then to live in a manner worthy of repentance.

Forget by remembering?  Move on by living in repentance?  What does that even mean?  Oh, my friends, ask not that question in idleness, for it is a lifetime's lesson and not carelessly learned.  I could describe for you the principles of a fearless and searching moral inventory.  I could fill pages about the process and theology of telling one's story as an act of confession and a vital spiritual discipline.  And I love doing them both, as anyone in my recovery church will tell you.  But it is actually about the bit on forgiveness that I want to write tonight, and specifically about the forgiveness of self.

See, as one who has been abused, as one who has been betrayed, I felt I was somehow at fault.  I constantly searched my heart and my mind for some signs, some indication that I could have prevented what happened or that I could prevent it from happening again.  Mind you, I worked diligently to forgive my offender; the woman who shared the Isaiah passage walked with me and taught me how to do that.  I understood that it was not only an act of obedience to do so, it was a way to stay in communion with the God I needed so desperately during that time.  It was my only hope for sanity, for moving forward out of the disorienting world of deception, pain and loss toward the possibility of reconciliation.  

But.

Forgiving myself?  I didn't even know that there was such a thing as forgiving self.  Yet as soon as my mentor confronted me with the idea, I knew that it was born of truth; my inner response was, "Oh no. No. I can't do that. After all, if I forgave myself then, well, it might happen again."

I am going to insert here that God does, in fact, call us to right relationship with self, and perhaps a future blog post (or series, for that matter) might do this concept justice.  But for the sake of brevity and focus I will say only that there is theological as well as psychological study behind this, born of the Word and of the Spirit and of the communion of saints.  I do not offer idle words.  If we have the capacity to "think of ourselves more highly than we ought" or to deceive ourselves, then we are in relationship with ourselves much in the same way that we are in relationship with God and others.  And if we hurt ourselves we need the capacity to forgive ourselves, too.  Lack of forgiveness for self may not be everyone's sin, but looking back now I see that it was mine, and mine from the very beginning.  Just this semester I wrote a "spiritual autobiography" that, as the story of my first experience of God drained from my heart through my fingers onto page, depicted a breakdown in my understanding and acceptance of forgiveness.  As I said, God was concerned about matters of my heart, my spirit, and my relationship with Him.  He had known all along that I was broken in my ability to accept forgiveness or to forgive self.  He had no intention of leaving me broken.

See, I am doing a new thing!

Praise God, my mentor was one who held no punches.  I think God gave her just the words to say because, approached any other way I don't know that I would have been able to hear or understand that I was in a state of inhibiting my own fellowship with God.  She told me that I could only forgive another inasmuch as I had forgiven myself.  

Think about THAT one for a moment.

It put me in a pickle.  I wanted to hold things over my own head and beat myself up with them because it made me feel like I could control things I couldn't really control.  It also kept me from experiencing the full impact of my grief because it kept me in fear and denial.  But apparently beating myself up over things was not really repentance, not really helpful, and not going to help me obey and be reconciled to God.  And it meant that, despite all the rigorous and emotionally challenging work I had put into forgiving my abuser, it was only as good as the forgiveness I offered myself.  

She told me that any reasons I might pose against such an act, whether they be rational, rhetorical, theological, or otherwise, were all just great big distractions.  Forgiveness starts as an act of obedience.  I had chosen to forgive the one who hurt me.  I had only to choose to forgive myself.

I knew she was right.  So as I drove home from our meeting that night I prayed aloud a simple prayer: "God, I forgive me for ..." and I filled in the blank ... until  words were tumbling from my mouth and tears pouring from my eyes to the point that I had to pull the car over because I couldn't see and couldn't drive anymore.  Every fear, every failure to fight for myself, every decision to give up, every weakness real or perceived, was confessed and forgiven that night by me.  God had already forgiven me.  But I don't think I was fully able to receive that forgiveness until I had forgiven myself.  And as I did, the most amazing thing happened. I saw a vision of two children, two naive kids who made naive and immature choices and hurt each other terribly.  Those two children were my husband and I.  In that moment of forgiveness I was able to see us as we were rather than the two monsters we seemed to be.  And it was as if God returned me to that place when I first made those childish decisions and gave me the chance to choose something different.

See, I have made you a new creation.  The old is gone, the new has come.

2 Corinthians 5:17

I can't tell you what it is like to be given your choice back, to be given your life back, to be made a new creation.  But I can tell you that it is glorious.  That is when I came to understand that God doesn't just make a way through the desert, the way IS the desert, the streams are IN the wasteland.  God doesn't lead us through difficult things so much as he leads us TO them to transform them - and transform us - for they ARE our source of beauty, our wellspring, our gateway of hope. 

As is my wont, I could fill pages more about how forgiveness and the experience of being God's new creation led me to further remembering, to further repentance, to further desert places and greater springs - and ultimately to love, for it was because of my experience of this passage from Isaiah that I was able to show the greatest act of love to the man who hurt me.  But that is another story for another day.  I will close by saying that this was the year that I began to forget by remembering, to move forward by forgiving, and ultimately to love by living in the desert. 

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