FORGIVING: THROUGH GRITTED TEETH OR JOURNEY OF THE HEART?
Rev. Dr. Douglas K. Showalter, United Church of Christ, Copyright 1996
Scripture: Colossians 3:12-15
Years ago, when my wife Chris was a little girl in pigtails, she was taken once a week to visit her grandmother Baba. Baba was a large woman with graying hair and piercing dark eyes--like gleaming coals. She spoke both English and the Slovakian tongue of her immigrant parents. Baba had lived a hard life. She grew up in poverty among the sooty black coal mines of Pennsylvania. At an early age, her coal miner father had succumbed to black lung disease. Now, in her later years, Baba lived in a cramped, fourth floor apartment in Connecticut.
Every week, little Chris trudged up to her grandmother's floor. Every apartment she passed had a large pail of coal outside its front door. In fall and winter, the hallways of this old brick tenement house were very cool. But as soon as Chris entered Baba's apartment, a strong current of heated air enveloped her face.
In Baba's central kitchen there was a large, cast-iron cooking stove. Throughout the building, these coal stoves were the only source of heat. When the purple shadows of dusk began to fall, Chris looked with awe through the small opening of Baba's stove, to watch the coal burn. The coal glowed bright red with a slight, bluish flame. Unlike wood, it burned very hot, giving off a steady heat. There was no smell to speak of, and only occasional "crackling." But the coal burned so hot, Chris didn't dare touch her little fingers to the stove. She'd seen drops of water, dance and sizzle on the stove for just a few seconds, then completely disappear! Chris watched as Baba put on her big white apron, to shovel more nuggets of coal into her stove, to make it burn even hotter. Once, Chris even got to see Baba prepare her stove for the night.
Before going to bed, Baba would "bank" the coals into a heap and damper the stove's air way down. As Baba explained: through the night, these banked coals might seem dead and cold on the surface. But deep inside they were still burning! In fact, with the addition of more air and coals the next morning, these supposed "dead" coals, would flare-up once again, into an intense fire. As Baba said, there's no quick way to put out a coal fire. In fact, back where she grew up, there were coal fires which had been burning underground for years!
I ask you: aren't there times when you and I have the intense heat of coals burning within us? Someone deeply wrongs us or betrays us, and suddenly a coal fire is ignited within us. Our chests burn with pain, with anger, and sometimes even with the desire to get revenge: to hurt the one who has hurt us--or our loved ones--so wrongly. Fiery red coals burn within us. But then we are told, by a well-meaning friend--or our own guilty conscience--that to be a good Christian, we must always forgive quickly and completely. After all, wasn't Jesus still on the cross, when he asked God to forgive those who put him there?
We Christians often assume it's a law of our faith--virtually carved in stone--that we should always forgive quickly. But let me ask you, have you ever tried to put out a coal fire quickly? It usually can't be done. Oh yes, one can dump buckets of water in a hot cast-iron stove, and likely see the stove itself break up. But short of that, it takes time for burning coals to be extinguished.
And so I think it is after a serious injury: I think it usually takes time for our pain, anger, and any ill will we may feel, to be extinguished. For like fiery red coals, our deeply negative feelings rarely go out in an instant--just because we want them to. Usually, it takes time to be rid of these things. In fact, it takes a process of inner healing--and such healing cannot be rushed. Now I know there are situations when people have been able to heal quickly and forgive quickly from their hearts. But, in my experience, such situations are rare. It seems that most often we need time--perhaps even years--for true inner healing and true Christian forgiving to take place.
And what is true Christian forgiving? In my view, it is forgiving which comes from the heart. It is the kind of forgiving which grows out of a true sense of inner peace in the forgiver. It is the kind of forgiving which can happen, when those inner coals of pain, anger, and ill will are no longer burning. Out of a sense of Christian duty to forgive quickly, many modern Christians will say that they have forgiven another--when, in fact, those coals are still burning within them. In my view, such duty-based forgiving is incomplete. In fact, it is only a superficial kind of forgiving, which comes through gritted teeth.
I'm sure many of us remember a time, back in our early school days, when we were unfairly attacked by a school yard bully. With fists flailing and our nose bloodied, we rolled around in the dirt with the bully, as other children gathered around shouting. Suddenly a teacher came out of the school and broke up our fight. But not only that, she also forced both the bully and us, to shake hands and forgive one another, right there on the spot!--otherwise we'd be suspended. Well, of course, we went through the motions of forgiving--as our teacher told us we must do. But the truth is, our forgiveness had no real depth. It only came through gritted teeth. And so I think it is, when Christians forgive, not from their hearts, but only out of a sense of religious duty.
In her cramped fourth floor apartment, Baba, repeatedly banked her glowing red coals for the night. As time passed, those banked coals came to seem dead and cold on the outside. But inside they were still burning! I think that's what you and I often do, when we forgive superficially through gritted teeth. We bank up the burning coals within us. We put them aside. We fool ourselves into believing those coals are dead. But the truth is, those coals still burn within us. And some day, under the wrong set of circumstances--such as seeing again the person who hurt us--those banked coals suddenly flare-up into an intense fire.
I believe that true Christian forgiveness involves the resolution and healing of our pain, anger, and ill will. It's not just a temporary putting aside or letting go of our negative feelings. In my view, true Christian forgiveness--the kind of forgiveness Jesus talked about--often requires a journey of the heart. It's a journey of decision, faith, and healing. It's a journey we prayerfully walk with God, until the peace of Christ truly rules in our hearts. It's a journey we cannot do quickly.
In case it's helpful, let me tell you a little about a journey of the heart I've made--a journey which has brought me inner peace. The fact is, I had fiery red coals burning deep inside me for 29 years! My parents separated bitterly when I was in high school. One result of this was that my father turned against this three sons. I last saw my father when I was 16 years old. That's when his new girl friend threatened to throw me off a balcony.
My father then moved to Canada to avoid paying child support. My father then circulated a vicious letter of lies in my hometown, in an attempt to destroy the reputations of his wife and children. The last time I talked to my father, in 1975 by phone, he made the absurd claim, that he wasn't the father of us three boys. He also threatened to harm me, if I ever tried to contact him again. In 1990, after 15 years of no contact, I learned--almost by accident--that my father had recently died on the West Coast, and that he had changed his last name. It wasn't Showalter any more.
Throughout those years, the fiery red coals of pain, anger, and ill will toward my father burned hot within me. I mostly kept those coals hidden. But they were still there, as I quickly realized, whenever the subject of my father came up. The fact is that one day in the spring of 1993, I suddenly came to a realization and a decision. I realized that those coals were really burning me! I realized that I needed to forgive my father--at least for my own well-being. Thus, I made a crucial decision that very day! I decided that I would go on a personal journey of forgiveness.
Instinctively, I knew that my journey to forgive my father would not be a quick or easy one. For there were years of pain and deep anger within me which needed to be healed. Also, my father's death precluded all hope of his repentance or any reconciliation between us--things which could have made my forgiving easier.
I began my personal journey of forgiveness with prayer, and with a trust I never lost--that God would walk with me and help me, no matter how long my journey. I told those close to me about my decision to make this journey. In fact, as time passed, they came to share my journey--as I talked with them about my memories and feelings concerning my father. I prayed often. In my prayers, I remembered that all our human forgiving is grounded in God's forgiveness of us. With humility and with gratitude, I thought about mistakes I'd made in my own life, and how God has forgiven me!
Weeks passed, months passed. My journey continued. I could sense, bit by bit, that the hot, burning coals within me were beginning to cool. I recognized that I wasn't just "banking" those coals or temporarily putting them aside. Rather, I was experiencing real inner healing.
Finally, after journeying for more than two years, a day came when I felt I could honestly say, that I had forgiven my father, not just through gritted teeth, but truly, from my heart. I could say that, because deep within me I now felt a great peace: the peace of Christ. I felt that special peace from God, which passes all understanding. In fact, that peace had come into my heart [and remains there today], to take the place, of all those angry red coals I had accumulated over the years against my father.
As someone once said, "To err is human, to forgive is Divine." I think that's very true. But I would add this. The fact that we human beings can forgive other human beings, is really a miracle. All forgiving is a divine miracle which belongs to God. But God can--and often does--bestow that divine miracle upon us humans, as a gift, if we really want it. God can give us the divine gift of forgiving, if we really want to forgive, if we really want to be healed, if we're really willing to make our own personal journey of forgiveness, trusting in God.
Someone deeply wrongs us or betrays us, and our chests burn with pain, with anger, and even with the desire for revenge. It takes time to put a coal fire out! But with our determination and God's divine help, I'm confident that all of us can eventually do it!
Rev. Dr. Douglas K. Showalter, Copyright 1996
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Last Updated on November 17, 1997 by Rev. Dr. Douglas K. Showalter