“Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if someone sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Matthew 18:21
You’ve just found out that you’re going to die in the next few minutes. What goes through your mind in those moments? Denial? Terror? Bargaining?
Matthew O’Reilly knows. O’Reilly is an emergency medical technician. He’s the guy that shows up at the wrecks and heart attacks and other places where lives hang in the balance.
He says it’s not unusual for people in those crisis situations to ask the obvious question, “Am I going to die?” For the first part of his long career he always told them no. He wanted to spare them from what he believed was the chief fear of all people, the fear of dying. He wanted them to have hope, even though he knew it was false hope and, he suspected, some of his patients knew that too.
One event five years ago changed his approach. He was called to a grisly motorcycle accident. The rider was conscious and aware that his injuries were traumatic. He looked at O’Reilly and asked THE QUESTION. At that moment, O’Reilly decided to change his approach. He told the truth. To his surprise the patient responded not with panic, but with acceptance. He decided from that moment that he would not give false comfort to the dying with his lies.
The story is compelling on many levels, and if you want to watch the 6 minute video of his story you can google his name and TED. It’s worth a watch.
What I really found compelling is what he’s discovered in numerous similar instances since then. The number one concern people have at the end of life is forgiveness. And it’s not forgiveness from God. They either hope a family member forgives them for some transgression, or they want an estranged family member to know that they forgive them.
Many times, forgiveness is a problem. It’s really never easy, but it’s amazing to me how much we want forgiveness and how reluctant we are to give it. We struggle with forgiveness.
We excel at holding on to the very things that make us sick, and we’d rather die than change. An unforgiving spirit is is one of the things we hold on to most tightly and the worst soul-acid there is.
The chief struggle with forgiveness in my experience and observation is this: we won’t consider offering forgiveness until we have extracted a full confession and a guilty plea. We want the other person to know how much they’ve harmed us, and we want them to know that we’re granting forgiveness to them (if we choose to, and that certainly is not guaranteed).
So many times, though, we’re faced with a situation in which our offender is not in any way open to discussing their transgression. In fact, they may not even be alive any longer. So we have no chance for a prosecution, verdict, punishment, and the possibility of our grand forgiveness. We’re just stuck with the hurt.
What do we do?
First, stop equating your peace with their confession. In so many cases, it’s simply not going to happen. Your vision of reconciliation is a mirage. Thoughts of one day having your grievance ratified is an illusion. It’s time to simply accept that. You won’t move on as long as you make their confession a prerequisite for your peace.
Second, and this is very hard, you must accept your role in the continuing pain you’re experiencing. This does not mean necessarily that you had a role in the original offense. Though frankly, if I think honestly about the series of events that led to the hard feelings I can usually pinpoint something I did to contribute to it. I need to be honest about that or my self-deception with continue to imprison me.
But let’s say you were a 100% victim and the perpetrator is either gone or shows no interest in reconciliation. What could possibly be your role in your ongoing pain?
Here it is: you’re expecting another human being to change to make you happy. You. Cannot. Do. That. It’s nurturing a resentment, and that’s keeping you sick. And I assure you that poison will come out in some very harmful ways to you and other people around you that had nothing to do with the crime. But you want that recalcitrant offender to fess up and change so you’ll feel better!
Even God doesn’t change people to make you happy. Your prayers to that end are, frankly, a waste of time. Your efforts to convince someone else of their role in your grievance, even if you’re 100% right, is a waste of time. If you’re trying to change another person, you’re looking in the wrong direction.
Most of my readers know the story of Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist who survived the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. After the war, he urged forgiveness. Now no one in history has a more justified grievance than the Jewish people for what was perpetrated against them during WW II, and Frankl received a great deal of opposition to his advice. He responded “if we don’t forgive them, they will continue to kill us.”
Take an honest look at the resentments you’re holding on to and you’ll find that they’re actually holding on to you. By the throat and by the heart.
Give grace another chance. One of the Greek words for forgiveness in the New Testament is built on the root word for grace. We always can use more grace. Giving it or receiving it. Especially from those closest to us.
Hopefully, you’re in good standing with all of your close family, but if you are then you’re likely in the minority. Don’t wait for a life-threatening event to bring you to the point of forgiveness. Ask for it if needed. Offer it if asked. But please stop expecting someone to change and trying to effect that change either through prayer or some emotional manipulation. Just accept.
And try this prayer that I recently read. Remembering that we’re not here to change another person, and that it’s fruitless to try, simply pray this way:
God, bless them. Change me. Amen
Dr. Terry Ellis
January 21, 2018