I was sitting in the balcony in a huge church that I had attended a million times. I had not been married long, but the hits, slaps and punches were already in the history books. Michele, one of my friends from college, drove to Jacksonville to attend a Steven Curtis Chapman concert with me. Michele and I have always been close, but like most people, we lost touch over the years, but for some reason we managed to get together for this concert. I did not tell her what was going on at home, and I wouldn’t tell anybody for a long time after that.
The concert was great, as his so often are; but at intermission, something happened that still continues to impact me. Steven Curtis Chapman began telling the story of “The End of The Spear”.
I had never heard of the story of the 5 man mission team that traveled to the jungle of equator in 1956. It was their mission to evangelize that part of the world. All 5 of them were killed in the most horrific way you can imagine. As Steven told the story he told us that one of the sons of the missionaries went back to the tribe, for the same reason, to evangelize the jungle. That son, Steve Saint, discovered the identity of his father’s killer and he chose not to retaliate; in fact, chose to tell him the good news of the Gospel. He chose to fulfill his father’s mission—to reach this jungle for Christ. Steve Saint would say later that “people would always want to know how I could forgive my father’s killer. My response has always been that my father loved these people so much that it was his choice to die for them”.
I sat in my chair and the tears would not stop. I was in awe of the story of forgiveness. I was awe of the story of sacrifice, and yes, I was in awe that Steve Saint, along with others went back to the jungle. Right about the time I stopped crying, Steven brought out the tribesmen that killed the missionaries. He did not speak English, he needed an interpreter and I needed to be sedated.
I could not wrap my head around that kind of forgiveness; that kind of sacrifice or that kind or redemption. I bowed my head so that I could stop crying and tried hard to stop my whole body from shaking. One thing was clear to me; I needed to forgive.
I felt like I was not only being called to go to the jungle of my horrific life at home, but also called to be an active participant in reaching my husband, who was just as lost as those tribesman; he became my tribesman. I do believe that night I legitimately forgave him. I wish I could tell you my motives to forgive him were as unselfish as that of the Saint (and the other 4 families) family. I wanted my house to be a home, not a jungle where brutality was more common than not. I wanted the redemption story. I wanted to stop being hit. And, so I would pray every night for God to clear the trees, clear the fog, and make our house a home where love flowed freely and I was so loved and protected that there was no need to forgive. So life continued to happen and forgiving didn’t change it and then the years flew by, quietly and without me even noticing.
“One day, you’re 17 and your are planning for someday. And then quietly, without you even noticing someday is today. And the someday is yesterday, and this is your life. “ John Green
Many years passed and the jungle only got thicker, it only got more complicated and one by one the vines of bitterness and resentment threatened to take whatever was left of me. I stayed, with a great hope that God would change the story, if I just forgave; if I just prayed enough. I made excuses for him and the violence would start with something as simple as forgetting ketchup at the store, failing to get a stain off of one of his shirts, or not bringing enough money into our business. Every hit, took hope from me; it took my future from me; it took my heart from me as the pain filled every single chamber. I just kept walking through the days, hiding the bruises and trying to be good enough to be valuable to him. And, as I failed in doing that, I continued to turn on myself, holding myself to a standard that could not be reached. My life became more confusing as I didn’t understand why God didn’t just make it stop. It was at that time I understood the problem with my understanding of forgiveness. You could build a wall if you had a brick for every time I forgave him; and well I sort of did build a wall. There were parts of my heart that still haven’t recovered; walls are still coming down. But I had a lot to learn; I had a lot to learn about what forgiveness really meant.
“I felt alone and undiscovered, and old enough to understand, just when I’m supposed to be learning to love, You let me doubt again.” 70×70 Chris August
The longer God didn’t answer my prayers and redeem my story the harder it was for me to continue to forgive. I began to understand that forgiveness is not about the other person, but that forgiveness was an act of obedience—a transaction if you will —between God and us. It was at the point that I truly was able to forgive in the very strict sense of the word; but that also meant understanding the difference between “forgive and forget” and stripped down forgiveness. I would much rather the “forgive & forget” cliche answer, but some offenses bring life long consequences and for him, even though I forgave him, he lost his marriage. The process of forgiving wasn’t then but it is now a sweet transaction with God; and a miracle all at the same time. I would not reach my tribesman for Christ, or get the redemption story I wanted—at least not here. My life was still in danger in the jungle of our home, and the jungle was becoming more dangerous, more difficult to navigate, and dark, the jungle was so so dark.
And as I look back on it now, I realize I didn’t need to look very hard to find an example of true forgiveness. A blameless man, hanging on a cross, giving His life for all sins that had occurred every day before that day and every day after He hung on a cross in the middle of two tribesman; one of whom He would forgive despite His own agony. So, I did the only thing I knew to do, I sat at the foot of the cross in my mind and asked Him to continue to put forgiveness in my heart, but also wisdom in my brain. I understood that there would be long roads ahead, but I also understood that God would take care of the rest. Because of my flawed understanding of forgiveness, I thought for so many years that God would change the story because I was “forgiving”—yet that is not the story He chose to tell. He was telling then as He is now, a story of miraculous intervention and one of ridiculous healing It was those transactions that helped me understand that we forgive because it is obedient, we don’t forgive so that we can get a certain outcome. It was that misunderstanding of forgiveness that made me stay so long.
I am now forgiving without expectation of redemption. This kind of forgiveness can not be explained as it flies into the face of human logic, but all I can say about then and now, is that God chose to work a miracle in me as I did not get bitter. Everyday, my heart pumps blood, sometimes efficiently, sometimes not so efficiently. Once or twice a year I scare everybody because my heart, the physical one, is literally broken as a result of violated marital vows. And, so it is that I get the opportunity to forgive, almost every day.
This is my story and I am fortunate that I got out of that marriage alive. Posting this blog makes me nervous. It makes me nervous because I was very fortunate things worked out for me—meaning I got out alive. My false, flawed ideas of forgiveness could have gotten me killed, or I would still be there. The problem with forgiveness, I think, is our understanding of what forgiveness means.
Forgiveness is an awesome privilege when we understand that our motives need to be clear when we forgive. True forgiveness, I think, is also a total surrender to God for the outcome of any given situation. Forgiveness is not a magic pill; but it is balm for the soul. I believe when we truly forgive we are also totally surrendering to God; and whatever he deems next in our lives. He wants us to have an abundant life. He wants us to thrive. He wants us to live a life that advances the world in a positive way. Ironically, the 22 years before I got married gave and still does give me a lot of experience with this forgiveness thing. But as I wrote in “How Can I Help You to Say Goodbye”—not forgiving haunted me after my mom died. She never knew I forgave her; and I am not sure I had. But, because of that, I think I stayed as long as I did for all the reasons I listed above, I did not want to lose another person in my life. So, I was willing to lay down, be trampled over and in doing all of that learning what it feels like to be picked up and carried though such horrible times.
My life is extraordinary these days. I am thriving and dreaming—the later of which I have never been able to do. The power of forgiving brings light in your hours, clarity in your thoughts, and laughter in your soul, sometimes for the first time ever.
I left out the coolest part of this story. When I moved where I live now, I was still in the deep dark “dealing with it” stage. We are in a small county (by population) and Steve Saint’s family goes to our church. I got to meet Steve Saint and a tribesman that could have very well been the same one; it was a tender moment for me as I shook his hand; and then Steve Saint’s hand—I held on for a little longer when I shook his hand; I wanted to tell him how he and his family had impacted me so many years ago. Maybe one day I will tell him.
It seems everywhere I look Domestic Violence is way too common. That makes me wonder what I can do to prevent, to help or to minister. When I understood true forgiveness there was power in that decision. There was an a transformation of my heart and my soul. Writing a blog like this makes me a little nervous because I don’t want domestic violence victims to stay in situations just because forgiving is “obedient”. It is obedience, but it should never be used as an excuse to stay in a situation- whether it be a friendship or a marriage-that brings harm to you.
Everywhere I look there seems to be an increase in domestic violence. I don’t know how we can stop it completely, but what I do know is that it is time for us to rise up. I love the lyrics of this Jeremy Camp song:
“We are, we are in desperation, we need to reach this generation, we are speaking louder than before.”
I have said for almost a year now that I am a reluctant messenger of this cause. That is no longer true. What about you?
“Won’t you stand up, stand up, stand up won’t you stand up you boys and girls, won’t you stand up and use your voice. There’s a comfort. There’s healing, high above the pain and sorrow. Change is coming, can you feel it, calling us into a new tomorrow.” Sugarland