I have a rat in my loft. Or several. A workman went up there in the summer and found the evidence, but I’ve done nothing about it.
Does that seem like a random bit of information, leading to a country style recommendation about a rat infestation? It isn’t. I have barely thought about Mr Rat since the day I was told about him (them) but today, in a sermon, our Pastor reminded us about unforgiveness being akin to drinking rat poison ourselves and expecting the rat to die.
OK, I’ll come clean. Someone has asked me to write a blog on forgiveness. Knowing what was done to me as a child and teenager, and knowing that by the grace of God I have forgiven them, this reader wants me to talk about it. It’s a completely happy coincidence that this morning’s sermon included a short reminder about that very thing, and the rat simile.
I will always be honest with you. I can’t be arsed to lie. So here’s the truth about forgiveness as I see it, and I may be right in bits and wrong in bits. This isn’t the Bible you’re reading, my little dumplings, and I have been known to bark up the wrong tree in the wrong forest. Often. If you want certainty and clarity and power, the Bible is the place to find it. Until you turn to the real Word, here are my feeble meanderings:
‘Forgive and forget’.
How do I forgive my Uncle, his friends, my brother, my Dad? Oh, and the priest I confided in? And my Aunty? And cousin? And the stepmother who loathed me because of what had been done to me? And…. Well, as you can see by this list, forgiveness isn’t forgetting. The two things are completely different. I can’t deliberately ‘forget’. At best I could repress the memories but even my brain isn’t that much of an idiot. What has happened to me, it knows.
Yes, I do remember what was done to me, but it’s not by choice that I remember it and indeed I actively try not to think about it, even when it wakes me in the middle of the night, startling me into fear in the wee small hours, or when it sideswipes me when there’s a crowd to enter, a pathway to forge between people. These memories and fears, this lingering sense of shame, are entirely involuntary. And at these times I have learnt, only recently, to think of Jesus Christ, as Philippians 4:8 tells us ‘whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.‘ Or, the verse that grabbed me by the throat last week: ‘Look to the rock from which you were cut, the quarry from which you were hewn.’
A little while ago these night terrors would leave me bewildered and exhausted, sitting up for hours, but now I’m able to go back to sleep. I don’t know how long it takes, but I have the sense that the time awake is growing shorter, the fears are not so disorienting, or even so real. So, no, don’t think I am telling you that it’s possible to forget traumas or upsets. Or even desirable. That’s not what forgiving is about.
If I had to come up with my own definition it would be: Forgiving is loving, even when you remember. And CS Lewis has a better idea
What those men did to me was inexcusable. There is no justification for it. But that’s not my business. My business is to love them anyway. So, to the reader’s question: how – just how – can I forgive those years of pain and fear and physical damage? How can I love this muscled miner, this beer swilling heavy smoking man who raped a child for three years? I can’t. Honestly, sweet things, Lucy Gannon cannot forgive these people. I need help. And I get it, I get a whole river of help, a whole ocean of love that buoys me up and carries me downstream past the memories to a better place. I can forgive with the help of Jesus. But only with the help of Jesus. Does this child, raped and cowed, and then shamed in her family because of it, grow into a happy and peaceful adult? No. No. Certainly not. But did I? Yes. I certainly did. Eventually. But not on my own, never on my own. God saw all that hurt and shame, hidden for so many years, a lifetime, and He took it away. In its place He gave me love. Really, I can’t put it into any clever words, or ‘intellectual’ words. I simply cannot forgive without Jesus there to help me, to fill me with His love, and to make all things possible.
A wise man told me, probably two years ago, that there might be times when my anger and hurt rises up and I would perhaps think that I had not forgiven after all. ‘But,’ he told me, ‘forgiveness is a decision. Once you have decided to forgive, there’s no going back. If your emotions cause you to stumble, pick yourself up, and recognise that these feelings of hurt are lies. They no longer apply. You are not that hurt person. Wipe them off the table.’
A few weeks ago I was watching a Scandi Noir thriller (I love ’em! Quite often lose track of who’s been killed and why but I plug on) and something – I don’t know what- made me remember one very hard and terrifying episode in my life. In that moment my biggest desire was to have my uncle there in front of me so that I could kill him slowly and painfully (he’s been dead for many years so that isn’t going to happen). I immediately recognised it for what it was, a flashback, an involuntary return to the mind of a nine year old, and I knew it was a lie. Here I am, a lifetime later, full of joy and peace, and these flashes of emotion will not rid me of the good that God has brought. Who will win, a long dead man and his grubby sin or my eternal God and His love?
Knowing I was writing this blog I looked up my notes on a sermon I heard last year about forgiving, and there, right in the first para, I had written: We are commanded to forgive, so there are no excuses. I cannot tell myself “I can’t forgive because the person who wronged me isn’t sorry” or “It’s too soon” or “What they did is unforgivable” or “They’re no longer alive”.
The second para says “Forgiveness is not about the person who committed the wrong. It’s about me, my soul, my walk with God.”
There you go, that’s why I can forgive all these people. Because what they did is between them and God. I can choose to love them, with His help, or I can choose to drink the poison of unforgiveness without Him. My anger won’t affect them. The rat, in effect, will thrive. It’s me that will die. My unforgiveness will harden me, sour my enjoyment of life, eat into my happiness and most of all, most most most of all, it will break my relationship with my Lord.
But listen, if you’ve been wronged by someone, and they don’t recognise their wrong or feel remorse, no one is calling on you to be an idiot, a doormat. Don’t put yourself in the position where it can happen again. Forgive what has happened, and safeguard yourself for the future.
All this is a brick here and a brick there, building up a rational and level headed response to the subject. The bottom line is, the foundation is, God has forgiven me. Who the hell am I to withhold my forgiveness from others? If you have a rat that’s gnawing away at you, a hurt you can’t let go of, that you don’t want to let go of, remember that you are loved and forgiven. Holding onto a hurt poisons you, while it does nothing to the person who has hurt you. It’s a hateful waste of energy and soul life. Don’t do it. Really, don’t do it.
I love my Uncle Alf. I love my brother. I love my Uncle’s friends, and my dad, and my stepmother. I am so sorry for the misery and sin they lived in. My heart goes out to them because they didn’t know this joy, this peace, this fabulous love. If I am suddenly blind-sided by a memory and feelings of unforgiveness, it’s me that’s at fault, not them. It’s a sort of PTSD, a lie. I turn to my lovely God and I simply say ‘Here I go again. Please help.’ And He always does.
Don’t hate. Love.
Seventy times seven.
PS The shame is a harder thing. We’ll talk about that, in…… oooh, in twenty years…… maybe.