Stacey was a high school girl with a traumatic past when I met her. She had been abused by a family member repeatedly when she was younger. Then early in her high school years while walking home from a football game she had been hit by a car driven by a classmate at her school. Stacey suffered multiple injuries that had long-term impacts on her physical appearance and abilities. She had deep scars inflicted by others both physically and emotionally. But the heaviest burden she carried each day was the hate, resentment and unforgiveness in her heart. It was tangible, uncontrollable and repelled anyone around her. It was difficult to spend time with her. As I got to know Stacey and she unfolded the tragedy in her life I was overwhelmed with a sense of inadequacy. I could not relate in any way to the depth of pain she had experienced. Anything I had to offer seemed far too little. And many times I found myself avoiding her.
One night as I gave her a ride home and our conversation turned once again to her continued resentment, hatred, bitterness towards not only those who had hurt her but anyone that might associate with them I shared what I had always heard and knew to be true about forgiveness. Until you offer forgiveness to those who hurt you, those who have hurt you will continue to do so. Not by their actions but by your own imprisonment to the bitterness and resentment. Forgiveness is the only way to begin the healing process. The way to receive forgiveness yourself. Those words coming from someone who has never experienced the depth of pain she had experienced were laughable to her and unwelcome. Our words were heated, sharp and brutally honest to one another that night. I wanted Stacey to let go of the hurt and allow forgiveness to penetrate her soul, but she only wanted to hurt those that had hurt her and in her mind the only way to do that was to remain angry with them. I moved away not long after that and time and distance eroded any relationship we had. But I think often of Stacey and that conversation in the car.
I have never faced the depth of pain she experienced at the hands of others. And many times I felt that my words were empty because of that. But I do believe that the words I spoke from the scriptures were true and had life of their own to offer her, forgive just as you have been forgiven (Ephesians 4:32). Even this one, if you refuse to forgive others, you heavenly father will not forgive you. (Matt. 6:15) I learned a lot during my friendship with Stacey. I saw the results of refusing to forgive. It was painful to watch and ugly to see. But I also know that forgiveness is hard to offer and not an instant result of saying or hearing the right words. It seems that there are complexities to forgiveness. There are numerous books written on the topic, seminars, counseling sessions and sermons given on forgiveness. And yet all the clarity those resources have to offer fades when someone who has hurt you physically or emotionally asks for forgiveness and you are faced with the emotions raging within and the person standing in front of you.
I hadn’t thought about Stacey in a long time. But when I hear PBS is airing a two-part series Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate April 17 & 24 and read the article about the series I couldn’t help but think about her again and reflect on my own struggles with forgiveness since my encounter with her. Forgiving a child, a spouse, a friend or a co-worker is difficult. But what about a nation that has experienced genocide or apartheid, how does forgiveness look in that situation? Does the depth and magnitude of the pain inflicted and evil endured complicate the question of forgiveness? It seemed to in Stacey’s case.
More to come no doubt.