It’s vitally important to forgive, but we must never forget the truth behind the pain 

How do you forgive someone who has tortured you? Or someone who has murdered your mother and pregnant sister?  In what way do you forgive those who have oppressed and harmed your people, your community?

Do you forgive and forget?

Absolutely not. You remember, but you remember graciously.

Remembering graciously means remembering for the purpose of understanding and extending grace, as well as pursuing justice.  It does not mean condoning or excusing wrongdoing or oppression.

The people I interviewed for my doctoral research on the experience of forgiving injustices like those above told me, “I will never forget.”  One of the participants in my study said, “It’s important to remember with eyes wide open.” No denying, spinning, or avoiding.

Accountability and consequences were very important to the people I interviewed. Vengeance was not. Revenge would mean they were joining with their offenders in causing pain, not progress.

The man I interviewed who was tortured for his political beliefs said to his tormentor, “I will never forget what you’ve done to me because that’s my history. That’s my experience. I will keep it in my mind, so I keep working to stop this from happening to anyone else.” He forgave without forgetting because he knew that remembering would allow him to help create a better world. But he had to remember graciously, or anger and bitterness would harden his heart and prevent him from acting morally.

Our tough experiences have the capacity to teach us essential wisdom. They can provide valuable insights. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said:

To forgive and forget means to throw away dearly bought experience.

Forgiveness has different meanings for different people, but overall, forgiveness is a virtue with the purpose of leading us to better lives. Genuine forgiveness helps us feel at peace and improves our relationships.  Fake forgiveness extends or even deepens hurt. Buried hurts are toxic because they deprive us of our need to grieve, to lament, to process and release our pain.

People who’ve been mistreated may have a hard time with the word forgiveness because they fear abuse and injustice will continue if they forgive. People who are concerned they will be blamed or shamed may have a hard time with the concept of forgiveness because they fear retribution. 

“Just get over it,” sounds so easy when we aren’t the ones who need to get over something that is churning inside us, affecting our health, our relationships, our future.

We see the desire to forgive and forget in conversations about what’s being labeled “critical race theory.” The message seems to be, “Let’s not talk about the parts of our history that are painful. Let’s just feel good about ourselves and forget the past.” But as author William Faulkner said:

The past is never dead, it’s not even past.

We are all a product of our past. It has shaped us. The same is true about communities and nations.

I was leading a conversation class for adults from various countries who were learning the English language, and one woman asked me, “Why are so many of the homeless people in our community Native Americans?” I paused for a moment, realizing that answering that question was complex. Another woman in the class piped in before I could respond, “They’re lazy. If they have arms and legs they should be working.”

Ugh! It’s so easy to judge others harshly and comfort ourselves by thinking they surely deserve whatever misfortune has befallen them. Psychologists call that “just world hypothesis” – or more accurately, “just world fallacy.” We don’t like unfairness, and it feels better to think good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people. And if all is fair, there’s no need to alter our personal behavior or our society. Just world fallacy is intoxicating because it comforts us and releases us from any responsibility to change ourselves or a situation that may, in fact, not be just.

 You’ll be relieved to know I didn’t start spouting psychological theories to the class. Instead I replied, “To understand why, you need to know history. Every person, every group, has a story to tell. You will not understand why until you learn their story.”

We talked about the history of Native Americans in our nation and in our community. We talked about historical trauma, prejudice, and differing perspectives. About what a tough time we humans have being compassionate and treating others – all others, no exceptions – with respect.

It takes time to learn history, to listen to people’s stories. It can be difficult because some things are hard to hear. We wish they had never happened.

We like to hear a lovely story of unending progress – what’s sometimes called a “whiggish” interpretation of history. That version of history tells us that if we are satisfied with the present, the past must have been a good thing and needn’t be examined for flaws. It’s nice to feel good about our history, but sometimes we need to hear truths that make us feel bad so we can heal and learn from them.

If a trail of damaged, wounded people has been left behind, whether it’s in a family or in a nation, understanding their history will help create beneficial paths forward. When past wrongdoings are acknowledged, those who have been harmed gain confidence that lessons have been learned from that past, and they gain trust and hope for the future.

Forgiveness and progress flourish when people come together for gracious remembering. The goal is recognizing a painful past, hearing each other’s stories, and reimagining the future. Ishmael Beah, Sierra Leonean author and human rights activist, said:

A lot of people, when they say forgive and forget, think you completely wash your brain out and forget everything. . .What I think is you forgive and you forget so you can transform your experiences, not necessarily forget them, so that they don’t haunt you or handicap you or kill you.

There is nothing easy about facing a painful past, so it’s understandable that we may wish we could simply extinguish agonizing memories, and there is research going on right now with the purpose of physiologically doing just that.  In some cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, that could be a good thing. But erasing a painful past could also turn into a way of making us vulnerable to a tragedy’s repeat performance. We may eliminate an opportunity for greater awareness and transformation.

It takes courage and compassion to remember graciously. But that is the way to create a brighter future.

Photo by Alex Shute on Unsplash

Tough Paths Lead to Beautiful Destinations: Choose Forgiveness

I was asked to give the message at my church, Canyon Lake United Methodist, Rapid City, SD, and what follows are the stories and words I shared to express why forgiveness is a life-giving practice. If you wish to listen to the service that was focused on forgiveness follow this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRz3CsyYg_A or check out CLUMC’s website or Facebook page.

Have you ever noticed that in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” follows right behind “give us this day our daily bread?” I think it’s because forgiveness and bread are both life-giving and both are needed daily.

I know I make mistakes and do things I wish I hadn’t or wish I had on a regular basis. If I can’t forgive myself, or others, for simply being human, I’ll waste a lot of time and energy being angry and ashamed. Forgiveness allows us to spend more time smiling than frowning, being relaxed instead of tense, moving forward instead of backward.

I personally know how life-giving forgiveness can be and I chose to research forgiveness for my doctorate in psychology. I did qualitative research, meaning I analyzed stories and looked for patterns and themes in those stories. I interviewed people from different sacred belief systems who had forgiven a major transgression and looked specifically for what their stories had in common. I feel very blessed because I was led to people whose stories were insightful and their stories continue to inspire me today.

Forgiveness means different things to different people, so I like to start by explaining what I mean by forgiveness. First, forgiveness is NOT excusing, condoning, or ignoring bad behavior. It’s the opposite. It’s like Micah 6:8. We’re to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Forgiveness means balancing justice and mercy and remaining humble as we walk with our loving God.

It means having the courage to uncover and confront destructive thoughts and feelings so we can let go of our shame, anger, bitterness, and resentment. That takes time, but it’s worth it because when we experience genuine, deep forgiveness our health improves, our relationships become healthier, and we learn and grow spiritually.

The forgiveness experiences of the people I interviewed had four things in common that helped them forgive, and I call them the 4Cs: connections, courage, compassion, and creativity.

Connections

I first want to talk about connectionsbecause connections make the other 3 Cs possible. Connections are what led the people I interviewed from being victims to becoming forgiveness heroes. None of them were able to forgive without help. They all described spiritual, religious, or social connections that gave them two main things: support and guidance.

So how did their connections support them?

First, they did not pressure anyone to forgive. Pressure to forgive can backfire. Why? Because it can make someone feel worse. If you’re struggling to forgive and someone tells you, “Just let it go,” they’ve added to your shame, to your angst – because deep down you can’t do what they want you to do, what you may think a “good” person is supposed to easily be able to do. If you want to please someone, maybe even God, you may pretend to forgive and deny your genuine feelings. But holding your pain inside and trying to please others will add to your stress and hurt your health.

After I did a talk on my book, Being Human Is Hard: Choose Forgiveness, a man came up to me and said he appreciated the book and he surprised me with why. He was struggling with forgiveness issues and it reassured him to hear that genuine forgiveness of something major is difficult and takes time.

Connections are important because they provide support and also because they provide guidance. They show us the way through the forgiveness process and serve as role models.

One of the stories in my book is about William (pseudonym), who was Lakota and grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He and his family had experienced horrible acts of prejudice and trauma; William became resentful and as can happen if we’re filled with bitterness, he took his hurt out on others. His major turning point came when he heard Black pastors speak about their painful experiences, which he felt were even worse than his. One had helplessly watched his sister be set on fire and burned to death by prejudiced people who were never punished. “How were you able to forgive?” he asked them. And they said, “You talk about it, and you pray about it.” When William had trouble forgiving, he thought about the Black pastors, read the Bible, prayed, talked to his pastor and the people in his church.

We don’t have to do forgiveness alone, and that’s what helps us with the second C, courage.  

Courage

Forgiveness work takes courage because it means becoming vulnerable. It means uncovering and confronting things that may be shameful, embarrassing, humiliating, traumatic.

One of the people I interviewed, Katherine, said, “Before I discovered forgiveness I wasn’t open enough and willing to admit mistakes. I would have unknowingly kept secret certain things that would have been the heart of what needed to be heard and I wouldn’t have been able to get to the healing part. I wouldn’t have been able to see another’s viewpoint because I would have been too busy protecting my ego. Now I try to remember that it’s not all about me.”

Katherine had a strong connection to God and could feel the Holy Spirit within her. She said, “I’m always praying for the courage and strength to face forgiveness issues because I know that even though it’s scary, I will feel so liberated, relieved, and joyful to be a part of something that is healing.”

Sometimes we need the courage to listen to a perspective that’s different from our own and may seem threatening. At other times, in order to forgive, we may need to have the courage shown by the first person I interviewed for my research, a woman I called Esther, who taught me the importance of standing up for yourself and setting boundaries.

Esther was working in construction with men who didn’t appreciate women and she was being taken advantage of and disrespected. She grew resentful and extremely angry, and at first, she kept it inside. But one day she’d had enough and set some firm boundaries. I asked her how that helped her forgive. She said, “Once I set my boundaries and felt safe, I experienced an expanding of space. I started being able to see more deeply into my offender’s situation and I could better understand him. Releasing my fears allowed me to open up and have compassion.”

Once Esther felt safe, she could see her offender as a human being, instead of an object of hurt.

At a church conference this summer one of the speakers said, “I supported my addiction by blaming my parents.” He had what everyone would consider horrible parents, but he knew that he couldn’t serve God and help others unless he  accepted his imperfect childhood and figured out how to move beyond his past.

We may be a victim of oppression and someone else’s bad behavior and that’s awful. But we’ll never become empowered and liberated if we get stuck in victim status. To get unstuck, sometimes we need to set firm boundaries or possibly even walk away from a relationship that is harmful. At other times, we may need to swallow our pride and have the courage to really listen to perspectives that are uncomfortable. Those forgiveness issues are tough and require not just courage, they also require the third C, compassion.

 Compassion

Courage and compassion are best buddies because it’s hard to be kind when we’re in pain. It’s hard to be loving and grace-filled when we’re hurting.

But opening our hearts and minds to compassionately understanding ourselves and those who hurt us is a key to forgiveness.

Martin Luther King Jr. said:

He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us, and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.

We sometimes like to think of ourselves or others as either all good or all bad – it’s simpler that way – but that leads to forgiveness problems. We may refuse to believe anything good about someone who’s hurt us. When we do something hurtful, we may blame others because we are afraid our wrong action means we’re a bad person. Or we may retreat in shame and miss the opportunity to share our gifts and talents.

A Muslim man I called Basil forgave the person who tortured him and it definitely wasn’t easy. But he had compassion for his torturer, and that helped. He said, “I felt like he was a poor guy. I looked at him like he really, really needs help. From my experience with him, he was always worried, always wondering. He had this weird feeling he was not safe, and he wondered which one of his friends would betray him.” Basel was physically tortured in prison, but Basel realized his torturer had created a personal prison in his own mind and was letting his paranoid, fearful thoughts torture him.

When people hurt us, it’s natural to become bitter and resentful. But I remember the words of the Lakota woman I interviewed who had amazing compassion and forgave the people who murdered her mother and pregnant sister. She said, “No one can make me hate.”

I love that because hate isn’t good for us. Hateful, unforgiving thoughts can torture us. They keep us from experiencing the life Christ wants for us. I asked one of the women I interviewed why she thought God wanted us to forgive. She said simply, “Because it’s good for us.”

Forgiveness frees us and helps us give to others. Have you noticed that the word forgiving can be separated into for and giving? Forgiving is for giving because when we break free from the chains of bitterness or shame we can give more to others.

But forgiving a major transgression isn’t easy because it requires us to write a new, improved chapter in our life story. We need help from the fourth C, creativity.

Creativity

Forgiveness is about learning from our painful experiences. It’s about adjusting our perspective and transforming our thoughts so that we can create a healthier, more peaceful and joyful way of being.

James, brother of Jesus, experienced tough times with a great attitude. In James 1: 2-4 he advises us:

Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

Wow, that’s awesome inspiration, though I must admit I think considering trials of any kind nothing but joy seems a bit over the top.  I do agree that what makes forgiveness possible is knowing that tough paths lead to beautiful destinations. I don’t know why some of our best learning experiences involve humiliation, embarrassment, disappointment, and pain, but if we can accept that inconvenient truth, I know we are on the road to more joy, love, and peace.

We’re all on a journey and we’re all at different places on our journey. I often remember the words of Valerie, one of the woman I interviewed. She said, “We’re all on our own paths.” That’s so true, but often so hard to accept. Her words remind me to focus on compassion versus judgment. To relax my expectations and need to control, take deep breaths, and “Let go and let God.” 

When forgiveness is really tough, thankfulness and gratitude are more important than ever. During my toughest times, being grateful for the beauty of nature, acts of kindness, music, good books, friendly dogs, the ability to laugh at myself – those things have given me the positive energy I need to create something good out of something painful.

In Philippians 4:8, Paul, no stranger to adversity, counsels:

Finally, brothers and sisters, 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.”

Why? Because gratitude shines a light for us, so we can see what path to take.

Some of the people I interviewed described forgiveness as a cleansing of the heart, and the forgiveness process as a way to scrub your heart clean and experience a liberating rebirth. David in the Bible saw it in a similar way. Listen to the words he uses when asking God for forgiveness in Psalm 51: 10 -12

Create in me a pure heart, O God,

and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence

or take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation

and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

I pray that we feel the Holy Spirit within us as we strive to shine a light of love and grace for our world.

But I Have Issues

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

Following is the message I gave to my church, Canyon Lake Methodist, on July 13, 2021, while filling in for our excellent pastors and giving them a break. The sermon series, entitled “Your But’s Too Big,” focused on those things that keep us from finding our calling and living life to the fullest. My message was entitled, “But I Have Issues.” You can listen to the church service and message by following the link https://www.facebook.com/canyonlakeunitedmethodist/videos/126356636251833/

2 Corinthians 12:9-10 New International Version

But God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Our pastors asked me to do the message on “But I Have Issues.” They said, “Chris, you have lots of issues, so this is a perfect topic for you.” Actually, they were too nice to say that so instead said, “You have a doctorate in psychology and psychology involves the study of people’s issues.” So, here I am.

What does it mean to have issues? Issues are emotional or psychological difficulties, and we all have those difficulties at some time or another, to varying degrees – from a personality quirk to a severe mental illness. When I taught psychology, I liked to assure students that, “We’re all a little crazy.” However, our issues don’t need to keep us from using our God-given gifts and talents, from following our dreams, from living fulfilling, purposeful lives.

Our scripture for today is about Paul, and it describes a time when Paul was having issues and he wanted God to do something about that. God had given him what Paul referred to as a thorn and Paul didn’t like it. I can certainly identify with his feelings.

Travis Heam, the author of “Your But’s Too Big” said “We want comfort. God wants character. We want freedom. God wants faith. We want easy. God wants everything. We want to feel good. God wants us to feel God.”  

In our society, issues are especially tough because we often feel like we have to pretend we don’t have issues, or we think we should be able to solve them by ourselves. We can tell people we’re on a diet or that we have high blood pressure, a bad back, or cancer, but it’s hard to admit we have mental issues, spiritual issues. We hide our true thoughts and feelings. And the horrible thing is that hiding our depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction or whatever issue we may be suffering from makes it worse. Pretending is poisonous.

So let’s not hide from our issues or let them keep us from our calling. Let’s look at the advice God gives to Paul, I’ll throw in a little psychology, and we’ll talk about three ways to keep from saying, “I would, but I have issues.”

First –God’s love is unconditional. “My grace is sufficient for you.”

My issues started early and I remember struggling as a teenager. I was fortunate to grow up in a Methodist church in Redfield, SD, that assured me God’s love was unconditional. God was merciful, not wrathful.  I was also fortunate that I loved to read. I still have the book I’m Okay, You’re Okay by Dr. Thomas Harris that helped get me through high school. It gave me hope that I was okay, even when I didn’t fit in or feel okay. Books can function as excellent therapists.

When Paul experienced his “thorn” – his issue – he needed assurance that even though what he was going through was hard, he was still okay. God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Meaning it doesn’t matter how many issues you have, you are okay and I will love you through this.

Having faith and truly believing God’s assurance that “My grace is sufficient for you” is important because it helps us calm down and realize it’s okay to not feel okay. We are still okay even if our thoughts don’t feel okay. Because we are not our thoughts, we are not our crazy feelings. We are beloved children of a merciful God.

What we especially need when our issues are keeping us from sharing our gifts and causing us great pain is a firm foundation of love and acceptance. I’m okay. You’re okay. “My grace is sufficient for you.” If we don’t believe that – that grace is sufficient – we develop big buts full of shame and blame that keep us from delighting in life and living out our purpose; from finding the joy that forgiveness and compassion brings.

If our issues cause us to bury our heads in shame, we will miss out on new experiences that will help us grow closer to God and we’ll say, “I would, but . . .when asked to share our gifts with others, to experience new things. We’re worried we’ll mess up againand just create even more shame for ourselves. We’re stuck.

Blaming can be even worse because if we can’t face our issues, we may take our pain out on others and become people who spread hurt rather than healing. If we’re busy blaming others for our issues and judging them for their issues, we’re missing out on the peace that passes understanding and the joy that comes with accepting and giving grace. With realizing we’re all okay and doing the best we can. Which leads me to the second point. We’re born to learn, not perform.

Second – We’re Born to Learn, Not Perform

We’re born to learn, not perform, which means we will make mistakes and fail. That’s the human condition. We don’t know it all and we need Jesus to show us the way and other people to teach us. Even rugged individualists in South Dakota need help.

So our scripture goes on to say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul had a very high opinion of himself, and the scripture informs us he was quite upset that he had to endure “weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.” He didn’t like having issues and at first, he tried to persuade God to get rid of them for him.

I understand, issues are no fun. We want comfort. God wants character. When I was much younger, I remember times when my issues were bothering me – and then I’d have an insight, a personal epiphany, and think, “I’ve got things figured out now. No more issues.”  And for a few hours, maybe even a couple days I did, but it wasn’t long before a new struggle would come along and I’d have issues again. I finally figured out this learning thing is lifelong. It’s not a one and done. God wants us to grow and learn all our lives. We’re to be lifelong learners.

Paul figured that out too. He wasn’t supposed to be too content with himself, and he definitely wasn’t supposed to boast about how smart and special he was. God told him to boast about his weaknesses, because his weaknesses, his issues, were going to lead him closer to God and keep him learning. It wouldn’t be as comfortable and self-esteem boosting as Paul would have liked, but struggles are when we have the opportunity to build character, to be transformed.

Like Paul, we probably need to do some complaining first because issues are tough. Then we can surrender and ask God, “What am I supposed to be learning? Why am I so depressed, so obsessive, so anxious, so angry, so unable to concentrate, so addicted, so tormented? And we ask God to be with us as we try to figure out our issues, as we grow and learn, ask for help, share what we’ve learned, and develop character. We change our focus, so our negative thoughts don’t spiral out of control.

Third – It’s Not All About Me.

Changing my focus and reminding myself, “It’s not all about me,” has been effective for me in a couple ways. First, I’ve quit telling God what to do – it wasn’t working anyway – and just ask the Holy Spirit to be with me as I stumble and struggle and do my best. Paul, too, realized it was not all about him and said, “When I am weak, I am strong.” What does that mean?

When we realize we’re weak, that we have a lot to learn, we can open our heart and mind to what the Spirit is telling us, what people around us and our experiences are trying to teach us, and that’s how we become strong. Open hearts, open minds, and open doors – our Methodist slogan – is what strengthens us. It’s what spiritual humility is all about.

Spiritual humility is realizing, “It’s not all about me” and that’s a delightful thing. Humility has been called the master virtue because it’s all about letting go of our ego and our fears and welcoming in the Holy Spirit. Spiritual humility isn’t about thinking less of ourselves, it’s about thinking of ourselves less. When I’m wasting time ruminating about my issues I can say, “Stop, it isn’t all about me,” remember that I am more than my negative thoughts and take a sanity break. I can think about the fruits of the spirit – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – and how I can develop those fruits and share them with others. I can think about how I can serve others, not how I can be served.

Mary Oliver, a poet who knew what it meant to struggle with issues, wrote “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” She had found that shifting her focus to the beauty of the earth, nature, and God’s creation allowed light to shine in her darkness. Paying attention to that which heals – nature, music, service, kindness – takes the focus off that which hurts. It strengthens us.

Spiritual humility means we are strong enough to share our gifts even though we may fail and fall flat on our face; it means we are strong enough to admit we don’t know everything, that we have issues, and we need help. When we are honest about our issues, when we face them with courage and compassion, knowing we are unconditionally loved, forgiven, and always learning, we keep our issues from turning into big buts. Instead, our issues bring us closer to God, closer to those with whom we share our concerns, and closer to our true calling. As God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul’s ability to handle his thorn, his issues, had its foundation in the love of God and he wrote in Romans 8: 38-39 the passage I will close with:

38I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8: 38-39.

I pray we will open our hearts, feel God’s love, and embrace grace.

Forgiveness and the Easter Story

Inspirational stories can help us forgive. The death and resurrection story of Jesus has provided many Christians with assurance that no matter what sins they have committed in the past or will commit in the future, they will be forgiven.  In brief, the Easter story relates that God sent his only son, Jesus, to earth because he loved his human creation dearly, but was often very mad at them because they were constantly sinning. During the first century, when Jesus was on earth, it was common for lambs to be sacrificed in atonement for sins. Jesus, the son of God, became the lamb of God who was sacrificed for the sins of humankind with the goal of bringing us humans a new relationship with God the Father.  Jesus was crucified by Roman oppressors and died a human death, but arose from the grave, showing his disciples he had been resurrected.

I personally receive comfort and inspiration from the Easter story

when I don’t try to analyze it scientifically or take it too literally.

During the days when the books of the Bible were written, it was common for people to explain difficult concepts through stories, as there was no science as we know it now. Human beings have always sought understanding, meaning, and explanations, but they have not always had universities full of books and laboratories or access to facts that could be scientifically verified. They often used symbolism, metaphors, and teaching stories (parables) to make sense of the world.

I imagine myself back in the days of Jesus. Back then, just as now, it was hard to be human. People struggled with the same questions.  How do we deal with guilt and shame? How can we keep going, knowing we have done wrong? Who could love us, wretches that we are? Who can save us from ourselves? We have always desperately needed hopeful, love-inspired answers to those questions, and the Easter story has provided many people with reassuring, encouraging answers over the centuries.

Jesus’s resurrection represents being forgiven and born again. It is okay that we are human and do things we regret. It’s all good. We can start anew. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” is a popular saying because we need reassurance that all is not lost when our shame and despair is trying to convince us to give up. We can summon up our courage and keep trying if we know there’s a loving spirit, a divine presence, guiding and supporting us.

I personally don’t have a lot of faith in sacrificial lambs and placating angry father gods, but I don’t think that’s what the Easter story is really about. I think it’s a story that was meant to illustrate the power of love and compassion, the happiness that comes with forgiving and being forgiven, and the transformation that is possible when we have the courage to create a new and better tomorrow.

The beauty of stories is that we can interpret them in different ways

based on what we have experienced and where we are at developmentally.

We can learn by listening to how different people understand the same story.  For example, in my younger years I didn’t like seeing the bloody images of Jesus on the cross with thorns on his head. I couldn’t figure out why people would like to see a disturbing image of suffering and pain. I liked the painting I’d grown up with in my church of a well-groomed Jesus in a beautiful field with cute little children and fluffy white lambs surrounding him.

Then I talked to people whose lives had been filled with bloodshed and thorns of some kind and became enlightened. The image of Jesus suffering on the cross was beautiful to them, not because they liked to see anyone suffer, but because it represented the empathy of a divine being who was willing to sacrifice himself for them. Jesus had been willing to feel their pain. He had been betrayed, unfairly judged, and crucified. He was part of a beleaguered population that was being oppressed by a powerful empire. He suffered and knew anguish and he genuinely realized how hard it is to be human. While enduring the excruciating pain of crucifixion, Jesus was still able to ask that his crucifiers be forgiven because, as he said from the cross, “They know not what they do.”

The people I talked to were comforted and reassured by the Easter story because it illustrated to them that God gets it. God realizes life on earth is hard and we need lots of love and support from the Divine along the way so we can become better people.

I have listened to people who have been transformed by the Easter story because the meaning it held for them was that Jesus, God, really loved them. It’s a wonderful thing to feel loved and some of the people I talked to had never felt anyone cared about them. It was good news that Jesus was willing to die a painful, humiliating death on the cross because he loved them so much.  It was life changing to learn Jesus didn’t care about what they’d done – whether it was good or bad. He didn’t care what other people thought of them or what shameful thoughts or deeds they may be hiding about themselves.

The love that transformed them had to do with compassion, mercy, and hope for a new and better tomorrow. It freed them from worries about judgment and abandonment and allowed them to forgive themselves and whoever and whatever else needed forgiving.

May your Easter be filled with the peace, hope, and joy that comes when we forgive and are forgiven.

This blog was taken from my book, Being Human Is Hard: Choose Forgiveness, pages 256-259.

Photo by Mitchell Maglio on Unsplash