“Grace, you’re a pastor.” The thought crosses my mind, poking at my contemptuous spirit. “You’re a pastor. You should forgive. You watch victims forgive people who have done much worse.”
The familiar expectation to be perfect—to be holier than others—begins to weigh on me. But the face of the person who hurt me replays in my mind, his sharp words echo too loudly. The memory that seems to carry on through time, as if it is now a part of me, overwhelms the idea of forgiveness.
Those words, spoken by someone I trusted, cause the seams of my heart to unravel. My soul becomes a swamp where anger, shame and rejection take up residence. And now I am in the desolate place of needing to forgive, an impossible task that I have no desire to accomplish but feel required to.
Resentment spreads like mold in my being, barricading the compassionate part of myself. Whenever I see him—the one who crushed me with a sentence—it takes every ounce of my energy just to make eye contact. I won’t let him see me undone. The casual conversation feels like a foreign language. I can’t locate words. Even when I do find a “hello” and a “how are you” buried within my dilapidated self, I open my mouth and nothing happens. I think things—many things—but say nothing. Why should I move toward someone who has yet to understand the pain they cause me?
“How can you exhort others to forgive their enemies if you can’t even forgive a friend? You need to forgive,” the voice I can’t seem to tune out reminds me.
Religiosity, disguising itself as God, convinces me grace is something to earn, whispers that others won’t accept me if they know my thoughts. As I walk away from the source of love, abiding in what I “should do” and what I “need to do,” the voice of patience and compassion fades—I can barely hear it calling my name.
I follow religiosity down a road adorned by my sin, carrying my imperfections on my back. Until eventually, the weight of competing expectations become too much. I’m tired. Anxiety settles in—the isolation suffocates me.
“I can’t. I can’t do this. I can’t forgive him.”
Forlorn, I look around to see nothing but darkness. How do I find my way back to the light?
I pick up my Bible and eagerly turn the translucent pages to a familiar passage, hoping I will uncover the voice of truth. “The Lord is my Shepherd…”
I have read this psalm many times, recited it, memorized it in second grade for a fabulous prize at Awana. But this time, something is different. This time a gentle voice invites me on a path to shalom.
The Shepherd picks up my face, promising to walk with me. He tells me the journey of forgiveness is familiar to him, and he can show me the way. “When you’re ready,” he assures me.
We begin the long road together—he grabs my hand as I release my fears. We walk alongside a stream; the sound of crackling wind in the trees settles my soul. I start to tire, and he points to the things I still carry—the need for an apology, wanting the person who hurt me to admit he was wrong, the desire to be understood.
“It is time to let go of those,” the Shepherd says.
One by one we lay them down.
“And what about these?” I ask him, revealing the feelings I’ve been dragging tightly behind me—resentment, anger, shame, rejection, and insignificance.
We pause and sit down in the shade by a field of wildflowers. The blades of grass, displaying every shade of green, tickle my feet.
“Tell me the story.”
The invitation to relive the pain gives rise to hesitancy. I’m not sure what to share. But his gentle presence assures me it is safe space, abating my apprehension. Words are slow at first and eventually gain momentum. There is no judgment.
When we reach the most painful parts, he meets me there—the troubled expression on his face reveals that this hurts him too. In this intimate moment, he offers me what I long for. I feel heard, validated, seen, valued and honored. His face wrinkles with a friendly smile—it pleases him that he can give me what I need. But, I’m still unsure if I am ready to let these emotions go. They are a part of me; they protect me.
He encourages me to see something else I carry, something that belongs to me. It is beautiful, loving, compassionate and gracious; it is a peace within me. As he draws near to me, the peace grows; it starts to overwhelm me.
“This is you, Grace. Your truest self.”
Many times I denied it; I failed to see that among the remnants of painful experiences, I was still there—the Grace that loves; the Grace that trusts, pursues and forgives. Somehow everything I was afraid of losing by forgiving now emanates from my core. Light breaks forth from behind the clouds, and truth springs from the ground. My soul is restored.
“Now, tell me, what do you know to be true about this person who hurt you.”
I had allowed myself to believe he was a threat, and so different than me, boiling down his personhood to his white privilege and his inability to see the ways he acted out of that privilege. But he is much more than that.
I remember the kind things he has done—making me cupcakes on my birthday, listening and offering me words of encouragement, praying with me during a difficult season. A memory comes to mind—when he was sick a few months ago—and suddenly I don’t feel as small next to him.
I nod, and we keep walking.
Just on the horizon and at the edge of my gaze a table awaits—it kindly beckons me forward. The blue sky expands over me with opportunity. Hope builds with every step. The cool breeze carries a mist that feels like an anointing, preparing me for reconciliation and a burial of self.
Embracing the vulnerability, I journey to the table. I empty myself, giving everything I have. I keep walking, keep pouring while my cup overflows with an abundance of love.
“Maybe that is the secret,” I think to myself. You can only receive as much as you’re willing to give; can’t breathe in what is possible if you don’t exhale. You can’t heal if you’ve barricaded yourself for protection.
A strong wind builds. It works against me, urging me back to safety, but I continue towards the table. As I progress forward, the same reckless wind peels wounds off my skin and brushes remaining burdens away. My true self emerges from the pain, from the strongholds of victimization.
I sit down at the table—anxiety stirs in my gut as I await the arrival of the person I have allowed myself to despise. What if he doesn’t come? What if he doesn’t understand? The once stirring anxiety, now agonizing fear, induces the impulse to retreat.
But my Shepherd comes to meet me and sits down between the empty seat and me. I realize I have no reason to be afraid. He points behind me, and I turn around to see the journey we walked together. I am no longer a victim held hostage by my own resentment.
I emerged from the pain and began the process that leads to reconciliation. I didn’t wait for an apology or understanding, but by abiding in my Shepherd’s love I was able to trust in the resurrection. The darkness gave way to light; life blossomed out of death. He amended the dry, unforgiving soil of my being and planted wholeness and joy.
Staring at the empty seat, I think to myself, “Maybe I can heal, even if he doesn’t come to the table.”
My Shepherd and I begin to eat together. The warmth of the sun rests on our faces. I lean back, inhale deeply, sending my breath to the empty places were pain used to reside. It is here, in this place, surrounded by his loving faithfulness that I long to be for the rest of my days.
The road ahead no longer seems daunting, the path of forgiveness no longer impossible. Though there will be more pain and many hurts await us, I now know of a place where truth and loving-kindness meet. A place where righteousness and wholeness join hands, and I can trust in the Shepherd who leads me there.
Grace Spencer is working on a Master of Arts in Theology at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, a USMB seminary in Fresno, California. She works as a restorative justice mediator for juvenile offenders and a youth pastor at Neighborhood Church, a neighborhood-focused USMB church plant in downtown Fresno.