A year and a half ago, I published a blog about how I was trying to forgive. The fact it has taken a year and a half to get to this point in my life will attest to the stubborn state of my heart. I share this story because it clearly shows how merciful and patient God can be with us when we are hurting.
I wish I could remember the exact order of events but, with time and trauma, things become blurred and memories blend together. I will piece this together as best I can while staying true to the intent.
Four years ago, I filed for divorce from my husband. I believed the reasons were justified and to this day I can’t believe the road I’ve walked since that day. I marvel at how God has provided and met all of our needs. The day after I filed for divorce, my husband at the time and I met with the pastor of our church. I agreed to the meeting thinking the pastor would offer help and guidance. Instead, he threatened church discipline against me for filing for divorce. He told my spouse that while he had not treated me fairly, and asked him to do better, he still saw the bigger issue of me filing as the sin. Before we left his office, he prayed for my cold heart to be softened. I remember the tears and utter shock. He later emailed the elder board and said my tears were manufactured and I was obviously in sin. The following nine months would be filled with elder meetings, phone calls, and repeated telling of my reasons for filing. It all ended in February of 2018, with a church meeting where I stood and told my reasons for divorce. It was deeply traumatic to face people I thought were friends and have them turn away. I will never understand the way I was treated by people. There was no grace, only judgement by so many, in a very public manner. I was clearly no longer welcome at my church.
After this experience, I endured panic attacks whenever I walked into a church or saw anyone affiliated with that church. I had lost my marriage, my closest friends, my church family, and so much more. The valley was deep and dark, but I kept placing one foot in front of the other and tried to move forward with the grace of God. To be completely transparent, I struggled to survive. The panic attacks left me crying through church when I visited a new church. I often hid in the bathroom and begged God to help me. At one point, I thought I was dying. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. It wasn’t until two friends found me hiding in the bathroom of a church and they explained I wasn’t dying. I was having a panic attack. I went to the doctor and started taking medication to keep the panic attacks from happening. My counselor at the time explained it was PTSD style symptoms from the trauma of what happened at my old church.
I share this with you to explain that the actions of the church left both myself and my children deeply scarred. We all attended counseling for four years in an attempt to process and heal. We did find a new church home and have experienced the grace and love that was so lacking at our former church. This has allowed us to heal. It has taken years for us to feel safe in our church. During which time our new church family has embraced and loved us in a way that truly shows the hands and feet of Jesus.
I will admit I have struggled in a very deep and painful way to forgive the men who so harshly judged and cast us aside. The journey toward forgiveness is what I desire to share with you today in hopes that it will offer some comfort to those following me out of that same dark valley of pain.
There were a series of events that brought me to the point of forgiveness. One Sunday, after we were settled at our new church, I was feeling very anxious and decided to leave right after the message while people sang the final song. I stepped into the lobby and saw the pastor standing there alone. The lobby was empty. It was odd to see him out there right after the message since he usually did the final prayer. He greeted me and I walked over. His piercing blue eyes looked right into soul and he said, “you need to forgive them.” I felt like the air had been sucked from the room. My vision was blurred by the tears filling my eyes. I shook my head, “I can’t.” His reply was, if you don’t forgive them then you won’t heal. At this point, I was desperate to escape. I could feel the anxiety clawing up my throat so I turned and fled before the church service ended and people entered the lobby to see my tears and panic attack. I desperately needed to feel safe.
I sat in my car after speaking with the pastor and cried. How could he say that? I was healing, but it was taking time, why push me into something I clearly wasn’t ready to do? I knew that I was healing, because I was able to sit through church now. For the longest time, I would feel the panic and anxiety creeping in but now I rarely felt it. I could greet Frank, the official church greeter, who resembled someone from the old church. In the beginning, I couldn’t hug him or shake his hand. I would start crying just walking in the from parking lot, so I started parking in the back of the church to avoid him. That’s a whole other blog post, because now I was walking in through the front doors with everyone else and not hide out. I left church that day feeling emotionally spent. I felt like a ship drifting along with the current and not sure where I was heading or what to do.
Several months later, when I was quite good at silencing the voice telling me I needed to forgive, my church held a special prayer service. I went and it was there the Holy Spirit really took hold of me. I was worshiping when I heard the Holy Spirit tell me to forgive. I prayerfully explained it was too much too soon. I had a whole list of reasons why I wasn’t ready to forgive. None of them mattered because when the Spirit of God speaks, you listen, and He was speaking in the parent tone. The tone that sent me to my knees in tears of repentance. I stayed on my knees while I begged God to not make me do this. I remember this moment like it was yesterday and not a year and a half ago. The tears, the feeling of intimacy with God, the gentle but firm tone in which he assured me that He understood but I still had to forgive.
As I knelt in church that night, I prayed and said I forgave the men, but I also was very honest with the Lord. I told him I couldn’t forgive the men, but in an act of obedience I would say the prayer, believing that He would change my heart, and show me how to forgive them. I learned something very valuable that night, God wants our obedience and if we trust Him, He will change us and mold us into something even better.
Perhaps you are struggling to forgive childhood abuse, a sexual assault, the death of a loved one, or a parent who didn’t meet the expectations you so desperately needed acknowledged as a child. Perhaps, it’s a boss who left you emotionally or professionally wounded. We can’t rank one person’s pain over another. All the pain that leads to the inability to forgive is valid.
I can’t tell you the day it happened, because I just continued to pray the same prayer I prayed in church that night. One day, I noticed a change in my heart, it was a slow change, not a drastic change. When I think of them now, I’m not angry but rather indifferent. Their actions no longer hurt me, they make me sad but that’s because of the hurt they inflicted. The anger no longer controls my emotions when I think of those nine months. The hurt is slowly going away, and in it’s place is a compassion for others and love for the Lord. God literally carried me through that valley.
It has taken me years to get to point I’m today. I hope your journey isn’t as long, because the peace that comes with it is so precious and life giving. This past Sunday, a year and a half after the prayer service I mentioned above, I sat in church and listened to a message on authenticity. The Holy Spirit pricked my heart and whispered, “write them a note of forgiveness.” I sat up a little straighter and silently said, “you want me to write them a note?” My tone was more shocked then accepting. I wanted to ask God why but in my heart I knew why. God was bringing me closure.
Sitting in church, I asked, “what do I say? Do I list every offense?” I wanted to obey the prompting but wasn’t sure exactly what to say. The Holy Spirit assured me that I would have the right words, but I could start with I forgive you. So, last Sunday, instead of writing my weekly blog post I sat and wrote note cards for five men. These men thought they were acting in accordance with the scripture. To be honest, they probably still don’t see anything wrong with their actions, but it’s not about them. It’s about me obeying God and doing what He calls me to do. I mailed the letters and the rest of the story is left to God. He will create, move, and conform me more into the best possible version of myself.
I hope this has encouraged you in some small way. I hope these words have assured you that God is with you and He will help you endure the days ahead. I still have more forgiving to do, regarding other situations, so please understand that I type these words as a person who is a work in progress. I don’t have all the answers but I do know what it feels like to feel God at work and I want each of us to walk in that peace.