Do I Have To?
By NANCY PATRICK
Has anyone ever so deeply hurt, angered, or wronged you that you could not get beyond it? The idea of forgiveness made you laugh, not with humor but with a sarcastic sneer. I hate to confess, but I have felt this way on more than one occasion. I know the depth of pain, rage, and bitterness that can accompany the refusal to forgive. I also know the damage this cancerous hatred does to a soul.
The desire for revenge (vengeance) permeates society. We see physical manifestations of it in violence all around us. Someone once said, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” The movie industry makes millions of dollars each year by producing movies in which victims find the perpetrators who have wronged them, exacting “justice” on these villains. Of course, we like to call it justice rather than revenge because it sounds better, but truthfully, we love seeing the tables turned on evildoers. Movies such as The Equalizer, Man on Fire, and The Brave One provide a catharsis not only for the movie’s characters but also for audience members who identify with the victims.
Southern writer Pat Conroy, author of the best-selling novel Prince of Tides, wrote a less-known novel, South of Broad, that made an indelible impression on my heart. Conroy, much like William Faulkner, had a love/hate relationship with the South. Those who grew up south of the Mason Dixon Line easily relate to the family dysfunction that seems to permeate Southern society. Much of the dysfunction stems from unhealthy, unresolved relationships grown in the fertile soil of Southern secrecy. Although I speak from personal experience, I realize that not everyone from the South experienced the same emotional turmoil that plagued my life.
A passage from South of Broad struck me like a slap in the face as I remembered similar experiences from my past. Although the novel has graphic language, it contains a lot of truth about human relationships and our relationships with God. As the narrator delivers a meal to a homebound AIDS victim, he discovers the body of a twenty-year-old boy alone in a shabby apartment. He looks at the beautiful young man and sees a letter from the boy’s parents, farmers from Stuart, Nebraska. The narrator feels justified in reading the letter since no one else can bear witness to this boy’s death. Tears stream down his cheeks as he reads the following passage from the parents:
The father writes, “Faggot. If you are dying as you claim, I declare it God’s will. That you have been something foul and unclean in the eyes of God is no surprise. It is Bible written and Bible promised. I would not send you a penny I made from working on my farm. May God have mercy on your soul. I have none. Your father, Olin Satterfield.”
After finishing the father’s letter, the narrator opens and reads from the mother, “Dearest Aaron, this hundred-dollars is the last of the nest egg I have saved since the day I married your father. I don’t know what he would do if he found out I’d been sending you money all this time. I wish I could be beside you right now, taking care of you, cleaning up for you, making sure you were eating right, holding you and telling you stories you used to love as a child. I kiss you now, and it carries all my love and all the hurt I feel for you. By the power of prayer, I believe that Jesus will cure you. He died on the cross for people like you and me and especially for people like your father. Your father loves you as much as I do, but his stubbornness won’t let him feel it. At night, he wakes up crying and it has nothing to do with the wheat or the cows. I love you as much as Jesus does, Mom.”
My own tears comingled with the narrator’s as I read the father’s hateful condemnation of his own son. I also noted the discernment in the mother’s words. She knew her husband’s attitude stemmed from a broken heart, shattered dreams, and systemic judgment found in some religions. Many of us suffer from these afflictions. Consider families who have lost loved ones to a drunk driver, a high school girl raped by a coach, a young boy molested by a priest, a betrayed spouse, a bitter divorce, or any number of situations where we have lacked power against a stronger force.
When someone has wronged us, we have a strong inclination to avenge the injustice. However, God does not want us to spend our time and energy on vengeance but rather on learning to forgive. The Greek word for forgiveness, aphiami¸ means to wipe away, let go, or release. The ability to forgive comes from God and is neither easily achieved nor understood. Forgiveness involves acknowledging our hurt rather than pretending it did not happen. This does not mean we condone the offense, but it does mean we face reality honestly and responsibly. Although we need to forgive the offenders—if not for their sakes, then for ourselves—we do not forget what has happened. Attempting to restore a relationship to its former status would, in some cases, result in disaster.
We forgive to heal ourselves and restore our relationship to God. Some people misunderstand the nature of forgiveness as Matthew 18 advises forgiveness in an unlimited fashion (70X7). Forgiveness does not mean we should allow others to abuse us without consequences; rather, it implies that forgiveness of others’ abuses brings us closer to God.
Forgiveness also implies that we set healthy boundaries to protect ourselves from “mean” people, those whose baseness robs them of honor, integrity, or generosity of spirit. Bitterness and anger can consume and destroy us as they become our idols. Forgiveness means that I value my relationship with God more than my desire for revenge. Ridding my soul of the urge for revenge is the most difficult thing I attempt to do in my spiritual journey.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing