“Forgiveness is the gift that tells the story of our hearts.”
I attended church in North Carolina recently where the pastor talked about forgiveness. She had recently read my book, Shattered: Finding Hope and Healing Through the Losses of Life, and was kind enough to share the aforementioned quote with the congregation during her sermon.
Toward the end of the message she said something very profound and thought provoking. It went like this: “Human forgiveness is not about doing something, but about discovering something.” Being the analytical ruminator that I am, I sensed another addendum was soon to be incorporated into my soul concerning the meaning of forgiveness, especially as I struggle to forgive myself for my husband’s suicide.
Previously, I had looked at forgiveness as a one-time event, a decision of the will. Something I had to do because my new nature in Christ is that of a forgiver. I’ve made plenty of decisions of the will to forgive someone. Sometimes it worked immediately, other times it was a process; but forgiving myself for falling short with my husband is still a battle, even a year and a half later. I can still be eaten up with emotional unforgiveness toward myself.
As a clinician, I know that making a decision of the will is only the first part of the forgiveness process. That’s because forgiveness is rooted in the emotions.
When my husband took his life in 2013, I felt responsible. Period. I should have flown home with him the day before from our home in Florida. Then he wouldn’t have been alone that night. I should have seen this coming in spite of what he told me. I shouldn’t have left him. I should have, I should have, and I should have… but no amount of convincing from anyone could make me believe it wasn’t my fault.
I had fallen short for lots of other reasons, but the truth is I was missing a crucial element about forgiveness, the real treasure. As I thought about the quote the pastor used, and the quote from my own book, I realized some things about myself that I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed if I hadn’t been willing to look below the surface.
It’s not so much about the doing of an act — the forgiving. For me, it’s not even about letting myself off the hook for whatever I’m blaming myself for. Forgiveness is about the heart. It’s about me growing in self-awareness. It’s about me understanding what the deeper parts of myself are trying to say about my emotional state and my belief system.
This discovery process helped me to uncover some powerful truths in my own heart. I asked myself some questions: Would I have ever knowingly done anything to hurt my husband? (no) Did I try to lay down my life for him as he struggled with severe depression? (yes) Did I try to get him help? (yes) Did I love him more than life? (yes) Did I believe him when he said he wouldn’t harm himself? (yes) My heart was pure, even though I couldn’t see the future.
Forgiving myself took me on a journey of self-discovery where I was free before the Lord to explore the things that were hindering me from granting myself what God has so freely given me—grace. Something I don’t deserve, but which has been so graciously lavished upon me. If God can forgive me for falling short, why can’t I embrace it?
The answer is simple. I’m afraid and so are you. Matters of the heart are scary. Being vulnerable is scary. When someone hurts us, or when we feel disappointed in ourselves for falling short, we feel anger. But rest assured, underneath the anger lays the softer emotions of hurt, rejection, and sadness.
So if I choose not to forgive myself or someone else, I have to ask if it’s because I’m unwilling to take the painful journey into self-exploration. Am I (are you) willing to peel back the layers of anger and look below the surface to explore those feelings of hurt and the wounds that have caused us to feel this way in the first place?
If we have the courage to do that, we’ll not only learn more about who we are, but we’ll also learn more about who others are, too. We’ll connect on a deeper level with the heart of God as we consider that it is He alone who can meet our deepest needs.
May we have the courage to reach deep inside and discover new things about our heart’s capacity for forgiveness. May we never cease wanting to grow emotionally and spiritually, and may we come to welcome the journey into self-exploration.