I didn’t want to show up at church. The black-and-blue marks already beginning to appear up and down my arms documented another night of fighting between my mother and me. I hadn’t slept much and was sure I wasn’t ready to face the shiny, happy people in my church who never seemed to struggle with anything. But I knew that my absence from the Sunday service would raise more questions than not. Reluctantly, I covered up in a long-sleeve shirt and went.
The friendliest woman in the entire congregation greeted me at the door. Becky had a beautiful family. They were so picture-perfect that I felt embarrassed for her to know the kind of family I came from. Her home was always filled with her kids and grandkids, and they matched their outfits each year for their Christmas card photo. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be included on a Christmas card.
As I exchanged hugs with Becky, I did well at concealing the heaviness in my heart and my aversion to being there that morning. As I listened to Becky share her anticipation over her daughter Anna’s upcoming wedding, I felt even more miserable. Anna was her fourth child, and the last one to marry a godly spouse.
“Please pray for Anna,” Becky asked, a slight frown wrinkle forming on her brow. “She’s really struggling.”
I was confused by this request, considering how Becky had just gushed with excitement and joy over Anna’s wedded bliss.
“Anna doesn’t want to lose her last name,” Becky confided. “She doesn’t want to lose that connection to her family heritage.”
I had absolutely no idea how Anna felt. I hated my name—every part of it. Esther seemed too old for a young person, and Fleece represented the brokenness of my father’s side of the family. I had always wanted a different name—beginning, middle, and end. How was I supposed to pray for a good girl who was losing a good name to marry a good man and enter into another good family? It just didn’t sit right with me, and I had no idea what an appropriate response would be. I just smiled and nodded, giving an extra tug at my sleeves to ensure my bruises weren’t showing. I genuinely loved Anna and her family, but I didn’t know if I could put my heart into praying for her. Her situation seemed so vastly different from the abuse I had experienced in my family.
The phrase “there’s always somebody who has it worse” popped into my head, and immediately I was ashamed for thinking it, but I was also angry. Frankly, I wanted what Anna was about to receive—a good name and a bright future. Anna’s lament poured salt on wounds I had still not grieved. I had not yet forgiven God, myself, or my parents for the story I was living, and I was turning that bitterness into resentment toward others.
Breaking Out of the Vicious Cycle
Looking back on this incident now, I feel remorse over my response to Anna’s struggle. I knew then that resentment and jealousy were not who I wanted to be or was created to be, but I felt stuck in those emotions. Frankly, I didn’t even want to have a change of heart that day. But as I’ve studied the language of lament since then, I’ve found there is a prayer that can free us from getting stuck and dragged down by these tricky emotions. This is the prayer for forgiveness. We may not often think about this, but forgiveness—as an honest prayer to God for deliverance—can be a form of lament. In fact, forgiveness would prove to play a leading role in my journey through lament and into healing.
As God walked me through this learning process, it’s as though he shined a flashlight on another way I could have handled this situation with Anna, and countless other situations like it, if only I’d known how to turn to him with my heart laid bare. Without the ability to fully lament, I also had no ability to fully forgive. And without forgiveness, I had no option but to live within my own vicious cycle of pain and bitterness.
I believe forgiveness to be just as much an act of God as his grace is. We need God’s help to forgive, and we need a heavenly perspective to shift our focus off us and back on to God and his help.
Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians use the same root word for “forgive” as the root word for “grace”: charis. We can live compassionately, “forgiving [charizomai] each other, just as in Christ God forgave [charizomai] you” (Eph. 4:32). And we can “bear with each other and forgive [charizomai] one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave [charizomai] you” (Col. 3:13).
I am convinced we cannot forgive offenses without first lamenting those offenses appropriately. We need the grace of God, the example of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit to help us look favorably upon a person who has wronged us. And we first need to lament the wrong that has been done to us.
We forgive for a simple, yet powerful reason: God has forgiven us. “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matt. 6:14). The Greek word used here for “forgive” is aphiēmi, and at the heart of its meaning is “to send.” Forgiveness simply means “to send away,” “to release,” “to permit to depart.” It means giving up our offense to God for him to deal with justly and letting go to experience his freedom. But when we harbor hurtful feelings inside of us without working to let them go, this bitterness will bring wreckage by raging in our hearts. Lament is what we need to release these hurts through forgiveness, so they can stop harming us.
Forgiveness is a process of releasing our laments to God. It is feeling the weight of what this person did to cause you harm, taking this offense directly to God, and telling him exactly how it made you feel. We have to lament it, not forget it, in order to move forward.
This kind of letting go is complex and takes time, so forgiveness is rarely a one-time event. Rather, it is a practice and a process that will unfold in layers over time. What’s more, God gives us grace for this process.
As we practice getting real about our hurt and giving it over to God, something else begins to happen. We begin to change. Part of the process of forgiveness is watching God change our hearts toward the person who hurt us. Forgiveness is not excusing what they did—to the contrary, it’s calling an offense an offense, and then surrendering the burden of carrying this offense to God, who deals justly. But it is calling out the offense to God—to his ears—instead of gossiping, slandering, and harming our offenders.
We are changed through the process. Our load is lightened as we release our hurt to a God who heals. Our hearts are renewed. Our minds, finally, are freed from the poison of resentment.
Angry, Crushed . . . and Finally Free
For me, when the abuse was going on, whether verbal or physical, I coped by simply not feeling. It seemed the best place to be. But numbing the pain didn’t make it go away; it just meant I was under anesthetic. Jesus forgave others not by ignoring their sin but by lamenting it. Maybe there was something to learn in that for me too.
Eventually I allowed myself to cry and not hold back. I was angry that God had given me a mother who hated me so much and that I was crushed by the weight of feeling unloved. There were so many layers to the offense I felt, which also meant there were layers of forgiveness I would have to work through. But God helped me through. He knew I wanted to release this offense, and he knew I needed help.
In the case of my parents, I found I actually had to lament many times for some of the offenses. But as soon as I started seeing lament as a pathway toward healing, I realized I didn’t have to dread those long, sleepless nights of pain, because I discovered that joy and release did eventually come in the morning. When I passed through the lament instead of skipping over it, God lifted my burden of my resentment and helped me begin to birth something new. Something that felt like freedom.
Esther Fleece is the author of No More Faking Fine and is an international speaker and writer on millennials, faith, leadership, and family. She was recognized by Christianity Today as one of the “50 Women You Should Know.” Taken from No More Faking Fine by Esther Fleece. Copyright © 2016 by Esther Fleece. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.
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