My Midnight Heart

Holding a phone

I got a call from a dead person. My heart stopped for a moment while I stared at my phone screen. The name belonged to a woman I’d known for many years. I knew it couldn’t be her, but chills raced down my arms anyway. 

I answered the phone.

The caller was her ex. Before she died, she’d left him because he emotionally brutalized her. But why was he calling me? It turns out he wanted absolution from the death of MY wife. He wanted me to say her suicide wasn’t his fault. 

“YES IT WAS!” It was all I could do not to scream into the phone. I knew it wasn’t his fault, but he and a few others systematically bludgeoned her fragile heart until it was so shattered she couldn’t recover. He deserved every ounce of hell his conscience gave him – and an eternity more. Maybe that would come close to the hell he forced on all of us.

And there it was. One of those crucial moments that rips away the veneer of civility to reveal an internal darkness even I didn’t know was there. No wonder Jesus said it isn’t what goes in your mouth that defiles you; it’s what comes out. What comes out, shows what’s really in your heart. 

The strange thing is, I thought I’d forgiven all of them. If I’d really forgiven, and it’s God’s problem, then why am I angry again? And is it such a big deal if I hold on to just a little bit of anger?

It’s a huge deal. Bitterness is lethal. Mark Twain said resentment is like drinking poison hoping the other guy will die. The offender sleeps like a baby at night while I, the wronged, toss and turn. If it’s killing me (and not them) how do I let it go? 

My first challenge is to recognize when something is festering. Most of the time I Iive with a deep sense of peace and joy, but there are days I’ll drop something on the floor and want to explode, or someone cuts me off on the road and I’m an avalanche of curses. I think that’s a good time to pause and ask myself what’s really going on. The answer is almost always something someone said or did, maybe weeks ago, that’s gnawing a hole in my soul. All it takes is the tiniest piece of resentment and I turn into someone I don’t want to be.

Forgiving can be really hard, especially if the wrongs are big ones. However Ecclesiastes reminds me that anger resides in the hearts of fools. Here are three things that forgiveness isn’t. 

  1. Forgiveness isn’t letting someone off the hook. Chris Brown says it this way: it’s letting them off MY hook and leaving them on God’s. God says, “vengeance is mine and I will repay.” Hmmm. I WILL repay. That helps me feel better. 
  2. Forgiveness for one offense doesn’t only happen once. It’s like weeding; you pull them up and before you know it, they’re back again. If something is really bad, I have to forgive again and again – maybe seventy times seven. Thankfully, there comes a time when it’s finally gone.
  3. Forgiveness isn’t pretending someone can be trusted again. It helps me to imagine they did it to someone else; I don’t have to be personally angry at them for doing it, but I certainly won’t put myself in a position to let them do it to me.

What is forgiveness? It’s a ticket out of hell. Bitterness makes life hell for me and the people around me. But it’s worse than that. In Matthew 6:15, Jesus says one of the most terrifying things in the Bible, “But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” If that person already put me through hell in this life, do I really want them to drag me there in the next one as well? 

How do I forgive when every fiber in my being wants gruesome revenge? Corrie Ten Boom tells us that forgiveness is an act of will. After being tortured in the Nazi death camps she opened a home for victims of Nazi cruelty. She saw that “those who were able to forgive their former enemies were also able to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.”

I’m relieved to say, I didn’t scream at the ‘dead’ caller. Instead, I gripped the phone so hard I thought it would break, and silently screamed toward heaven. HELP ME, GOD! I knew what I needed to do, I just wasn’t sure I could do it. I took Corrie Ten Boom’s advice … and silently forgave him – again. My rage dissolved in a strange, thrilling peace. All of a sudden, I felt only compassion for a man who had lost every material thing: his business, houses, cars, etc. He’d also forfeited every personal connection, children, lover, and business relationships. He’d even lost his hope for the future – he was on his way to prison. Somehow God gave me the words to encourage him, to give him hope that God isn’t looking at how we started our race, but how we finish.