I had the privilege of taking an amazing course at school a couple weeks of ago, entitled Theological Issues in Counselling. Judging by the name of the course, you might not be feeling too jazzed - but the actual content of the class revolved around forgiveness. Forgiveness as a concept, and how it relates to our faith and our practice as therapists - and ultimately, as human beings.
The professor arranged for guest speakers to come in each day and share their stories of forgiveness with us. From a survivor of domestic violence to a former Northern Ireland anti-terrorist police officer to an advocate for restorative justice, we heard deep, impassioned stories of brokenness and forgiveness. But without a doubt, the most impactful story I heard was shared by a beautiful woman who had survived an attempted murder - at the hands of her brother.
At fifteen years old, Karen* had awoken in the middle of the night to her father shaking her and screaming at her to get up. She looked around, confused and disoriented, to see that her house was engulfed in flames. She and her dad escaped the house and when Karen woke up the next morning in the hospital, she was shattered with news that would forever change her life. The authorities told her that during the night, three men had broken in to her family home, beat her and her parents to the point of death, and sadly, had succeeded in murdering her mother. When they finished, they doused the house with kerosene and lit a match, hoping to absolve any evidence of their crime. Karen was then told that her brother and his two friends had been arrested in connetion with the crime. She spent the next six months in hospital recovering, and a few months later, she was miraculously back at school, trying to reorient herself to life once again.
A few years later, Karen was newly married and found herself emotionally revisiting that painful, life-altering experience. She started seeing a therapist and decided that she wanted to forgive her brother. In fact, she had already been in contact with him through letters (he of course was in prison at this point), and her urge to be free from the brokenness her family had experienced compelled her to seek reconciliation. Over time, she ended up connecting with restorative justice consultants (an incredible and healing service provided to victims and offenders - check out www.aarja.org for an idea of the work they do) and eventually met with her brother in person to tell him she loved and forgave him.
Clearly, this story baffles most minds. What would compel anyone to forgive the person who tried to murder them? Who actually murdered their mother? To reach out in love toward the very person who intentionally victimized you and stole from you one of the most important people in your life? Karen described that forgiveness, for her, became the only option. She certainly suffered physically, emotionally, and psychologically (and still does, to some extent) - but on a spiritual level, God touched her and spoke to her about letting go, moving forward, receiving new life. Forgiveness was her act of obedience and faith.
You should know that during this entire testimony, Karen had two of what I assumed to be friends or family members sitting at the sideline. I imagined she brought them for moral support, a familiar and safe presence during a vulnerable and raw time of sharing. When she concluded her presentation, she introduced her entourage to the class - one, her adopted daughter, and the other, her brother. Yes, that brother. You can imagine the stunned silence that filled the room when we all realized that the very man who caused her pain and suffering was sitting right before us the entire time. Victim and perpetrator, side by side. The emotion was palpable. Tears streamed down many students' faces, mine included. I realized at that very moment that never before in my life had I witnessed such a tangible act of mercy and love. Ever. You hear of these great stories of forgiveness, people choosing to see beyond their pain and create something meaningful out of it, but how rarely we see it up close and personal. It was an intense and life-changing moment for me.
I've been thinking a lot about Karen's story and my story and how forgiveness (or a lack thereof) impacts my world, my vision, my heart. I don't have all the answers - I know that life is messy and complex and rarely black or white. We all have our scars and could probably tell a story or two of how we've been wronged or damaged, how it's changed us for good. All I know is that the choice is always ours as to how we respond. For me, I'm aware that I survive only by God's grace - without that constant stream of Forgiveness and Love running through my life, where would I be? Aware that God has forgiven me and continues to love me despite my failings, foibles, and faithlessness, I'm left with the question of how, then, could I not forgive others?
It's not easy living a life that embodies forgiveness. It's more of a journey than a one-time-all-is-well decision, I think. It takes practice, perseverance, courage, and trust. I certainly have my hang-ups and soft spots, and I'm so thankful for people like Karen who show the world that the seemingly impossible is, in fact, possible with Jesus.
*Karen's real name was changed out of respect, since I didn't obtain her permission to tell her story here. However, she does do public speaking and if you're interested in finding out more about her story or inviting her to speak at an event, let me know and I'll forward you her contact information.