Thursday, January 29, 2009
The Power of Forgiveness
What about the circumstances of life when bad things happen to "good" people? Frequently, the Lord does things that stretch my understanding of who He is and how He works. But in Christ we gain the ultimate picture of God; not an answer man, but a man who answers when the need arises. His answers, though, are not always what we expect. He gives us the wisdom and power to deal with our troubles; He does not always tell us why the troubles happened in the first place. For good reason Sally could not understand why men had raped her many times during her early teens. But an abusive father participated and even permitted it (by his friends), and a passive wife, fearful of losing her marriage, ignored it. Even Sally's older brothers had attacked her. The anguish of Sally's vain attempts to resist, of the physical and emotional pain that followed, showed in the tears pouring down her checks as she described the horrors. Now in her forties, her life felt shattered. She wanted inner wholeness from the very depth of her being, but that wholeness seemed to elude her. What I am about to say is something that doesn't often happen until several counseling sessions have taken place. It's also something that most counselees rebel against deeply. I never offer it lightly, nor as a panacea that will supposedly cure everything. But at times, I see it as the essential ingredient for spiritual health. It's the issue of forgiveness. In many cases, the things separating a Christian from God's peace is a simple act of forgiveness, wiping the slate of an abuser or tormentor clean. That's not to give the offender an easy way out, but to lead the counselee to find true freedom and to honor God by keeping His command that we forgive others. I have never found an easy way to say it to anyone, because often the horrors some people have perpetrated on others are truly unconscionable. But that is probably why forgiveness is the only way out-because no amount of restitution, confession of sin, or "doing good to make up for the bad" can rebuild a wounded soul. As my counseling session with Sally progressed, I decided to open up the issue of forgiveness. In Sally's case, one of her abusers was her father. I knew this would make forgiveness especially difficult. But I tried to say as gently as I could, "I believe the only way you can truly find freedom and peace in the midst of this atrocity is to forgive your father first." Sally immediately screamed, "I can't forgive him, what he did was awful." After I calmed her down, we talked about this a length and her response remained the same. I wasn't sure what to do, but she knew Jesus and I did, too. I have learned in such situations that having Jesus at our right hand is the greatest source of help, hope, and healing. He is truly the "Wonderful Counselor" of Isaiah 9:6. Thus, in counseling, I sometimes just try to introduce the counselee to (or remind the counselee of) this friend. With Sally, I stopped and simply prayed aloud, "Lord Jesus, please show my sister how she can forgive those who have so deeply wounded her." I have seen Jesus care for such people in a deeply tender and personal way beyond anything I could conjure up with words. In the moments that followed my prayer, the Lord spoke to Sally's heart and directed her attention to the wonderful truth that He understands us even when we don't, as He did with Paul in the story of the thorn in his flesh (see 2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Sally told me in that instant light seemed to flood her heart, and she saw something in her mind's eye that opened her spirit to this truth. She said, "Jesus showed me His cross. I was hanging on the cross with Him and those who abused me were standing around the cross. In my spirit I heard Jesus say, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Her voice broke and she said, "I knew then that because I was crucified with the Lord Jesus, I , in Him, had the ability to forgive all of those people." It was a remarkable picture I know only God can give, but I have seen it in counseling many times. Christ our friend gives us just the right piece of wisdom and strength to do what must be done. It was then that Sally, by God's grace, could forgive-every one of her abusers. She told me, "As I forgave my abusers, God's peace and joy rushed into my heart." She hadn't been able to do it on her own willpower, but as the power of the Holy Spirit and her new understanding of what Jesus did on the cross filled her mind and heart, she was set free. Jesus became Sally's Jehovah Shalom, "the Lord is peace." I have found over and over that even when we don't completely understand the reasons behind certain pain in our lives, Christ can open our minds and give us His understanding. That is often all we need. Something else happened in the counseling room that day. As Sally vividly described what the Lord was showing her, I also gained a new understanding of the Cross. I saw that because I am crucified with Christ, I have the same ability (through the power of the Holy Spirit) to forgive others as Christ does. When we forgive, we defeat Satan's grasp upon us through fear and bitterness. It's almost shameful to admit, but sometimes my counselees offer me the very counsel I need to solve a problem in my life. Prior to my session with Sally, there was one person whom I could not forgive. I had prayed, released, and scripturally done everything I know to do from a counseling standpoint. Yet there was still some bitterness in my heart toward this person. As Sally quoted Jesus, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do," it was as though I suddenly understood forgiveness on a new level in my heart, I spoke the words in my soul, "I forgive, Lord," and with astonishing force the bitterness melted away and a new love for this person took its place. I have found that God burns biblical truth into my heart by trials, pressure, meditation the Word, and time. That day, the Holy Spirit used a vivid picture of the cross to do a permanent work in the depth of my being. It's amazing it works that way, but I can tell you with real fervency that it is true. Jesus can even work in a melodic an calculating counselor's heart now and then! Remember, this battle we have entered is terrible. There are casualties on every side, and sometimes it seems as if Satan is winning on every front. But the greatest source of strength, understanding, personal integrity, holiness, and victory is there, in Jesus our friend of friends. He promises to be there no matter where we are or what we're facing. That is to me, both as a counselor and as a Christian, the bedrock truth of fighting back the forces of evil in this world. Truly, without Him, we can do nothing. But with Him, nothing is impossible. Dr. Ken Copley is available for counseling, conferences, and local church meetings.