“To err is human, to forgive, divine.” – Alexander Pope
In 1968, as a naïve Ohio farm girl, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. From the moment I told my parents I was in love with him, my father did everything in his power to make me forget him. He took me out of college and made my life difficult for several years. When I married Ben anyway and sent baby pictures of our first child, my father returned them with a scathing letter. There was a lot to forgive.
In 1971, Ben and I attended the funeral of my father’s sister who had befriended us when we were newly married. It was the first time I saw my parents in four years. As I watched my aunt’s casket lowered into the grave, I was starkly reminded of the brevity of life. I walked over and put my arms around Mom. We both started crying as I said, “I’ve missed you.” Later, in a corn stubble field next to the cemetery, there was a heated discussion with all the relatives to hear. Here’s how I remembered the incident in my new memoir.
Excerpt from Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl & the African Chief
“As tempers cooled, it was agreed that Ben and I could visit Mom and Dad for Thanksgiving. Back home in my kitchen, I cried and prayed, “Lord, You know I can’t forgive them for all they’ve done to me. I want to, but I can’t on my own strength. I need Your help.” As a guarantee of faithfulness on my part, I walked down to the basement, took out the file folder of Dad’s hate letters, and threw them in the trash. I knew I had to let the past be past.
We pulled into the lane of the new ranch house Dad had built when I was in the 6th grade, a quarter mile from the old farmstead. With its central heat, painted walls, and modern bathroom, it was a palace compared to the old farmhouse we lived in when we first moved to Ohio. However, the yard’s trees, which were just twigs, couldn’t compare with the stately elms at the old place. Even so, our tabletop farmland at the new house teemed with wildlife—crayfish in the creek, iridescent pheasants in the fields, crickets serenading the summer nights, and an occasional deer hopping out of the line fence, a row of shrubs and trees that separated the fields. I loved sitting in our swing at the end of the day, looking over the summer fields and peaceful sunset in the broad sky, the air sweet with hay, wheat, or corn.
Driving up to the garage door, I noticed Mom and Dad had landscaped the place while I was gone, and the trees had filled out. At the kitchen table, you could have reached out and grabbed the tension in the air. Dad wouldn’t look directly at us; his eyes remained focused on his plate. His body was stiff, his jaw tight, his words brief. Mom tried to soften things by making small talk.
That Blessed Pump
That Thanksgiving weekend was unusually cold. It was late when Ben and I settled into bed in my old bedroom, relieved to be by ourselves. We didn’t want to talk. We needed sleep.
It was not to be. From the bathroom, I heard Mom yell to Dad, “Honey! I think the pump’s frozen!”
Immediately Ben got up and started putting on his clothes.
Puzzled, I said, “What are you doing? You don’t know anything about pumps.”
He answered quietly but firmly, “If I can help, I will. If not, I’ll keep him company in the barn.”
The next morning, we asked my parents for their forgiveness. Dad said, “It’s not up to us. You’ve got to meet with the pastor. Call for an appointment.” We drove to the church to face the music in silence. The pastor sat behind his desk, just as he had done four years earlier when he insisted I give Ben up. After an awkward pause, he said to us, “It’s up to you and your parents. If they forgive you, the church has no argument.”
We went back to the house feeling like a hot potato. Maybe no one wanted to forgive us. However, that Sunday, we were allowed to take communion. During church, the congregation realized that reconciliation had taken place, not only with Mom and Dad but also with the body of Christ. After the service, everyone stood in the center aisle as usual, quietly waiting to shake the pastor’s hand as they filed out. When we reached the narthex and later the church steps, no one spoke to us, although they visited with each other. They probably didn’t know what to make of us. Still, reentering my home church was a big milestone.”
Do you want mercy in your life? Then you must extend it to others. I know from personal experience that it’s tough to forgive. You must will yourself to do it and ask God to help you. I knew I had to do it and I’ve never regretted it. I became reunited with my family and our three boys grew up loving their grandparents and vice versa.
None of us are perfect. We hurt other people, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. We’re selfish, self-centered creatures. Sometimes, we fail those we love. As a result, refusing to forgive others when they offend us isn’t an option. No relationship can survive without forgiveness, especially a close relationship.
If someone wounded you in the past, don’t let them keep harming you. If we carry the burden of being offended and refuse to let it go, it will crush us. Refusing to forgive gives power to the one who hurt you. You’re fuming. Your stomach’s churning. While you’re stewing, you’re not even on their radar screen.
God sometimes asks us to humble ourselves first. It’s painful. It’s wrenching. It doesn’t feel good. Jesus said to overcome evil with good. Refusing to forgive is evil. Forgiving is good.
There are minor insults and there are huge, devastating agonies that last a lifetime. There are evil people who take lives, destroy lives. It’s daunting to know that it doesn’t matter how grave the wrong against you, how deep the pain, or how devastating the result. Jesus still asks us to forgive as He forgives us.
It was excruciatingly painful for Jesus to forgive us. It required His suffering and death as payment for all our wrongdoings. In light of this, is forgiving others too much for Him to ask? It’s incredibly challenging for us to see ourselves as others see us. It’s not too much to take the log out of our own eye to see the speck in our brother’s eye. After all, who’s got the log and who’s got the speck?
Even if we are the innocent party in the offense, we have no right to refuse to forgive. Jesus was the only One who suffered for all the sin in this world and He was completely innocent. If God can forgive you for the unimaginable amount of wrongs and failures you’ve committed in your lifetime, how can you refuse to extend mercy to others?
We do all the sinning. Jesus does all the forgiving. He calls us to do the same and He has every right to do so.