Growing up in the church, there were certain stories that were repeated often enough that I could give an overview, potential lessons, and memory verses for each one without the hint of a pause. It wasn't until I began to study for myself that I realized that many of the stories I thought I knew so well had been mangled, twisted, and forced to fit into a predecided idea of what they should teach, rather than what they actually did.
One such story is often referred to as, "Jonah and the Whale." Countless Sunday school lessons had explained that the people of Nineveh were such violent, sinful people that Jonah was overcome by fear when God commanded him to preach to them. Jonah allowed this fear to overpower his faith, and he ran away. After God gave Jonah a display of his power and desire for obedience, Jonah preached to the people of Nineveh as he was told. In response, they repented of their sins. So, you see children, you should always hold on to your faith in God, because his power is greater than the things you fear.
That's a nice, sound moral and all, but this is not a story that teaches it. Jonah's reason for running is not explained until the last chapter of the book, but it would have been fairly obvious to anyone living during that time. At that point in history, Israel was split in two: the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. The Southern Kingdom was made up primarily of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin and, appropriately, took on the name Judah. The Northern Kingdom was made up of the rest of the tribes and kept the name Israel.
Jonah was a prophet of the Northern Kingdom. Although he could not have known it without supernatural revelation, the kingdom of Assyria would one day conquer his kingdom. What he most certainly did know was that Assyria was one of Israel's greatest enemies. Nineveh, the city that God commanded Jonah to go to, was an incredibly important city to Assyria, serving at times as its capital. God told him to cry out in judgment against the city, yet Jonah fled to Tarshish, a city far away from his divine destination. Towards the end of the story, we are given an explanation:
And he prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster."
He knew that God would forgive the Ninevites if they repented, and he didn't even want to give them the chance. Jonah hated them so much that he was willing to abandon his position as a prophet of God if it meant they might be destroyed.
I turned my life over to God when I was fifteen, but I actually felt his pull on my spirit for at least a year before that. My two greatest barriers were that:
- I couldn't comprehend how God didn't outright hate me, much less actually love me.
- I understood what it meant for Jesus to not only be my savior but my lord.
Surrendering to his lordship meant allowing him to make the rules, obeying his laws and commands. That was going to be hard enough in general, but impossible when you brought in what he had to say about forgiveness.
I knew the parable of the unforgiving debtor. He owed his king ten thousand talents, each worth about what he would make from twenty years of work. He had no hope of ever being able to pay back any significant portion of his debt and begged for mercy. His king took pity and offered complete forgiveness of the debt. Afterward, this forgiven debtor found someone who owed him one hundred denarii, each worth about what he would make from a day's work. More than three months' salary is a large amount of money, but it was nothing compared to the debt he had been forgiven of. He grabbed the man and had him thrown into debtors prison. The king, upon learning of this man's actions, became so enraged that he had the formerly forgiven debtor thrown into debtor's prison, himself.
I knew that accepting Jesus as my lord and savior meant that I would have to forgive Joe. I had been told my entire life that hating my biological, earthly father didn't hurt him, only me. But I knew better. I would make it hurt him. From an early age, I made the skeleton of a plan: I would get a job as young as I possibly could and save up; when I turned eighteen, I would use that money to leave home; I would track Joe down, make him beg for his life, then make him beg for the release of death. Forgiving him was not something I was prepared to do.
But at fifteen, that pull became irresistible, the work that God was doing undeniable. I turned my life over to him and began to help in the children's ministry of my church. But there was still this tension between what I knew I was commanded to do and my inability to do it. As far as I was concerned, God might as well have commanded me to fly around and breathe fire, because I had just as much understanding of how to make that happen as I had about how I was supposed to forgive Joe.
How was I supposed to feel better about him abusing drugs, his wife, and his children? How was I supposed to feel better about his rejection? How was I supposed to feel better about him not being there to protect me when others came to hurt me?
I would pray and ask for God to show me how, but the truth was that I was comfortable in my ignorance. I liked having an excuse for why I was holding on to my hatred. God knew that, but he still decided to answer my prayers. In this case, he gave me direction through a book that I stole. (Obviously, unforgiveness was not the only issue he needed to address.)
I was at a youth convention called Acquire the Fire. The speaker had just finished his message and started talking about a book he had just published. Copies of the book were passed around the arena. If we wanted to keep it after skimming through it, we were supposed to hold on to a copy instead of passing it on. A few minutes later, buckets were passed around. If we kept a book, or just felt like donating, we could put the money for it in there. If someone wanted the book but didn't have the money for it, they could just pass the bucket along without a second thought.
Looking back, I'm really impressed with that setup. Even if someone didn't have the money, they could get the book if it would help them. Even better, it didn't shame them for not having enough to pay. Back then, though, all I heard was, "I get a free book." I had the money to pay; I just didn't want to.
I kept the first copy that reached me and opened up to a random page. The chapter heading was "Forgiveness." The first sentence was all in bold and uppercase letters. It might have been underlined, for good measure. It was obvious that this sentence was supposed to be important. It said, "Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling." When the bucket came to me, I was still rereading that sentence. I passed the bucket on and fixed my eyes back to the page.
I never did read the rest of that book. I'm not entirely sure where it ended up. But that single sentence was used to impact my life powerfully. The thought had somehow evaded me, but now I couldn't escape it. "Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling." The words flashed across my mind constantly.
The following Wednesday night, as the youth pastor was closing our service in prayer, I bowed my head to say a different one. "Lord, I choose to forgive Joe." Imagine how devastated I was the next day when my hateful thoughts returned. There must be something wrong with me. I chose to forgive him, but I still haven't forgiven him. Was I lying to myself when I said it?
Then Peter came to him and asked, "Lord, how often should I forgive my brother who sins against me? Seven times?"
"No, not seven times," Jesus replied, "but seventy times seven!"
I knew this exchange. I had heard constant lessons about it growing up. But for the first time, I began to think that maybe it didn't just apply to someone who commits different sins against you, but also forgiving someone multiple times for the same sin. I did my best to push away the hateful thoughts and prayed, "Lord, I choose to forgive Joe." I was determined to forgive him until it felt like it was true.
That was my prayer for a few months, but it didn't seem to be helping. Every time I thought of my father, I would feel so much hatred and resentment still. Then I received some advice.
"But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you."
I couldn't think of anyone who had cursed me more than my earthly father, so my prayer became, "Lord, I choose to forgive Joe. I pray that you would b... I pray that you would bless him." I struggled to even say it, at first. It felt like I was betraying myself and my family to pray for the good of a man that had hurt us all so badly. Stronger than my disgust was my desire for Jesus to truly be the lord of my life. This remained my prayer for another few months with similar results.
One day, something made me think of my father, I was instantly filled with angry, bitter, hateful thoughts, and I prayed, "Lord, I choose to forgive Joe. I pray that you would bless him." In response, "What would blessing him look like?" So I got more specific: "I pray that you would save him and show him that he needs you. I pray that you would help him to become the man you created him to be instead of the man he chose to become."
Every time I thought of my father, I would pray specific blessings over him and his life. I don't know how long I did that. But one day, I realized that I no longer had to push away those vengeful thoughts. My heart, and feelings, toward my earthly father had fallen in line with my obedience to my heavenly Father and the lordship of Jesus. Let me be clear: none of this makes what he did right or okay. But it did make me free.
When I was eighteen, I found Joe and contacted him for the first time in thirteen years. After more than a year of building trust and establishing boundaries, I visited him in Michigan in December of 2005. We had some frank conversations about some prickly issues. He told me that God had captured his heart, renewed his mind, removed the perversion from him that had caused him to abuse us. I left Michigan filled with joy: my hope of being able to have a healthy relationship with my earthly father was fulfilled.
Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.
The next Wednesday night, I was at Trinity Chapel getting some things done before youth started. My phone rang; it was one of my sisters. She was crying. The first thing she managed to say was, "Michael, are you alright?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. What's going on? What's wrong?"
"You can't be around Joe. I'm sorry, Michael. He's not safe."
I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. A wave of heat washed over my face. "What happened?"
She only cried in response. I tried to get in touch with my other sister and my mom. When I finally did, no one would give me details. All that I was told was that they were speaking on the phone when Joe said some vile, evil things to my sister. Things that no father should ever say to his daughter but especially when he has a history of abusing her.
I got off the phone with my mom and called Joe. He didn't answer, of course, but his answering machine did. I made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that if he ever came near anyone I loved ever again, I would find him and then no one else ever would.
In the next few days, my anger towards him grew stronger than it ever had been. He had my trust and crushed it. It was new betrayal on top of all the old. There was no way I was going to...
Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling.
"But I had sixteen years of preparation before."
Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling.
"It's different this time. I can't..."
Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling.
In the midst of my renewed anger, bitterness, rage, and wrath, I stopped and said a prayer I hadn't in a long time. "Lord, I choose to forgive Joe. I pray that your will would be done in his life."
Jonah eventually went to Nineveh after some divine intervention involving a storm and a sea creature's digestive fluids. He delivered God's message of judgment against their sin. They repented. Often, that's where the story ends in Sunday school. But Jonah's obedience had more to do with fear than a heart that desired God's will. He became angry that the people of Nineveh would be spared and actually preferred death to living with his actions.
"Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."
Jonah hated the Assyrians more than he loved God and his will. His actions looked obedient from the outside, but the motive was not to align himself with the heart of God. If nothing else, the motive was to avoid being swallowed by another large, aquatic animal. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is better than doing the wrong thing, but it's not God's best. He doesn't want us to follow the letter of a law but the leading of his Spirit.
It's easy to look at that prayer I said and assume that I was acting in obedience. But I knew, and God certainly knew, that when I said, "your will be done in his life," I was really holding onto another verse I knew.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
I wanted Joe to pay. I wanted him to suffer. I wanted him to burn in hell. But I was ashamed of the veil of obedience I used to cover my hatred. I knew that I was allowing my desire for revenge to come before my desire for God's heart. In the following months, my prayer over Joe became that every lie he told to manipulate me would be made true. I prayed that God really would capture Joe's heart, renew his mind, and remove those perversions. My hatred again subsided, my heart again lined up with my obedience, but I'll be completely honest: for a long time, I didn't have anything approaching hope.
May is always a hard month for me. There are a lot of significant anniversaries in a short time. May 9, 1988 was the day that Joe was arrested. May 17, 2004 was the day my name legally became Michael Caleb Liam Garrett. May 17, 2010 was the day I learned that my father not only had cancer but had lost his battle with it. I don't know what condition his heart was in. I don't know what his final destination was going to be when he left this earth. But there are a few things I do know:
- I have hope that, when I enter eternity, I will see my father purified and perfected in the light and love of our mutual heavenly Father.
- Even if that doesn't happen, it has no impact on the mercy and goodness of God.
- The forgiveness of Joe's sins wasn't the point of my forgiving him.
The point is: if we are going to claim Jesus as our lord and savior, it is not our job to decide who is or is not worthy of forgiveness.
...for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God...
No, if we are going to claim Jesus as our lord and savior, that decision has already been made for us. No one is worthy of forgiveness, yet God offers it, anyway. In turn, he expects us to extend forgiveness to others. All that's left for us to decide is whether or not we are going to obey. Because forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling.