“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’” –Matthew 18: 21-22 (NIV)
I had to see a new doctor recently, and of course, with new doctors comes the dreaded ‘new patient paperwork.’ Although it’s definitely a pain, it’s not usually too difficult. I flew through the beginning— name, address, phone number, email, reason for coming in.
And then I got to “Parental History.” You know, the part where you have to list every health trouble your parents had, whether they are living or deceased, and, if applicable, the cause of death.
The paternal side is easy: unknown.
The maternal side is more complicated: high blood pressure – check. High cholesterol – check. Other – check (Please specify – brain aneurysm). Deceased – check.
Cause of death…murder.
Even after 16 years, it’s still hard to name. So many emotions and memories still surface around this monumental event in my life.
My grieving process has been a journey—a long journey. And a huge part of the process was forgiveness. The Bible has a lot to say about that topic, so knowing that I would one day need to tackle the task of forgiving myself, my mother, and the two women who murdered her, I decided to listen to what Jesus tells us about forgiveness. The verse that played repeatedly in my mind came from Matthew, right after the Lord’s prayer.
“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Matthew 6:14-15 (NIV)
Yikes! I know I need forgiveness from God. So I needed to make sure I could extend forgiveness.
There’s so much that went into this, but as I look back on it, there were some things that really helped me along the way. I’d like to tell you about them, but keep in mind that although it may seem simple, this process actually took many years and a whole lot of emotional and spiritual work. What’s listed here isn’t necessarily a step-by-step process, and your journey to forgiveness may look and feel very different than mine. My hope is that you will take from this what seems helpful for you as the timing feels right.
1. I reframed the way I was thinking.
I knew I needed to see the women who killed my mother as human beings. This is no easy task, especially when someone has done something to you that has caused so much pain that you feel like you can’t go on.
But everyone has a story.
So instead of referring to them as “offenders,” I said their names. I acknowledged that they were someone’s daughter. I thought about the circumstances around their childhood and adult life that would lead up to the events that took place before, during and after my mom’s death. Through this process, little by little, I began to see them as humans instead of monsters. Although this didn’t give me any answers, I began to feel empathy and compassion.
2. I stopped asking why.
I was constantly bombarded by a million questions that ran through my head over and over again; questions that had no answers:
Why would they do this?
Why did this happen?
Ultimately, I had to consider whether knowing the answers to my questions would change my feelings about the situation. Logically, I knew that the why would never make the act okay. After all, “Do not murder” is definitely on the list of Ten Commandments. There would never be an answer that was sufficient or comprehensible.
And although so many well-meaning people told me that “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” I knew that this death – this horrific act, this terrible tragedy – was not of God. It was a direct result of the choices of three individuals, which had a huge impact on my life and the lives of many others.
Knowing all of that, I had to come to terms with the fact that there are things in this life that I will never know or understand. That’s true for all of us. But I found comfort in the fact that God was with me through it all.
3. I accepted that sin is sin.
Although I’ve never had any issues understanding that I am a sinner, this one was hard. As much as we might want it to, the Bible does not provide a hierarchy of sin. It doesn’t rank one worse than the other. But we do. So while society may tell me that I am better, that my sins are not as great, this line of thinking is dangerous and was not helpful for me throughout my journey. So I decided to put my sin in the same category as theirs. I know I fall short and need God’s grace and forgiveness every day. No, I am not a murderer, but I am a sinner. And God loves ALL sinners.
Romans 5:7-8 reminds us that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Through his death, Jesus demonstrated God’s love for us even though we continually fall short.
4. I stayed grounded in God’s Word and in spiritual practices.
Prayer, accountability in Christ and meeting with my Small Group were a must for me and helped me stay on track. I kept Scripture and truths close in my mind and would repeat them to myself and sometimes even out loud. Some of my favorites are Philippians 4:6-7, Isaiah 41:10 and Proverbs 3:5-6.
Every time I felt like I was in a good place – that I had fully forgiven – something would happen. First it was an appeal request. Then it was the airing of a national tv show. And then there was the probation hearing. Each time something came up, I felt a little more mentally and emotionally exhausted. I had a family to take care of, and I wanted to be present for them. I wanted to move on with my life as much as I possibly could.
I decided to try and pray for the women who killed my mother. In addition to those prayers, over and over I prayed and asked God how many times I would have to go through this process of forgiveness. And over and over, God gave me the verses in Matthew: “…not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” I knew I needed to continue on as many times as it took to genuinely feel it in my heart and declare it with my mouth.
5. I sought spiritual guidance.
I found that talking to a Pastor was helpful as well. In the midst of working on forgiving, I sat down with Pastor Brian Hughes and asked him to show me in the Bible where it explains how I could know for sure if I had fully forgiven. I wanted a checklist (I always love a good list!) of things to cross off so I could truly know.
But of course those Bible verses I was hoping for don’t exist, and Brian and I had a good laugh and a good conversation. But he helped me work through some things and when I left, I had an idea: I decided to write the women a letter. It was hard, but very freeing. To this day, I still have no idea if they ever read it. But I hope they did, and I hope that they can turn to God.
Every once in a while, I still question whether or not I have in fact conquered forgiveness towards the women who took my mother’s life. And then the Lord reminds me, seventy-seven times. “Okay Lord, got it.” I have confidence in where I am on this journey. Being able to forgive has allowed me to grieve my mom and her death in a way that I didn’t even know I needed.
Although it’s difficult for me to share this story, I do so in the hope that it will be helpful to you in your own journey of forgiveness. God calls us to be His hands and feet and promises to guide us and be with us through it all. Without that promise, there’s no way I could stand where I do now. As Pastor Brian said on Sunday, in the process of offering forgiveness to others, God offers freedom to us. May you find that freedom not seven times, but seventy-seven times.