2016 has not been my favorite year. I can bet many of you feel the same. What started out as a year full of promise, even filled with good things, ended in a kind of mind-numbing disbelief for some and heartbroken pain for others. If you had a picture-perfect holiday and you live in an "everything is beautiful" world, then maybe you won't relate to this post. But perhaps, if you stick with me, you might find something of use for next year or the year after or the next time you are faced with hurt that feels like a sucker punch or leaves your heart bleeding but no one sees. When joy turns to sorrow, and when there is more anger and violence than grace and mercy. Sometimes life cut deep - whatever the cause. Truth is - if I focus on all of the things I count as loss this year or any year, my emotions will close up and I tend to grow a little numb, like someone has hit me too many times until I can't feel any more. Maybe it's our God-given coping anesthetic until we can face our trial--whatever that may be. And trials, struggles will come. Guaranteed.
My pastor once shared with me several verses from Isaiah--a few of which read, "When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up, the flames will not consume you..."
Did you notice the word "when"?
Not if. When.
Have you felt sometimes like you're drowning? Has the fire come close enough to singe your clothes? That's what deep hurt feels like. And I daresay there is not a person on the planet who is not hurting in some way - if not today then yesterday or tomorrow. The human heart has a great capacity to walk around wounded and look every bit as normal as the next person. We pass each other in the stores, in the waiting rooms, on the subway, at the airport - and no one knows what we are really feeling on the inside.
Some of us have been betrayed by someone we love. Others have had expectations dashed. Still others have lost hope that the future carries any hint of brightness, that the skies will always be gray. Tomorrow isn't a song in a musical that dreams of a better day. Tomorrow just looks gloomy.
Whatever happened to "weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning?" I think I missed part of that somewhere because joy and I keep passing each other before dawn attempts to clear the clouds.
I wonder if part of the reason this is not my favorite year has to do with my perspective? Could it be that my focus on pain needs a lens adjustment? Have my glasses grown foggy, wrapped up in too much inward thinking?
I've been reading posts of late that are making their rounds on social media about forgiveness and what that looks like. One author said it well, when she spoke of lamenting the wrongs done to us - pouring out our hearts to God about the issue or incident - and ask Him to help us forgive.
Another suggestion that I borrowed and shared on my FaceBook Page says that forgiving someone isn't excusing bad behavior. It's a choice to forgive because God forgave us first. Forgiveness frees me, whether it improves the situation or not. Forgiveness takes away pain's power.
But the truth is, if we are honest with ourselves, we aren't strong enough to forgive like that without God's grace. It is in our nature to grow bitter. It is in our nature to blame others, to complain, to gossip, to hold a grudge.
Some in my family tree were angry people. I had a grandfather with a temper I'm rather glad I didn't witness, and a grandmother (different side of the family) who held a long-lasting grudge, that was thankfully reconciled and forgiven before her dying day.
I've had my own bouts with bitterness and grudge-holding and I didn't even know they were part of my anatomy.
Anger a subtle sin, and one we don't always recognize. Sometimes we bury anger so deeply and so easily that we would deny the emotion to anyone who asked. I did that as a child, and the consequences led to physical symptoms that caused some deep struggles, which God graciously helped me to resolve.
I learned to recognize the symptoms of anger because for me it starts with hurt turned inward, which leads to depression. Anger turned inward is depression - much of the time.
Tricky little emotion is anger. Anger also turns into a root that digs deep into our subconscious. The Bible calls it a root of bitterness and if we go to bed angry, we've allowed it to fester and given the devil a foothold. That means we've given him a way into our thoughts, into our hearts. And trust me, the enemy of our souls isn't a nice guy. Jesus said of him that he is a thief and a liar and he comes to steal, kill, and destroy. He wants to destroy us.
He's very good at destroying everything in his path, especially relationships. Just look at the relationships in this country - the misery, the anger, the violence against humanity. The murders in Chicago are at a record high. Now step outside of the United States and look at war-torn Syria. Destruction takes on a whole new meaning.
Man's inhumanity to man is sin, and I have no doubt it is often linked to anger and an unforgiving heart. We treat each other with contempt and disdain and hate - people made in the image of God - all because we cannot forgive as we've been forgiven. For those of us who have known the forgiveness of God's grace, we can't harbor these emotions. God doesn't give us a choice in this. When He commands us to forgive, He also gives grace to do so.
I once taught a Bible study on forgiveness and we came across the passage in the gospels when Peter asks Jesus - how many times do I have to forgive my brother? Seven times? (Peter was being generous in his mind.) But Jesus multiplied that number 70 times, meaning the forgiving doesn't ever stop. And sometimes it's for a one-time offense that is just too painful to forget. So forgiveness becomes a daily thing.
As is grace. Grace. Once for all and yet daily bread. We need to breath in grace every single day. And we need to breath out forgiveness just as often.
Maybe 2017 will turn out to be as bad a year as 2016. I know some people fear that it will. Others think it will be good in significant ways. I've never been able to predict the future--and I'd probably run from it if I could!
But maybe we have a choice in this next year's outcome. Maybe how a year feels is based more on how I handle the circumstances that come at me rather than the circumstances themselves. How will I react to the next negative thing that comes my way?
Will I forgive each offense? Will I grow in grace and knowledge of Christ Jesus so that I don't give in to bitterness but can offer up mercy? Will I accept that the flood and the fire will come, but I know that the words of God go with me in the midst of them? Because in that passage my pastor gave me, God also said, "Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine."
When I remember Whose I am and the promises of the God who knows me by name, I can stop looking back with regret or bitterness or depression, wishing life had do-overs, but rather look up, trusting that for every broken-hearted person, there is a God who came to heal every one of those bleeding places in our hearts with His Grace.
2017 - It's time to Live Grace.