He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself; for every man has to be forgiven.
Five years ago, Jennifer Smith descended into the valley of adversity. Like many others who travel the lowlands of pain and sorrow, she began her journey by walking upright – strong and full of faith. But during the years that followed, a series of devastating events ad a crushing relationship problem undermined her strength and her once rock-solid faith, reducing her walk to a crawl.
Her journey through the valley began when William, the youngest of her three sons, was diagnosed with cancer. William endured three months of daily radiation and hypothermia treatments, but the cancer in his arm continued to grow. When he was 19, William’s left arm had to be amputated in order to save his life.
At first, as is true for many amputees, William handled the changes in his life well. But the prolonged stares, the unanswered questions, and the shattered dreams proved to be more than this athletic, sensitive young adult could manage. Like many other amputees, William slid into a deep depression. The next few years brought four failed suicide attempts, drug addiction, and admission into a treatment facility that required his entire family to move halfway across the country so that they could be near him.
In their new surroundings, they were very much alone. But Jennifer’s strong faith and deep bonds with her husband and other two sons seemed to meet her relationship needs. After all, she was battling for her son’s life. Who but family could possibly understand?
Three years after her youngest son lost his arm to cancer, her oldest son, Cody, was in an automobile accident. When they got to the hospital, Cody lay in a coma, hooked up to life support. The doctors held out little hope for his recovery, but the family refused to give up.
For the next year, despite William’s suicide attempts and near fatal overdoses, Jennifer, her husband, and their middle son, Andrew, fought tenaciously for Cody. Although he regained consciousness, severe head trauma left him with the functional and intellectual capabilities of a toddler. Still, the family prayed, accompanied him to grueling physical therapy, and – despite professional recommendations that Cody be institutionalized – brought him home.
Even though her oldest son didn’t know her or recognize her as his mother and her youngest son was racing head-long down a self-destructive path, Jennifer still had the support and love of her husband and middle son. Or so it seemed. That’s why the call caught her by surprise. It was one of Andrew’s best friends from back home. He had called to confirm what day Andrew would arrive.
Arrive? Jennifer didn’t even know he was leaving! She knew that he was having trouble watching Cody struggle. She and her husband had even gone apartment hunting with him, hoping to help him find a place of his own so he could have some much-needed space yet remain close to the family. But why would he move halfway across the country? Why didn’t he tell her?
Shocked, hurt, and feeling deeply betrayed, Jennifer confronted her son, asking how he could possibly walk out on his family when they needed him so much. His only response didn’t ease her pain: “I just can’t take it anymore.” Jennifer “couldn’t take” her son’s response. Days later, locked in her bedroom in self-imposed exile, she listened as her son loaded his belonging into his car and left. She didn’t say goodbye. She didn’t even speak to him for a year.
Despite talking with her priest and continually asking God to help her forgive her son, Jennifer couldn’t bring herself to forgive him. “I understood why he had to leave” Jennifer explains, “but the way he did it hurt so much.” She tried to forgive him because she knew she had to, but she didn’t think she could ever truly forgive him – and many times she wasn’t sure she wanted to.
Jennifer didn’t know how to break the cycle, how to break free from the hurt, so she held onto her anger. Her bitterness grew. In time, she discovered that her relationship with Andrew wasn’t the only troubled relationship in her life. Although she never lost her faith in God, Jennifer concedes that she lost the ability to sense His love and presence. “I still believed in God and went to church, but I knew something was missing. I didn’t feel the presence of God during that time. I had no joy or happiness.”
One year after he left, Andrew called home during the day – something he never did because he knew his mom wouldn’t talk to him. But this call was different. He was crying. He was scared. He had developed several painful lumps on his back, lumps that reminded him of William’s cancer. He needed his family.
And Jennifer needed to look at their relationship from a fresh perspective. She had nearly lost two sons to tragedy. As she found herself facing the possibility of losing a third son, her anger and bitterness seemed out of place and inappropriate. She dropped to her knees as soon as she hung up the phone and prayed for her son like she hadn’t in years.
She found herself praying for forgiveness, too. “I had to ask God to forgive me for walking in bitterness for a year. I had lost a year with my son, a year that I can never get back.” As one who had felt the sting of betrayal and disappointment firsthand, she learned an important truth about forgiveness. “Life is so short, you have to forgive. How could you ever live with the guilt if the person you haven’t forgiven were to die?”
Andrew’s lumps turned out to be bone fragments from a previous injury. But like Jennifer’s unforgiveness, bitterness, and anger, they had to completely surface before they could be dealt with and removed. Today, Jennifer would say their relationship is fully restored, although she still wrestles with occasional angry thoughts. But she realizes that hurt was at the root of her anger toward her son. The trust between them was damaged, and Jennifer knows that restoring trust takes time. She also knows that a lack of forgiveness can rob us of the fellowship, joy, and peace that comes from the most important relationship of all – our relationship with God.
The Painful Truth
Like many other who have traveled the rocky road of pain and suffering, Jennifer discovered some painful truths about human relationships:
- Count on it – relationship problems that were manageable before affliction become markedly worse during affliction.
- The more we love someone, the more it hurts when the relationship encounters difficulty.
- Relationship problems can’t always just be prayed away. They may also require time, appropriate action, or even outside intervention.
- Emotional pain can blind us from seeing the conflict clearly and taking the steps needed to bring reconciliation.
- Unresolved relationship problems often lead to depression.
- When we have relationship problems with family and friends, our relationship with God is always affected, and usually, the effect is negative.
- A lack of forgiveness can cause us to lose our way spiritually.