My family moved to the suburbs of southern California three years ago to plant a church. We knew, in theory, that when you’re planting a church, you’ve decided your life and your family’s life are given over to seeing the gospel flourish in a particular place. But we didn’t know yet the pain of this choice—how aligning ourselves with a place means we suffer with it, too. How we bear losses of people, places, and things.
Since our arrival, everything we do is filtered through the lens of loving our neighborhood; this affects how and when our children participate in activities, what we do for recreation, and even our transportation (we walk our children to school as a way of embedding ourselves in the community). Yet we are investing in the lives of people who, because of the culture of the suburbs, see church and relationships as consumer choices. That means we’ve had to figure out how to forgive others when we, or our church, are left for something “shinier.” Leave-takings are always painful, even the good ones. We are left with this question: How do we forgive and how do we bear loss without growing cynical, resentful, or closed off to others?
In an ideal scenario, forgiveness would come through a generous response to another’s naming of sin, in order that there would be a move towards one another, even in pain, and error would be held up to the light. That we Christians would confess our common humanity and all the hidden tangles of the human heart. That we’d repent and ask for forgiveness within the larger story of Jesus’ forgiveness. Then, by the power of God, we could offer forgiveness as a gift of grace. Yet when relationships are broken and walls erected, what should a Christian do with hurt, shame, and the gnawing sense that life is unfair?
More often than not, forgiveness isn’t so clear cut. There is a spiritual practice of bearing in a middle space of forgiveness. This middle space is where we don’t know the whole story; nor do we know its ending or have a hope of restitution. We’re asked only to make room for others right in the middle of the unknowing and through a tangle of feelings. Rather than slamming the door of our hearts with cynicism and bitterness toward those who’ve hurt us, we stay soft, tender. When we can’t move towards repentance, forgiveness, or restitution, we learn to grieve and hope in a God who holds the loose threads of all our stories and relationships. It’s tempting to stuff away our anger and sadness, but we lament and grieve to a God who can handle our awkward feelings. God absorbs our angry, fist-pounding prayers—the tears on the bathmat—when we have no answers and no clear way to move forward.
There is a spiritual practice of bearing in a middle space of forgiveness. This middle space is where we don’t know the whole story.
Yes, we know: Writing off people who hurt us will only add another layer of darkness to our souls. Because we trust that God is good, we practice the art of tending to those bruised internal spaces, knowing somehow, mysteriously, He can heal them. We go forward through anger and sadness, knowing He is near in our grief.
We also practice embracing our creatureliness. We are finite. Our version of the story is only one version. We worship a God who stands outside time and who dwells eternally in a communion of three persons unified by perfect love. Daily, when we’re threatened to be overwhelmed with anger, bitterness, envy, and sadness, we can repeat small prayers because they help us cling to the truth: There is a God who has the power to transform our lives. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” we pray. “I do believe; help my unbelief.” “How long, O Lord?” (Luke 18:13; Mark 9:24 NIV; Psalm 13:1). Small words given as offerings to remind us that He is the Creator and we are not.
Daily we place ourselves under the wings of Him who shelters His people. We look to the broken mess of our relationships and choose to practice lament and small prayers as tangible tokens of trust in a God who will redeem all—even when we’ll never know the ending on this side of time, or where restitution never happens. In the middle space of forgiveness, we wait. We grieve. And we pray all the way through the unknowing.