I've been playing a version If You Give a Mouse a Cookie these days. You know the game, right? If you give a mouse a cookie, then he'll want a glass of milk. And if you give a mouse some milk, then he'll have a milk mustache. And if a mouse has a milk mustache, then he'll end up on a "Got Milk" billboard in New York City (New York City?!?). And if he ends up on the billboard, then he'll cause a thirty car pileup from the gawkers staring at the milk-mustached mouse.
And so on. And so forth.
I've been doing this in a spiritual sense lately. Months ago, I began to trace certain faith struggles back to their genesis. I went back, and back, and back, and considered those times I wrestled with intense doubt. On nearly every occasion, I found that the birthplace of doubt sprung from a particular event. It turns out, if you do a fella wrong, he'll likely choose the path of unforgiveness. And if he chooses the path of unforgiveness, if he dwells on the nuanced working out of his fellow humans' mere humanity, then his anger will burn red hot. And if his anger burns red hot, then he'll want to call down a good 'ole fashioned American air strike against the offender. And once desire takes hold, it gives birth to a great deal of bitterness. And if a man dwells too long in bitterness, he'll realize he's not a very good disciple, because, after all, how many times must I forgive a man? And once a man realizes he's not a very good disciple? Well, things go downhill pretty fast from there.
"This is all preposterous, hyperbolic hogwash!" you are thinking. "Hardly," I say.
So, in light of my realization that unforgiveness blocks the way for a more realized spirituality, I decided that it was time to lay some of those old burdens down. Yes, I would practice the path of forgiveness. In fact, I determined that I would not only practice it, but that I'd be the best forgiver this side of the Mississippi. (I suppose God is amused with my Peterian declarations; "Lord, not my only my feet, but also my hands and my head!")
Here's the tricky part. There's a milk-mustached mouse here, too.
Come to find out, if you endeavor to practice the spiritual virtue of forgiveness, you're bound to be tested. And if you are tested, you are bound to fail miserably. And if you fail miserably, you'll revist those dancing visions of good 'ole fashioned American air strikes against your enemies. And if you have these kinds of visions, you'll begin to question your discipleship (again). And if you question your discipleship (again), you will hear the voice of clarity saying, "boy, you got a long way to go."
If this were not the internet, if I weren't afraid that this entire piece would slip into a downward death spiral of circuitous logic and certifiable passive aggressivity, I'd give some specific examples. Instead, though, and because I am most fond of the Socratic Method (thank you, law school) allow me to use this hypothetical to demonstrate the very problem with which I'm dealing. In the process, I also hope to start a fake internet beef with Preston Yancey.*
Yesterday I slipped from my prayer time confident in my ability to practice the art of forgiveness. No sooner had I left my house on my bicycle, did I cross paths with the inimitable Preston Yancey, a man of unquestionable spiritual integrity, great literary talent, and one-heck of a head of hair. I pulled to the side, and we began making small talk, discussing his forthcoming book, the genius of Vonnegut, and our favorite Mary Oliver poems. Without warning, he pointed over my shoulder and shouted, "what's that!" I turned, of course, to see nothing but the squirrels chasing their collective tails in the branches of the American Sycamore, and at that precise moment, I felt a sledge-hammer like thud against my nose, saw tweety-birds and stars, and heard the crack and the ring of my head against the concrete. I looked up from the pavement to see Preston riding off on my bicycle, yelling "so long sucker!" That's right. Preston Yancey sucker punched me in my prominent Roman nose, and stole my bike to boot!
In this hypothetical, what would my reaction be? Turn to him the other cheek? Offer him not only my bike but my car as well? Forgive him for the wrong right now and forever more? I doubt it. Most likely, my reaction would involve an infinite hatred, and endless seasons when there are everlasting missile strikes.
This may seem like a silly and over-blown hypothetical, but it occurs to me that the majority of wrongs in this world involve either (a) violence against the person, or (b) the theft of some perceived right. (Consider it.) We experience these wrongs not just in the moment; instead, the ghosts of these moments haunt, and haunt, and haunt. We relive violence and theft, replay it in our mind, tell ourselves exactly what we'll do the next we see him. But this kind of living, this thirst for personal vindication, this nurturing of hatred is counter-Christian and anti-disciple; isn't it?
I look around me these days, and the unfortunate truth is that too many of us are wrestling with unresolved forgiveness issues. This is not a hypothesis, or a guess. This is not my opinion. This can, at least by way of anecdotal evidence, be quantified. Want me to prove it? Easy.
1. Think of one person who has either (a) worked some violence against you, or (b) taken some right or thing that you believed to be yours;
2. Picture the person in your mind. Consider the expression on their face, the way they hold themselves, and their manner of speech;
3. Consider the things you'd say (or perhaps do) if there were no repercussions;
4. Would you offer an olive branch, a place of reconciliation? Or, would you rather tell them off or mete out a little Wild West justice? If you'd say the latter, ask yourself--am I really walking in forgiveness? Have I released anger and bitterness against them? Am I allowing them to interfere with the peace between me and my Maker?
Go ahead. Work the questions. Really. Work them.
Now ask yourself: do I still have some discipleship work to do?
*Full disclaimer. Preston Yancey neither crushed my nose, nor stole my bike. He's a gent and a scholar, and a man who's bound to go good places and do good things.