Special photo: Susan Bennett
One of the saddest and most powerful passages in scripture –– a passage that most preachers go out of their way to avoid –– is Psalm 137.
The Israelites are in exile, far from their beloved country and Jerusalem, their holy city. They’ve been defeated in battle and exiled to Babylon, where they must now endure not only separation and exile, but also the taunting of their captors. “Sing us a song, you Hebrews! Sing us a song NOW about the land of Zion!”
But the Hebrew people are in no mood to sing. They’re desolate, defeated, grieving –– and yes, they’re murderously angry. They’re so angry, in fact, that they imagine revenge, and dream of ruining their captors –– even to the point of killing the babies of their enemy. They are at their lowest point, and they have no song of praise to sing.
God had warned the people repeatedly to turn away from idol worship and turn their hearts back to him, but they wouldn’t listen to his words and warnings. So what did the Israelites have to do to get to this place of exile, and grief, and murderous anger? They turned away from God, and ignored his Word, and refused to repent.
I know our circumstances are different, but it could happen to any of us. And it does. That kind of anger is a lot like eating rat poison, and expecting it to hurt the rat. Meanwhile, the only one being hurt is us.
How do we deal with this? Well, as usual, we learn from what happened between God and Israel. The first step isn’t easy, but it’s essential: If we’ve turned away from God, if we’re ignoring his Word and his presence and not praying and not coming to him in repentance when we need to, then –– we’ve got to come back.
Wherever we are spiritually hurting, whatever’s going through our minds and hearts, we have to invite Jesus in –– and do it now. Tell him exactly what’s going on with you, whether it’s grief, desolation, or anger. Tell him how it happened, how you’re feeling about it, what a mess things are in. And remember, the Israelites were enraged at the Babylonians who’d defeated them in battle, but somewhere, deep inside, they had to be mad at themselves, too, for ignoring God when he was reaching out to them.
It’s sad but true –– no matter how mad we are, there are always two sides to every story. And being honest about that and coming clean with God is where repentance starts. Only repentance will bring us back to God and begin to relieve some of that awful rage and sadness.
Repentance … no one’s favorite word. Well, then, how about … forgiveness?
In Luke 17, Jesus tells his disciples that they, and we, are to forgive freely, repeatedly if necessary. This is VERY hard work, and without God, impossible. So let’s set some ground rules.
Here’s what forgiveness is NOT. Forgiveness is not saying, “Oh, that’s OK, don’t worry about it,” when someone comes to you asking for forgiveness. You’re not required to say that or feel it either, because some things are NOT OK.
What you want is to be free –– free from anger, resentment, holding a grudge –– because that stuff is like eating rat poison.
You’re allowed to tell the truth: “That really hurt me.” “I’ve been really angry about that.” You’re not trying to start an argument or hurt the other person, but the truth helps prepare you to forgive. This kind of forgiveness is absolutely a “God thing,” not a human thing, and we need help. Asking for help must always begin with honesty.
Repentance begins with honesty, too. If we’ve repented for all we know to repent about, if we’ve talked to God honestly and received his forgiveness and comfort, then we’re truly in a position of deep, joyful faith. God is healing us. And being in that position means that we can often just let a lot of things go –– our anger, our hurt, our resentment. Not because what the person did was OK –– nowhere is it written that we must become best friends with the person –– but because we’re with God, we’re OK.
This kind of forgiveness can only come from God, and it’s nothing short of a miracle. But because we often need to be healed and find our peace in God, it usually doesn’t come in an instant. Often, healing takes time, and requires much time spent with God. But there’s a choice to be made here, and my prayer is that whenever we must choose between forgiveness and resentment, we choose God’s way, and receive his healing and the joy of his presence and grace.
The Israelites did repent, and eventually their land was restored to them. Repentance is where our healing begins, too –– with our honesty, our willingness to receive forgiveness, and maybe even forgiving ourselves. From that place of grace and freedom, we can look at others with compassion, and offer them the same forgiveness we’ve received.
Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.