( Sunday, July 22, 2007 )

Ten Bucks

The other day before work I was pulling my laundry out of the dryer when what fell at my feet but a crumpled up 10 cent Canadian Tire bill. "What luck!" I thought to myself. Just the other week I had spent the 9 Canadian Tire dollars I'd been saving since I was 4 years old to buy an axe (for camping, not, as you might have supposed, to smite mine enemies). As if a sign of God's love for me, I could now begin my savings anew, and, if things went well, have enough to buy myself a bottle of pop on my 36th birthday (fingers crossed!).

But as I continued to pull out the rest of my freshly warmed clothing, I received another blessing from the Almighty: a real 10 dollar bill, slightly destroyed but newly laundered, ready to be spent, saved, or rolled and smoked at my discretion.

The rest of the day wasn't as exciting, but it made me think: finding out you have more than you think is a fantastic feeling. It's as if you suddenly discovered oil (or gold, or silver, or a secret cave that dispense superhuman abilities) on a piece of property you've owned your entire life. Granted, $10 isn't a lot of money (although the Canadian dollar is almost on par with the American), but it was $10 more than I thought I had, and that was what made it special.

I think it's the same when you realize that you have more worth in your own life than maybe you considered. I know some people tend to carry themselves around as if they're the Emperor of their own private world, but for the most part I suspect people under-value, rather than over-value, themselves. I know I do. I put myself through hell before I let myself enjoy anything, because I feel as if I don't deserve to be happy.

A couple weeks ago I had to take a week off work because business was really slow. So I decided to go camping, to get away from the city and from distractions and from other people and be somewhere where I could just read and think and write. As it turned out, I wasn't as successful as I'd hoped and I ended up coming back a day early. But I did finish reading a book I'd started a month ago or so, and it turned a lot of things around for me. The book was called "The Art of Forgiveness" by Lewis Smedes.

When I'd started reading it I knew I was in for a serious self-overhaul. After reading just the introduction, I had scribbled a note on one of the pages: "I suddenly realize how much unforgiveness I've been carrying around." To be honest with you, I'd never really thought about it. I knew that there were people in my past towards whom I still carried some resentment, but it never really occurred to me (at least not in some sort of lightning-to-the-head kind of way) that I hadn't 'forgiven' them.

As I made my way through the rest of the book, I was blown away by the depth of the anger and resentment I've held onto, almost by habit, like a jacket that looks tacky but fits so well you just keep wearing it without giving it a second thought. It was a long couple days, thinking through events of my past, about people and places and circumstances, and more than anything, thinking about the person I've become. And I'll tell you, I learned a lot about forgiveness, things I'd never really grasped, things that never really even seemed to be relevant to the process. It even forced me to differentiate between what actually needs to be forgiven, and things that don't qualify. But I'd say the most profound discovery for me through the book was this: the person I have held the most unforgiveness towards is me.

I remember waking up in the morning after my second day there, and as I was making some coffee the thought crossed my mind, "I've never forgiven myself for some of the things I've done to people, things I've said or ways I've acted." It was suddenly like the last few pieces of a jig-saw puzzle falling into place. I was looking at my life, at the problems I've had in my relationships, and seeing where it was all flowing out of: a deep resentment towards myself and an expectation that I couldn't love people without screwing them over somehow.

The funny thing was, as I was making my way through the book I kept thinking, "I wish he'd say something about forgiving yourself, because as good as the rest of this is, forgiving other people isn't my biggest problem." Just before going to bed I decided to finish up the chapter I'd been reading. But as I turned the last page, what was the next chapter called but "Forgiving Yourself." I just started laughing. The timing seemed so perfect.

It was a really challenging chapter to read, no less. He didn't go easy on me. And, like he pointed out, forgiving ourselves shouldn't be easy, or else we'd let ourselves off the hook for everything without giving it a second thought. Forgiving ourselves isn't a solitary pursuit, either. Your repentance has to be validated, by either/both of two people: the person you screwed over, and God.

But like the core of the book, the focus was on grace. Grace is only meaningful because it's undeserved -- which is what makes it so challenging to accept. And grace is the heart of forgiveness: offering what isn't deserved. (If you haven't yet, go and buy -- yes, buy -- Philip Yancey's 'What's So Amazing About Grace?' It ranks in my top 5 life-changing books of all time. Next to Martha Stewart's Hors D'oeuvres Handbook, obviously.)

[As a side note, and something that deserves more time, the basis for Smedes book is that as a general rule, people completely misunderstand what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is not saying something is ok or excusable, because it isn't. Forgiveness also isn't saying that what you did will go consequence-free, because it rarely will and rarely should. But that's a whole other post for a whole other day...]

It's a very hard experience, trying to forgive yourself -- a very naked experience. You have to put aside all pretension and sense of ego, to ignore the instinct to protect yourself by making it a show, and just accept God's grace -- his willingness to take your sin away from you, knowing it is undeserved and without a catch. Smedes pointed to a few parts in the Bible that talk about this kind of forgiveness, one of which that has always been a favourite, even if I've never fully grasped it:

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

--Psalm 103:11-12

I have a very difficult time letting go of my mistakes, of the darkness inside of me, of the failures in my life. I remember with crystal clear clarity the ways I have hurt people, the things I have done to people I was responsible for, the things I took from people that I had no right to touch. It's almost strange that I tend to remember my failure more than I remember the good things about my relationships with people. When I remember friends from my past, when I remember girls, when I remember experiences, what stands out to me is how I let them down, where I didn't act like the man I am called by God to be, how I put more thought into my selfishness than their good.

Accepting that I cannot undo what I've done, and turning to God and asking him to forgive me -- and then, even harder still, letting him take those things from me, is something that I've been wrestling with, like a gigantic crocodile that wants to kill me but I refuse to swim away from.

As the next couple days went on, I started to see something that God was trying to show me all along: the "$10 bill" (remember, the Canadian dollar is getting higher...) inside of me that I'd forgotten about, that was hiding in pockets of my heart I'd avoided looking through. I spend so much energy focused on the dirt on my knees, the stains and rips on my clothes, that I forget the worth that exists below the fabric. And it isn't just my ego that suffers for it. When I refuse to accept God's grace, my self-worth goes down the crapper. When that happens, I can never hope to affect people's lives the way I want to. I can't show God to people if I've buried him beneath layers of self-hate. All I will do is perpetuate my own mistakes and continue to ruin the relationships God has blessed me with.

(...more to come.)

"To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you."

--Lewis Smedes


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