A few years ago I saw a young jogger wearing a T-shirt that read: Before you pray, forgive. T-shirt slogans can be like bumper stickers — hard to ignore. And this caught my attention since I'm a prayerful person and I'd been thinking a lot about forgiveness.
Perhaps, I thought, the slogan was based on Jesus' instruction, "If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift" (Matt. 5:23, 24). Often, reconciliation involves forgiveness.
To me, Jesus' words, along with the spirit of that T-shirt, advise us to cleanse our hearts of whatever prevents forgiveness. Sacrificing what is not pure and holy, such as self-justification, pride, revenge, and greed, paves the way for effective prayer. But forgiveness (which is a kind of prayer in itself) is a prerequisite.
For a time in high school I found that reconciliation and forgiving weren't so easy. It took prayer, lots of it, but ultimately I found healing. And I learned a lot more about prayer along the way.
It happened one summer when I worked for a camp, along with other high-school students. Our job involved digging trenches, erecting fences, raking gravel, mopping the dining room floor, and doing similar tasks. During much of the day we were trusted to complete our jobs with little supervision. In those days, since we were teenagers, we weren't assigned a cabin counselor.
Then, for apparently no reason, a cabin-mate chose to bully me. He made unkind remarks, belittled my hard work, and stole personal items. Other guys in the cabin came to my defense, but the bullying persisted.
I had enough understanding of God's love that I quietly took my problem to Him. Every night I begged God to release me from this miserable situation. Although it was simple, my prayer acknowledged God as the ultimate power and as a force for goodness and justice. I trusted that He could, and would, resolve it in His wise way; that He was my advocate and valued me. Perhaps most important, I let myself feel as if I were wrapped up in God's caring arms — a natural response to the loving God I knew from attending a Christian Science Sunday School.
In retrospect, I see that these prayers substantially strengthened my trust in the Almighty. It was the first time I'd prayed through a major challenge on my own. No adult knew of the situation or prayed with me. And I was learning the value of persistence in prayer. I certainly felt victimized, but I did my best to love and to yield to God's plan, not feeling a need to defend my turf or my honor. From this position of humble strength, I was able to forgive this boy in my heart.
Summer ended, but the problem didn't, because he attended the same school. We didn't have classes together, but he and his buddy would taunt me whenever we passed in the hall. Still, I continued to respond with forgiveness and charity, looking him in the eye when I said, "Hello." And I refused to label him as a bully.
I PRAY UNTIL I'M CONVINCED THAT NO ONE CAN BE A VICTIM OF MALIC, JUDGMENT, JEALOUSY, OR MISUNDERSTANDING.
Then two months later he came up to me after school to offer me a ride home. I felt he was sincere and free of malice. And though I had other plans, that conversation sealed the healing. He didn't taunt me again.
I'd learned a big lesson about forgiveness, one that has guided my relationships ever since. Now, when I feel I've been wronged, intentionally or unintentionally, I pray to replace resentment and hurt with that same heartfelt forgiveness and patient charity. I pray to maintain a steadfast trust that God will protect and bless everyone involved.
My prayers are no longer petitions, such as my camp prayers were, but equally heartfelt affirmations about God's love being the authority governing all relationships. I pray until I'm convinced that no one can be a victim of malice, judgment, jealousy, or misunderstanding. After all, we're all innocent in the eyes of God, our one divine Parent. How can we hold a grudge when God does not?
Life still presents opportunities to practice forgiveness. But through my desire to obey Jesus' teachings, forgiving others and myself gets a little easier each time. What a relief to yield to God's unconditional love, a love that removes defensive feelings. Then I find that prayer powerfully transforms and sweetens my relationships.
Bill Fabian is an educator from Buena Vista, Colorado.
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