One of the best parts about spring is the opportunity to open house and car windows to welcome in a refreshing breeze. In the last few weeks, the open windows have supplied another delightful gift; the chirping of nearby birds. My mornings in the last few weeks have consisted of drinking coffee near an open window at 5:30 or so, listening to the birds sing their morning hymns while the rest of the world slumbers. It’s a sound which is both beautiful in itself and which serves as a much-needed reminder that summer is on the way.
Unfortunately, it’s a sound that has also caused great pangs of frustration in the depths of my soul (slight exaggeration). I’m not annoyed by any painful screeches or rambunctious cacklings: the birds around these parts have been pretty gentle on the ears. Nor am I envious that these winged creatures don’t have exams to study for or papers to write as the semester draws to a close. I’m frustrated because they left when the going got tough and they’ve returned now that the conditions are not only bearable, but downright gorgeous.
Granted, I recognize that the birds needed to fly south for the winter not merely to avoid discomfort, but to avoid almost certain death. I realize that most birds are not made to survive the harsh winter months and must flee out of a biological necessity. Still, I’m tempted to passive-aggressively call out to my fowl friends, “It’s good to have you back! We missed you during the most miserable time of the year. I’m sorry to hear you only had four-star reservations in Palm Springs the last few months. Looks like we were both suffering!” Luckily, with the help of God’s grace, I’ve recently been able to let go of this tension in my heart and find the grace to forgive these darn birds.
This healing process started when I was praying with the passage from the third chapter of Daniel where three men are thrown into a blazing-hot furnace for refusing to worship the god and statue set forth by King Nebuchadnezzar. Though they were thrown into the white-hot furnace, they were able to walk amidst the flames untouched and unharmed as they sang praises to the glory of God. Fire in the Scriptures often calls to mind the theme of refinement. This can be found in Peter’s first letter when he writes how “now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pt. 1:6-7).
As I prayed on these passages, I realized I don’t always do a good job of allowing myself to be refined by the flames. I’m often like Peter in that, when things are going well, I make such promises to the Lord as, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you!” Then, hours later, I can betray him at the first sight of trial. I can praise the Lord when I recognize the many blessings he’s bestowed on me, then angrily blame him minutes later when I face some sort of agony. I’m always amazed at how readily and consistently the Lord welcomes me back in his patient mercy. As I reflected on how I tend to flee from the Lord when the going gets tough, I was more readily able to sympathize with these birds.
However, this did not immediately lead to forgiveness on my part. In my mind, the birds still owed me. I could sympathize with their southbound flight, but I reasoned that they were still in some way in my debt. This continuously stirred up within me minor feelings of bitterness and resentment and I found myself incapable of fully enjoying their tender tweets.
This led me to consider the true meaning of forgiveness. In the last year or so, I’ve had conversations with several people who have been wounded in ways far greater than I’ve ever experienced. The ways in which they’ve been betrayed and harmed puts my plight with these birds to shame. Each of them are in the process of forgiving folks who have radically shattered their lives. If anyone has a right to hold someone in their debt, it would seem to be these folks. Yet each of these individuals I’ve spoken with have a desire and are working towards forgiving these people. Why?
I think, on a much more serious scale, it’s for the two reasons I’m trying to forgive these birds. First, as crazy as it sounds, there’s a refreshing sense of freedom we experience when we free someone from our debt. As I’m now able to rejoice in the sounds of a nice spring day while remaining free from feelings of bitterness and resentment, so too are folks who forgive people once in their debt experiencing a newfound sense of freedom. Un-forgiveness offers a false illusion of freedom and power, yet it actually can become enslaving and inhibit the healing process. (For a beautiful testimony on forgiveness, watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGrbtma7LgE )
Second, as I eventually found it in my heart to forgive the birds based on the fact that I too have fled in tough times, so too are folks finding it in their hearts to forgive others when they look to the Cross. St. Matthew was a tax-collector who knew a thing or two about financial debts. In his version of the Lord’s Prayer, we could translate one of the lines from the original Greek as: “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Mt. 6:12). The reality is that your and my sins put us in God’s debt: a debt that could not be repaid on our part. Jesus’ death on the Cross was the moment where God himself took our place in order to free us from this debt and open to us the gates to eternal life. If God could forgive us our infinite debt, how can we not imitate that mercy and forgive our debtors? (See Mt. 18:21-35)
To forgive, then, is more or less to say to someone, “What you did was not right. I may never forget what you did. Because of this action, justice demands that you be in my debt. However, in imitation of the mercy God has bestowed on me, I will choose mercy over justice and release you from my debt. I refuse to be enslaved by the bitterness of a grudge and instead choose the freedom and healing that come with forgiveness. I forgive you.”
Birds, I no longer consider you to be in my debt. I’m looking forward to hearing your chirps as we enjoy this beautiful weather together. I forgive you for leaving and welcome you back as I, too, have been welcomed back time and time again into the merciful Heart of the Lord.