One of the most emotionally fragrant books I’ve ever experienced is A Grace Disguised, written by Jerry Sittser as a reflection on his experiences of losing his mother, his wife, and his daughter all in one fatal crash when a drunken man plowed into their car. The title includes “how the soul grows through loss.” I can’t begin to explain how inspirational and nurturing this book was to me, but I can just say, “Think about reading it!” (I have a copy if you live in the Grand Rapids area and would like to borrow it.) It’s a short book that walks you through his family’s life, their death, and his struggle to survive and establish a new life following this unthinkable tragedy. (He was left with three small children to rear alone!) Jerry is very open about the raw pain and excruciating process, but grace shines out all around like beams of light radiating from behind thunderheads. In fact, grace undergirds the story like a brilliant silver lining under black clouds, leaving the reader (me) with a deep peace in knowing that God was there through it all, steady and unchanging behind the storm.
The book is too full of wrestlings and wisdom to try a thorough review, but the single most moving chapter to me was his learning to forgive and his thoughts on the power and importance of forgivenesss. I’d like to quote the whole chapter, but let me just quote a couple of ideas. He starts by describing how he had a desire for revenge. “The real problem, however, is not revenge itself but the unforgiving heart behind revenge. Unforgiveness is like fire that smolders in the belly, like smoke that smothers the soul. It is destructive because it is insidious. Occasionally it flares up in the form of bitter denunciation and explosions of rage. But most of the time it is content to stay low to the ground, where it goes unnoticed, quietly doing its deadly work” (p. 136).
The problem, then, is to learn how to forgive, even if the offender has not repented and asked forgiveness (as his alcoholic offender never did). “Unforgiveness makes a person sick by projecting the same scene of pain into the soul day after day, as if it were a videotape that never stops. Every time the scene is replayed, he or she relives the pain and becomes angry and bitter all over again. That repetition pollutes the soul. Forgiveness requires that we refuse to play the videotape and choose to put it on the shelf. We remember the painful loss; we are aware of who is responsible. But, we do not play it over and over again. Instead, we play other tapes that bring healing to us. Thus, forgiveness not only relieves an offender from guilt; it also heals us from our sickness of soul” (144).
Sittser goes on to point out that forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting (which we’ll never be able to do anyway). He grapples with his anger at God, too: “I held God responsible for my circumstances. I placed my confidence in him; I also argued with him. In any case, God played the key role” (147).
“Faith also changes our attitude about the people who wrong us, for it forces us to view their wrongdoing in the light of our own. Knowledge of God reveals knowledge of ourselves as well. We learn that we bear the image of God, but we also see that we are sinful. Sinful people need God’s forgiveness. Jesus once said that people who are forgiven much love much. The experience of forgiveness makes us forgiving. Once we see ourselves as people who need God’s mercy, we will be more likely to show mercy to others” (147).
Well, I can’t explain the book very well, but if you have suffered a great loss in your life and struggle to forgive, please consider reading Sittser’s story! As a supporting P.S of his life—I discovered that Sittser was teaching in Spokane, Washington, when the accident occurred. As I have a son who was also teaching in Spokane, Washington, I asked him if he knew Jerry Sittser. “Yes! We’ve had lunch together!” So, Jerry Sittser continues to thrive academically and spiritually, even years later!
While trying to prepare this, I was also touched by this wonderful consideration in the daily devotional that my son Joel gave me for Christmas (and we read together at the breakfast table):
“The final test of compassionate prayer goes beyond prayers for fellow Christians, members of the community, friends, and relatives. Jesus says it most unambiguously, ‘I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44); and in the depth of his agony on the cross, he prays for those who are killing him, ‘Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.’ (Luke 23:34). Here the full significance of the discipline of prayer becomes visible. Prayer allows us to lead into the center of our hearts not only those who love us but also those who hate us. This is possible only when we are willing to make our enemies part of ourselves and thus convert them first of all in our own heart” (Henri J.M. Nouwen, You Are The Beloved, May 19).