Sifted and Refined, Blog No. 2: Yellow Ribbons

Sifted and Refined:
A Blog on Human Weakness, Frailty, and Brokenness,
and How God Can Use It (If we Let Him) Blog No. 2:

Yellow Ribbons: The Healing Power of Forgiveness
By Lauri & Larry Taunton

 

NOTE:  After the publication of the first blog in this series, a woman wrote to me and, with compassion, I think, expressed her concern that I not share “my shame and humiliation” with the world, but instead keep it private.  I can appreciate the sentiment.  Lauri and I certainly would never have chosen to share our private pain and would prefer not to do so now.  I agree that in the age of social media, people are often too transparent and too ready to share things they should not.  Yes, I would prefer to blog about anything other than this—bingo, the rock-paper-scissors world championship, origami, anything.  But that was never in our control.  We were never allowed to deal with this as private people, in spite of our best efforts to do so.  Thus, after almost a year of reflection and silence, our team of counselors, advisers, and friends thought that what we had been learning and saying privately might be of benefit to a larger audience if we could muster the courage to share it.  That has not come easily, and it is, as I have said, raw, messy, and imperfect.  However, after the overwhelmingly positive response to last week’s blog, we knew they were right.  It has touched a nerve with people who are likewise broken, hurting, burdened with sin and guilt, or just tired of a superficial Christianity that feels a bit like Stepford.  You know, where everyone smiles smugly and pretends that no one is really sick, broken, or wounded.

Besides the fact that I just prefer to deal with things head-on, there is also an important biblical precedent: David wrote poetic Psalms of his “shame and humiliation.”  It is partly why I love David so much.  He is just so out there, so human and real, if you get my meaning.  I like David’s confidence—born of a confidence in his God—and I like his zeal.  I relate to his burning desire to charge the field and take down Goliath after he had so brazenly defied the armies of Israel; I also relate to his weakness and occasional (and monumental) foolishness.  One of his Psalms of “humiliation” has served to inspire us throughout our crisis—Psalm 40.  I have come to love it for its meter and its meaning.  I love U2’s rendition of it, too.  It speaks to me where I am right now.  In it, David says that “troubles without number surround” him.  He says that his sins have “overtaken” him and that “they are more than the hairs of my head.”  So heavy is the weight of his sin, he says, “that my heart fails within me.”  Boy, can I relate to a man with self-inflicted wounds but who nonetheless loves his God.  I get the warring contradictions within him.  I feel that.

But the greatness of this Psalm is, for me anyway, the character of God himself as David experiences it.  David says that in the midst of his trial, the Lord:

“lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand….
 

I proclaim your saving acts in the great assembly;
I do not seal my lips, Lord,
as you know.

I do not hide your righteousness in my heart;
I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help.
I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness
from the great assembly.”

I recall a particularly painful moment of terror in my childhood.  As I do the math, I could not have been more than five.  I was suffering at the hands of an adult who tormented me.  I was powerless.  And then, unexpectedly, a young woman burst through the door where I was held captive as if she had been shot from a cannon.  She screamed expletives and swung her fists so furiously that my persecutor, who was much older and bigger than she, retreated in startled silence.  She gripped me by my wrist tightly and put me behind her back and stood guard over me as if prepared to die on the spot.  I think she was.

Many years later, the image of her standing there, knees slightly bent and fists clenched, would come involuntarily to my mind as I read of the Greek warrior Menelaus bestriding the fallen body of Patroclus in The Iliad.  I cannot read or think of the passage without thinking of her in that awful and yet heroic scene.  Slowly she withdrew us from the room, always keeping me behind her.  Outside the door, she knelt down and asked me if I was okay. I remember not being able to speak. I only nodded and fought back tears. She held me tightly and told me that she loved me and that she would never let that happen to me again.  I have never, ever spoken of this.  I have thought of it as little as possible, preferring to play whack-a-mole with the memory.  I shake and fight back tears as I think on it now.  But it will surprise many to know that she has been a lifelong model for me of what it meant to defend the weak, the bullied, and the persecuted, and in that moment she instilled in me a protective instinct for those that I love.  Hers was an act of love and courage.

You do not forget salvation like that and you do not forget your savior.  Not if you’ve truly grasped the hopelessness of your situation.  Your gratitude for your savior is eternal—as is mine for her.  How much more so if your pit is Davidic, the sin is yours, and your only way out is Divine intervention?

Bear in mind that David was a believer when he committed the sins of which he here speaks.  The salvation he is referring to is not eternal life; he is talking about the Lord retrieving him by the shirt collar from his pit.  David’s response?  To write this hymn praising the lovingkindness of such a God.  He vows that he will not restrain his lips but will instead speak of the Lord’s greatness.  That sentiment in this Psalm inspires this blog. Praise fills our hearts.  In the last year, I have known the salvation of the Lord in a way that I have never known it before. He had forgiven me of my sin and given me eternal life, yes, but now He was breaking my bones (Psalm 51), to reset them, and make me a vessel that He could use for even greater things.  He has set my feet upon a rock and blessed Lauri and me in remarkable ways even as we rebuild and move forward.

What follows is probably the most painful of any of the blogs we will write.  It is deeply personal.  It is indeed my shame and humiliation, not hers.  But it gets at the very heart of the Gospel because it speaks of the greatness of our God and the extraordinary power that is released through His children when they acknowledge His way in repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  In this case, the child of God in question was my lovely wife, Lauri, who is the only righteous party in this story, and was involuntary shoved into a pit that was not of her own making.

* * * * * * * * *

“[Larry] is busier than ever; hardly ever slows down. Fixed Point consumes his time. I tried to explain this to John Lennox—Larry’s stress, sleepless nights, exhausted days, a tremor that has developed in his left hand … neither of us can remember when Larry last took a vacation where he hasn’t worked the whole time. John was very encouraging and told me I must not let Larry do all of this. I am certain he is right, but Larry is driven by something deep inside to go, go, go, produce, produce, produce. He is all or nothing. He seldom allows himself to feel grace. Failure is unthinkable for him and I worry about what more serious health problems this may lead to. I think he thinks people expect it of him. But deep down I feel sure his heart longs to just lay his head on his Heavenly Father’s shoulder and just feel safe, protected, and accepted. No pressure, no expectations, just gentle and pure love.”

Lauri: I made this journal entry not too many months before Larry made a sinful decision that we would both regret. As his wife, I could see that he had been carrying the weight of the world and that it drove him and drove him and drove him at an alarming pace. He no longer seemed capable of relaxing. A headline of innocent people being massacred, blown-up, or run over by a radical in some part of the world sent him into a fury of activity. The plight of the Persecuted Church weighed on him increasingly. His passion was infectious and his desire to draw attention to these issues was inspiring, but he was losing any sense of balance in his personal life and, as he can now see, he had lost sight of the sovereignty of God to work in these things. John warned him that he was killing himself. We could both see what he could not: that he was becoming increasingly vulnerable to some sort of disaster. John told him that he was moving at such a manic pace that he risked a comet-like life where he would burn brightly for a time and then explode. I have heard it called “terminal velocity.” That’s the maximum speed a plane or car can go before pieces of it start flying off. That was where he was, and I felt powerless to stop him. But since he had not, at that point, done anything especially sinful, he did not heed the warnings. So, I did the only thing I could do: I prayed for him and did my best to love him.

Larry:  In retrospect, I can see clearly that Lauri and John were right. I often told Lauri that it felt like I had an engine that I just could not shut off.  We have since learned in recovery counseling that this is not uncommon among men before a blowout.  I was away from home more and more.  When home, I worked.  When on “vacation,” I worked.  I never said no to anything I deemed my calling and responsibility.  I simply could not see what I was doing.

Lauri: An older, wiser friend who served as a motherly influence in Larry’s life, often warned him that he needed to be especially mindful of a spiritual attack as his work was being blessed by the Lord. It is always on the heels of blessing that an attack occurs. The thought had crossed my mind many times when I considered the spiritually dark things Larry was taking on. To fight it, he had to be immersed in it. That must be balanced out with rest, family, friends, and the things of God. It seemed that everything was flowing out of him while nothing was flowing into him. He was never satisfied with his own performance. He spoke of grace and wrote powerfully about it. I have seen him extend grace to people many times, Sasha most of all. But he gave none to himself. It’s like it just did not exist for him. He was saved by grace but was living a works-based life, and the pieces of him just kept flying off. So, I just kept praying.

Fast-forward several years and we come to last fall. Larry came to me to tell me something important and I braced for the worst.

Larry:  Lauri is right. My wife had warned me that I was doing myself harm.  One of my great failures was not listening to her.  I took her entreaties as condemnation that I was not doing enough. I would come home exhausted, want to have only light conversation and relax, and she would say, “we need to talk,” the words no man ever wants to hear from his wife.  This meant conflict and I wanted to avoiding conflict at any cost.  I felt I was already doing all that I could do, and I couldn’t bear more.  But she was not trying to lay a guilt trip on me, she was voicing the concerns of a loving wife.  But I couldn’t slow down.  When she recently showed me what she wrote (see above) all those years ago, I was blown away by her perceptiveness and by my own blindness.

Then, as she feared, the blowout came.  Once I fell into my pit, I feared telling Lauri what I had done.  What if she did not forgive me?

I have been on the receiving end of extraordinary evil in my life.  It is a scar I will carry my whole life.  As such, I have had much to forgive.  I have felt anger and a desire to do physical harm to them that have hurt me and those that I love.  And then I am confronted with this:

“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” ~ Matthew 6:14-15

It’s the second sentence that frightens me when I think of denying grace to others.  Speaking of these verses, John Piper writes:

“Jesus is simply saying what he is saying everywhere else.  And the way I would put it is like this: If the forgiveness that we received at the cost of the blood of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is so ineffective in our hearts that we are bent on holding unforgiving grudges and bitterness against someone, we are not a good tree.  We are not saved.”

Wow.  Prior to a few years ago, I mostly thought of Matthew 6:14-15 from the perspective of the self-righteous high ground of the would-be forgiver.  But I now know both sides of this.  I have been the offended and the offender, and as the latter, I longed for Lauri’s forgiveness.  It is generally accepted that Psalm 32 was written after David’s sin with Bathsheba. In it, he says that his unconfessed sin caused his “bones to waste away through [his] groaning all day long.”  I can relate to this.  I had confessed and repented of my sin many times, and every time before communion.

But I never really felt forgiven.  That is why I repented of it over and over again.  Had the Lord forgiven me?  Yes. He is faithful and just to do so. But I didn’t feel it.  And I now know that I was never going to feel forgiven until I had confessed my sin to Lauri, the person against whom I had sinned, and received her forgiveness for what I had done.  But I feared telling her.  This sin, my sin, strikes at a woman’s deepest fears.  I loved Lauri and never meant to hurt her.  I had been an idiot, and I had a longing to be restored to a right relationship with her. But would she forgive me?

Lauri: I was utterly stunned at the confession of my husband. Nothing had prepared me for this. I realized as he spoke that my life would forever be changed by this moment. I also knew my response would be critical for my whole future and that of my entire family. In theological terms, he was confessing his sin to me and repenting of it. He was broken, and he was asking me to forgive him. Whoever imagines such a moment? No one. But I have discovered in the many months that have passed since then, that so many have had to face it or similar moments.

This began the new path I was now on and I would learn many spiritual truths that can only come from such a time of suffering and pain. I would learn, and am learning still, what genuine forgiveness means and why it is the keystone of my faith in the redemption given to us by Jesus. I have had to drink deeply from the well of forgiveness and I can testify that God’s love and grace is revealed there.

During a visit one evening with another couple who had faced a circumstance very similar to ours, we asked the question, “What made the difference for you as you chose to forgive and seek restoration?” Her answer was immediate, “Love.” My heart also resonates with that answer. Love is truly the antidote. I recently read that a Puritan preacher named Thomas Watson defined forgiveness this way:

It is when we strive against all thoughts of revenge; when we will not do our enemies mischief, but wish well to them, grieve at their calamities, pray for them, seek reconciliation with them, and show ourselves ready on all occasions to relieve them.”

This definition is personal. It means more than just saying, “I forgive you.” It means a conscious decision to expunge all evil thoughts, actions, and attitudes from our hearts toward those who have wronged us and replace them with a desire to do that person good. Jesus modeled it on the Cross. As the nails were being driven into him, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I could choose to hate. I could choose anger, bitterness, resentment. But if I desired peace and joy in my life, and if I desired to love and be loved, that would never be realized if I refused to forgive.

Larry:  We all love stories of grace, forgiveness, and redemption.  It’s part of the enduring greatness of a novel like Les Miserables and why it is a repetitive winner for Hollywood.  In fact, Hollywood loves these themes so much that it churns out movies that feature them every year.  Here is a short list that we came up with: Ordinary People, The Shawshank Redemption, The Dark Knight Rises, Man on Fire, Walk the Line, The Green Mile, Good Will Hunting, Leaving Las Vegas, Crazy Heart, The Hurricane, Hoosiers, Places in the Heart, A Tale of Two Cities, and (a personal favorite) The Kid.

These stories make us feel good.  We tear-up at the scenes of forgiveness and reconciliation.  When Jean Valjean is brought back to the priest in chains for having stolen everything of value in the priest’s humble home, we long for the priest to forgive him.  To us, it is just so obvious that forgiveness is the right thing to do.  This is, in part, because we know something that the priest doesn’t—the hardship of Valjean’s life.  But it is also because it wasn’t our stuff that Valjean stole.  Forgiveness in this case is secondhand and easy.  We aren’t the offended parties.

But Lauri was The Offended Party.  This was not abstract, and in this instance I could not know with certainty her response.  As I say, many love the idea of grace, but they just don’t give it to any but themselves in real life.  Would she forgive me when my offense was so great?

Lauri and I have agreed that we will not share the moment of my confession to her because it is simply too painful.  With that in mind, I will say this much about that painful occasion: a follower of Christ to the marrow of her bones, Lauri needed no reminder of Matthew 6:14-15.

Grace is not an instinctual response when others sin against us.  Judgment, self-righteousness, wrath, slander, gossip, and revenge are all more typical responses.  When someone says something like “Christians are judgmental,” what they really mean is that Christians often default to their natural human instincts rather than responding as the Holy Spirit would direct them.  That was at the core of my sin and it is at the core of yours, too. That is what makes grace so radical, and it is what makes Lauri’s response so remarkable.

This does not mean she did not express any other emotion.  I assure you, she did—and rightfully so.  It does not mean that she just dismissed it as no big deal.  She didn’t. But grace infused every word and every action.  There are others who have treated me much worse than she ever did.  Let that sink in for a moment.  This was not the response of a needy woman desperate to hang on to her husband; it was the response of a woman of God whose commitment was to Christ before it was to me.  It was the response of a woman who has loved me almost since the day we first met in high school.  It was the response of the woman I love.

A pastor recently told me that some years ago, a man came to him and told him that he’d had an affair.  He asked his pastor if he should confess it to his wife.  “I told him that he should,” he said.  “It was a mistake.  She did not forgive him.  Worse, she made it her mission in life to destroy him, and she succeeded in destroying both him and herself.”

This was not an encouraging story.

“A couple of months ago,” he continued.  “Another man asked me the same question.  I told him that he should definitely not tell his wife.  Do you think I was wrong?”

“I can’t answer that.  I can only tell you that I am glad that I did tell Lauri.  It was in confessing to her that I felt the full weight of what I’d done.  But it was also through her that I felt the grace and forgiveness that my heart and soul had been longing for.  It was only through confession that we could both experience the restoration we needed and wanted.  Something so wonderful is only something God could do.”

He looked pensive.

“I’ll add this,” I said.  “[A prominent evangelical] told me that in the ideal, we would always confess our sins to those we’ve offended because, in the ideal, they would always respond like Christians.  But since Christians seldom respond like Christians, it’s a dicey proposition.”

He chuckled, but we both knew it was true.

* * * * * * * * *

In the first installment of this series, I said that this blog is fundamentally an exploration of the question, “Is the Bible’s promise of redemption and restoration real or is that just more crap that Christians put on their church signage because it sounds nice”?  Lauri’s response is not a complete answer to that question, but insofar as it depended on her, the answer is a resounding yes, redemption and restoration are real.  The Lord has blessed our marriage in ways we never thought possible over the rough terrain of the last year.  And that is exactly what our counselors told us would happen.

Every day I remind Lauri that I love her, and I feel oddly liberated to do so.

Lauri:  And every day I remind Larry that I love him.  For a long time, Larry would apologize to me at some point every day.  I can honestly say that I felt great compassion for him in these moments.  I loved him and had truly forgiven him in my heart, but he struggled to receive it.  I told him that he must stop.  I didn’t need it, expect it, or want it.  But he suffers doubt that he can be loved for who he is instead of just for what he does.  So, one day I decided to give him a physical symbol of my love and forgiveness…

Larry:  She did.  Returning home one day, I couldn’t miss it.  She had tied a big, fat yellow ribbon around the old oak tree.

 

(If that reference is lost on you, this link should help.)

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