Here in Atlanta, pastor Andy Stanley often tells the story of a couple in his church whose newborn baby was dropped on its head by their obstetrician who was drunk when he delivered the baby. Several years later, the child has severe and permanent brain damage, but the couple has very publicly forgiven the doctor and reconciled with him. It really is quite a testament to the “absorption” that is necessary to move forward in some semblance of a friendship with someone who has wronged you horribly. To forgive like this is to take the emotions of anger, horror, incredulity, and vengeance and do something counter-intuitive with them. Instead of lashing out at the source of these emotions, forgiveness lashes inward, taking on (absorbing) the full weight of the guilt of the offending party.
Such a gesture seems otherworldly, even to those of us who think we have a decent understanding of what it might look like to forgive like God does. Some of us observe this and think, “I just hope that I could respond with that kind of grace and forgiveness if I were ever in a situation like that”. Others may feel more of a disconnect with this scenario, “though I fully see this as a picture of God’s forgiveness, I don’t believe that I could extend it to that level, it would just be too hard”.
Jon Dorenbos admits as much. When the Philadelphia Eagle’s Pro Bowl long-snapper was 12, his otherwise mild-mannered father bludgeoned his mother to death in a fit of rage. Dorenbos and his older sister went to live with an aunt, where Dorenbos took up magic as a hobby he could pour himself into in a way that helped distract him from the aftermath of the tragic event. His story was given a spotlight in a segment this week on HBO’s Real Sports. Long-snappers in the NFL typically toil in anonymity, but Dorenbos is a celebrity in Phildelphia. His talent for magic and his demonstrative, good-natured presence (combined with his tragic backstory) have garnered him a strong following.
In the segment, Bryant Gumbel asked Dorenbos if he has forgiven his father (who has recently been released from prison). Dorenbos responded, “I have come to a place where I have been able to forgive him, and I’ve moved on with my life”. Gumbel followed up, “have you had contact with him?, and do you have any desire to see him or speak to him”? Dorenbos, “no”. I found myself startled by my initial reaction to Dorenbos’s response. My thought was, “Come on man, it was a fit of rage, your father has paid for what he has done, and you won’t even talk to him? That’s gonna tear you up inside, dude!” It’s as if I somehow know (because I’ve witnessed what supposed “real forgiveness” looks like) what’s going on inside of him and how he can most “effectively” deal with it.
Processing pain and tragedy is difficult and complex, and we process them according to how our vastly different experiences and identities tell us to. Still, I find myself projecting onto other situations how I think forgiveness should go, and how others should do it. I tend to expect people to communicate their “perspective” on pain and suffering with all of the eloquence of Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov:
I believe that suffering will be healed and made up for, that in the world’s finality, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that’s been shed, that it will make it not just possible to forgive, but to justify all that’s happened. – Brothers Karamazov
I do believe this is true. I have to believe that this is how it’s going to work – it seems the best answer and best hope for what “I make all things new” (Revelation 21) is going to look like. However, I’ve never been through what those parents with the injured baby have been through, or what Jon Dorenbos has been through. If it were me, if I’m honest, my very imperfect ability to forgive would likely reside somewhere between non-existent and “Lord, I do believe, help me in my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).