Sometimes the prison we’re in is of our own making.
by Rebecca Olmstead
Desperate for more of God, I had looked forward to Bible camp for weeks. But I’d begun to feel as if I’d come to a great wall. So I asked God to knock it down — or give me a ladder.
After two days at camp with no insight, I began to get discouraged. Then one morning, the pastor taught on forgiving as Jesus forgives. After his lesson, he gave an altar call for anyone struggling to forgive or who knew someone who struggled.
Two sons haven’t spoken to me for years, so I went down to pray for them. As an afterthought, I decided to pray for my ex-husband, Joe,* as well. If anyone needed help forgiving, it was he.
I was feeling pretty good about myself when God’s Spirit dumped a bucket of ice water on me: You haven’t forgiven Joe.
You haven’t forgiven Joe.
Of course I have!”
Though I’m happily married now to Chuck, a wonderful Christian man, my first marriage to Joe was anything but happy. Being divorced was even worse, with four young children caught in the middle.
I cringed each time I saw Joe’s number on caller ID, anticipating yet another verbal assault. It was because of Joe that two of our sons no longer spoke to me.
“But,” I defended myself, “I pray for him. I don’t fight with him — outside of court . . . I don’t repay evil for evil. What else can I do?”
When He didn’t respond, I returned to my seat. My pastor’s wife wrapped her arm around me.
“I’m so glad you went down,” she said. “We’ve been praying for you for weeks. The Lord’s been telling me you haven’t forgiven your ex-husband.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! What is this? I thought. Some kind of conspiracy?
“It’s affecting all your other relationships,” she went on. “It’s preventing you from being effective for God.”
Tears of frustration spilled down my cheeks. “I don’t understand,” I said.
She gave me a squeeze. “Pray about it,” she said. “Just pray.”
The rest of the day was a blur. I begged God to make me understand, but I couldn’t see past my own self-pity. That evening I called my husband — always my voice of reason. But I don’t know if I was looking for the truth or justification.
As I poured out my woes to my soul mate, a door opened in the back of my mind, flooding my consciousness with the truth of the eleven years since my divorce. Every hateful word, thought, and deed, every vicious court battle fought under the guise of doing what was best for the kids. . . .
The ugly truth was, I hated my ex-husband — and I loved it. I wanted him to pay for destroying our family — for the rest of his miserable life.
In the mirror of Christ’s perfection I saw clearly how dirty I was inside. How could I expect the pure holiness of my God to dwell in such filth? And yet, how could I live without something that had been a part of me for so long? The thought terrified me.
All that night I pleaded for God to help me. I returned to the altar the next morning.
“Lord,” I prayed, “I don’t know how to do what You’re asking of me. I want more of You, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes. But You’re going to have to show me how.”
Let it go.
My tears pooled on the altar as all the pain, fear, guilt, and grief of the last twenty-six years welled up in me. Every memory of how this man had hurt and betrayed me. Every nasty word he had said to and about me. Every friend and relative who had turned their back on me because of what he had told them. Every tear our children had cried because of something he had said or done.
Everything in me screamed, “But he doesn’t deserve to be forgiven!”
My Father’s answer came swiftly and quietly. Do you deserve My forgiveness? I crumbled under the weight of His words.
Joe is My child too, He went on. I love him every bit as much as I love you.
All this time I’d fooled myself into thinking that my good behavior made me more loveable to God. Yet now I felt His love envelope me.
You’ve been trying so hard to protect yourself, My child. You cannot protect yourself. Only I can protect you. Let Me protect you.
So that’s what this was all about. Trusting God. My need for justification, my fear of getting hurt again, my desire to come out on top, and my belief that I deserved it. It was all a lie.
I wasn’t a helpless reactionary — a victim. I was making a choice. I was choosing myself over God.
What I was really choosing was prison over freedom. I wanted out of that prison, yet I was terrified of what lay beyond the walls. The walls I’d been building, not since my first marriage but from the time I learned that people could hurt me.
“Lord,” I cried. “What You ask is beyond me. You’re going to have to do it for me. I’ll do whatever You tell me to do, but You will have to deal with my heart.”
I began to imagine what this would look like. I’d probably have to write Joe a letter, forget the back child support he owed — maybe even write him a check. I only knew that whatever the Lord told me to do, I would do it — no matter how much it hurt.
Commitment and conflict
When my husband came to retrieve us from camp a few days later, we all wrote our prayers on scraps of paper and carried them up Prayer Mountain and nailed them to the cross that stood at the top.
At home that night, sleep didn’t come. I had to teach the adult Bible class the next morning, and the events of the week churned in my mind. I mulled over my testimony, praying for guidance, and wondering when God would give me direction concerning Joe.
Suddenly, He spoke. You will go to Joe and ask his forgiveness.
Normally this would be the worst thing He could ask of me. But the moment He spoke the words, the power of God’s love hit me like a tsunami, taking with it every ounce of hate, fear, and unforgiveness.
The weight of the world lifted from me. Not only did I know I could ask Joe to forgive me, I couldn’t wait to ask! A love I’d never known before filled me. Supernatural love. I spent the rest of the night in praise and worship beside my sleeping husband, not willing a moment’s separation from God’s presence.
It took several weeks to get Joe to respond to my calls and e-mails. When he did, it was with great caution. I realized then the fear I had caused him. When he finally met with me, he was stunned by what God had done in me.
“I’ll forgive you on one condition,” he said. “That you forgive me.” We spent and hour and a half talking, crying, even laughing. We ended our meeting with a prayer for healing for our family, and I floated back home on air.
Two years earlier, you would never have convinced me that such a meeting could occur. I don’t know why. Not that long ago God had changed a cancerous tumor in my sacral nerve root into small lump of unidentifiable tissue. If He was capable of changing the composition of a tumor, couldn’t He just as easily change my heart?
“Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36, NKJV). I thank The Lord every day for freeing me from the prison of unforgiveness — and for giving me the faith to trust Him to do it!
*Not his real name.