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By MATTHEW WEST
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Matthew West
All rights reserved.
This section begins with a true story told by a woman named Renee. In fact, her story is actually the reason why this little book exists. A few years ago Renee was among the first to respond when I asked people to share their story. The moment I read her tragically beautiful telling of the freedom she found in forgiveness, I thought to myself, The whole world needs to hear this story. So here it is....
It's the hardest thing to give away The last thing on your mind today It always goes to those who don't deserve
I never understood why God would ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the son he had waited so long to have. I also always hoped He would never require such a sacrifice of me.
Once my first child, a son, was born, I really couldn't understand how Abraham just did what God told him to do. The love a parent has for a child is like no other. God also blessed me with three daughters, the last two being identical twins. I love my children with all my heart and could never imagine living without any one of them.
I now have a mission I did not choose: DUI presentations.
On May 11, 2002, a twenty-four-year-old drunk driver named Eric killed one of my twins, Meagan, and her friend Lisa, both girls twenty years old. This event was devastating for all three families involved and the countless friends who mourned the loss of these precious girls. Words cannot fully describe the pain and loss I felt.
In the weeks and months that followed, I spiraled into a dark hole that I could not seem to get out of. Eric was the one behind bars, but I felt like the one being held prisoner. I could not imagine life without Meagan. I wanted to go back and fix it. But I couldn't do that.
I'd always had a childlike faith, but suddenly my faith had been shaken like never before. Everything I'd always believed in had been thrown up in the air, and I didn't know what to believe anymore. But I needed to know that there was a heaven. I wanted to believe my daughter was there and I would see her again. The grief was so heavy, I felt like it was going to suffocate me. I had no joy. I would listen to praise and worship music in my car, but I couldn't sing. I had so much anger inside of me, so much rage. But God wrapped His arms around me in that darkness. He let me know that He was with me.
I began to turn in the direction of forgiveness at Eric's sentencing, seventeen months after the accident. Throughout the entire trial Eric had shown little remorse for what he had done. This only served to fuel my anger. But I walked into his final sentencing already knowing in my heart I needed to forgive him. Then, as my entire family sat in the courtroom waiting to hear the judge's verdict, Eric stood to share some last words. He began to weep as he said how sorry he was for what he had done. Then he turned to face my family and me. He stood there in handcuffs and a prison jumpsuit, tears streaming down his face, looking at me, and he said, "I would give my own life if it would bring back these girls, but it won't ... and I'm so sorry."
That was a moment when healing began in my life. Suddenly, instead of anger, I began to feel compassion for this young man who had made a tragic mistake. For a long time I'd thought that by forgiving Eric, I would be betraying my daughter or, in a way, leaving her behind. I thought forgiving Eric was almost like saying, "What he did doesn't matter." But God showed me that forgiving Eric was the best way to honor Meagan and to assure that her loving legacy would live on.
Today my story is a story of healing and forgiveness. My family and Lisa's family chose to forgive Eric. We even appealed to have his twenty-two-year prison sentence reduced. The judge granted our request, and today Eric is a free man. But he's not the only one who is free. I've been set free from the burden I carried for so long, the burden of bitterness.
TWO PRISONERS, ONE WORD
To forgive is to set a prisoner free and then discover that the prisoner was you.
Lewis B. Smedes
A good story can make you lose yourself. A great one can help you to find yourself too. A great story has the power both to inspire you and trouble you. It can leave you challenged but also conflicted. Renee's is a great story.
Usually I tend to work out my thoughts and emotions in response to stories like Renee's in my songwriting. But I humbly admit that, as a songwriter, I hadn't the slightest clue how to give her story a voice. How could I paint a delicate picture of a topic that so many find so difficult? The main hurdle I couldn't seem to get over was my fear that writing a song telling people they should forgive would make me the greatest hypocrite in history: How can I write a song encouraging people to forgive like Renee has when I have a hard enough time forgiving the guy who cuts me off in rush hour traffic, let alone extending grace to someone who deeply offended me or—as in Renee's case—took the life of someone I dearly loved? That kind of forgiveness seems impossible. That's why the lyrics of the chorus wound up being written as a prayer from a fool who struggles to forgive rather than as a command from an armchair quarterback:
Show me how to love the unlovable
Show me how to reach the unreachable
Help me now to do the impossible
Those words stirred something in my soul, but the rest of the song remained unwritten. So I carried Renee's story around with me in my guitar case for a couple of years. Something just wouldn't allow the song to be finished, but I couldn't get Renee's story out of my head either. I now realize that God's perfect timing was the reason for the delay. Little did I know that very soon Eric would be released from prison. Since Renee had written to me, I had no idea how her story—and Eric's—had unfolded.
Out of curiosity, on the day I finished recording Renee's song, "Forgiveness," I did a Google search of her name to see if I could find any updates to her story. I sat in shock as I read in The Huffington Post of Eric's pending release from prison. Now I understood: the song that I had struggled to complete was not meant for two years ago; it was a song for such a time as this. My heart leaped for joy upon the realization that Eric would be released from prison, a free man, just as their song would be playing on radio stations all across the country. This was shaping up to be a special season that God had undoubtedly orchestrated. Soon the world would have the chance to witness what I had seen a few years earlier through Renee's testimony: the power of forgiveness.
Looking back at the lyrics of the song, I clearly understood that God had His hand on my pen. I know of no other way to explain how surprisingly relevant lines like these are to Renee and Eric's story:
It'll clear the bitterness away
It can even set a prisoner free
There is no end to what its power can do
So let it go and be amazed
By what you see through eyes of grace
The prisoner that it really frees is you
When I originally penned those words, I had no idea that a prisoner was about to, literally, be set free. I was just so moved by Renee's discovery that she needed what forgiveness had to offer just as much as the offender did, saying, "Eric was the one behind bars, but I felt like the one being held prisoner." Author G. K. Chesterton wrote, "To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless." Renee will be the first to tell you that forgiveness is anything but easy. But her story reveals the lesson she learned: forgiveness is a necessity.
Psalm 30:5 promises, "Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning." Renee has spent more nights weeping than any mother should. And because she will forever miss her daughter, Renee will most likely weep some more until the day she is once again reunited with her beloved Meagan. But just like Eric, Renee is no longer a prisoner. Forgiveness has set her free. Corrie ten Boom, the inspiring evangelist and author who suffered greatly under Hitler's regime and in his concentration camps, wrote this: "Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness."
If you weep with the groans of injustice or because of loss beyond words, take heart. Joy is coming. And forgiveness will help you recognize and receive it.
This happened a few years back. My wife and I, both believers, had been married for about twenty-three years when we started falling away from God, not fellowshipping, not reading the Bible, and not praying. Just generally falling away and, at the same time, becoming distant from each other. Kind of living our own separate lives. We weren't fighting or being nasty to each other. Just distant. Well, I ended up having an affair, and it lasted for months. Cheryl, my wife, suspected, but I kept denying. It finally came to a head. I admitted it and was set to leave her for this other woman.
Then a longtime friend—who is also a brother in the Lord—stepped in and talked to me. He happened to call right when I was packing some stuff up to leave. He didn't even know I was home. He called to check on Cheryl. He was about an hour away, but he promised to be at his house in an hour and wanted me to come and talk to him. At first I refused, but something made me decide to talk with him. When I did, he reminded me of where I had come from. How close to God I was for so long. He reminded me of a time he and I were driving along the road, and when we saw a nice view of some beautiful scenery, I'd said to him, "I know the Guy who made that!" My offhand comment had stuck with him. As we talked together, God softened my heart and called me back to Him.
I called the other woman and told her I was going back to my wife—and back to God. Then I called Cheryl and told her. When I got home, she was outside waiting for me, and we ran to each other's arms! Oh, man! What a moment! It brings tears to my eyes as I write this! That was almost eight years ago. Cheryl accepted me back, and we built our relationship back up by putting God at the forefront. We've never been happier, and for all the world, I would never ever give her up again!
This is what forgiveness means to me. It means that the love my wife has for me is so very real that, although I don't even deserve to have her ever be a part of my life, she has decided to put the hurts, the deception, the violation aside, to welcome me to be her husband, and to rebuild what we had lost. As I think about this forgiveness, I am overwhelmed. I am completely unworthy. I had sinned against my God, my wife, and myself. I had violated the vow I had made to my wife. Yet God forgives me and accepts me just as my wife forgives me and accepts me. I can't think about this without a flood of emotion washing over me. It thrills me beyond compare.
I think the one word I associate with forgiveness is love. True love. Real love. Overwhelming love. Undeserved love. The kind of love I almost destroyed. But God saw to it and restored love in our lives! He made it possible for us to renew our relationship with Him and with each other. Nothing else in my life comes close to this feeling of being forgiven and this truth that I am truly loved. Cheryl and I have experienced the hand of God, and He is very real to us! Now forgiveness is an ever-present truth in my life. I've lived it.
[God] has restored our relationship with him through Christ, and has given us this ministry of restoring relationships.
2 Corinthians 5:18 GW
I have read hundreds of stories that center around the topic of marriage. I have read about the good, the bad, and the ugly. And I've read enough—and been married long enough—to know that every marriage will have its fair share of all three. Sadly, many of the stories I read have an ending I wish I had the power to rewrite. Vows broken, love betrayed, and one or both spouses choosing to go when the going got tough. Many marriages that are invaded by infidelity do end in divorce. Some endings are unavoidable: one spouse may have absolutely no desire to see a marriage through. But Joe's story testifies to the power of forgiveness and how God can miraculously mend a relationship that appears far beyond repair.
Joe's marriage had never been worse. He made a poor choice and walked away from the riches of God's blessing, the riches of marriage and a wife. Joe chose an unhealthy relationship with someone other than his wife, and he was on the verge of breaking every single vow he had made to her. He was about to leave before "death do us part." But this is where grace stepped in. The real hero in this story is Joe's wife, Cheryl. With God's help, she forgave her husband and made the bold choice to trust that God could somehow restore what the Enemy had all but destroyed.
As I write this, I realize that Cheryl's forgiveness story—like many I selected for this book—offers a picture of forgiveness that leaves me humbled by the thought, I don't think I could forgive if I were in her situation. I can't even bear the thought of finding out that my closest friend, my partner in life, my wife had been unfaithful. It makes me sick to my stomach just to think about it. Yet I am drawn to stories like these because they remind me just how lopsided forgiveness can feel, how forgiveness can go against any logic and every definition of what is fair in our eyes or in the eyes of the world.
When I am wronged, I want justice. When I am the one who was wrong, I prefer grace. But if the end result of forgiveness were fairness, grace would not be necessary. We would always get what we deserve, and no one would ever get a second chance. Grace is unmerited, undeserved, unearned, and unequal favor—and grace is anything but fair. Philip Yancey wrote, "Forgiveness offers a way out. It does not settle all questions of blame and fairness—often it pointedly evades those questions—but it does allow a relationship to start over, to begin anew." Eight years after Cheryl forgave Joe, they stand together as proof that a relationship can start over.
Starting over has to start somewhere. Both Joe and Cheryl could have chosen easier roads. Joe's bags were packed. He could have left, as many husbands do, making Cheryl's decision much easier. Or Cheryl could have kicked Joe to the curb and told him never to return again, making Joe feel that he was right to pack those bags after all. But in this story neither Cheryl nor Joe chose the easy road. Instead of pride, Joe chose humility. Instead of excuses, Joe chose repentance. Instead of hatred, Cheryl chose love. Instead of revenge, Cheryl chose mercy. Make no mistake about it: that picture Joe painted of the reunited couple hugging and crying in the driveway was only the first step on what has been a long road to restoration. And if either one had balked at the possibility of reconciliation, this story would have a much different ending. Lewis B. Smedes wrote, "It takes one person to forgive. It takes two people to be reunited." Forgiveness in situations like these only happens for those who dare to believe that some things in life are worth fighting for. Joe and Cheryl fought for their marriage, and God is restoring it day by day.
Now, here's where their story came to life for me—and for a whole bunch of other people as well. I recently had the honor of meeting Joe and Cheryl in person. The love they have for each other was so obvious you could spot it a mile away—they were carrying on like newlyweds! Her face lit up when she talked about Joe. Tears came to Joe's eyes when he told me in person about how she forgave him. They were the kind of couple that made me want to step outside and call my wife just to tell her how much I love her. And, by the way, I did call her right after my show that night.
These are lyrics from a song I wrote called "Restored" that was inspired by Joe and Cheryl's story:
I believe love can be restored
If we take a little less this time
and give a little more
So, hold onto me
I promise you we'll make it through this
stronger than we've ever been before
Let's be the proof that love can be
At that concert, I invited Joe and Cheryl up on stage to share their forgiveness story, and I played "Restored." After the concert three married couples came forward for prayer, each in the exact situation Joe and Cheryl had once found themselves in. These couples were on the verge of divorce, but they were so moved by the reconciliation they witnessed in Joe and Cheryl, they began believing that maybe, just maybe, God could restore their marriage as well. That, my friends, is the power of a story.
Excerpted from FORGIVENESS by MATTHEW WEST. Copyright © 2013 Matthew West. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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