There I was, sitting at a bonfire surrounded by a few girlfriends—all sharing a portion of our story. This week’s topic was forgiveness—or maybe a better title was “unforgiveness”! I had already committed in my head that tonight would be the night! I had come to the realization that I wasn’t hurting anyone but myself by holding on and not forgiving. I was drinking the poison but expecting all those who hurt me to feel the effects.
And finally, it hit me; what was I missing out on in the story God had written for me by being stuck and unable to move forward? I was missing the anticipation and excitement for where God wanted to take me next after I did as He asks us to do in Ephesians 4:32 (NIV)—“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
By no coincidence, but by God’s perfect timing, I was also in the middle of reading Dr. Henry Cloud’s book Boundaries. I made a list of those I needed to forgive—I’ll admit, some names were still so hard to write incompleteness, their initials would have to be sufficient. After all, I knew who they were, God knew who they were, and that’s all that mattered. My list wasn’t lengthy, but, yes, the top name on the list was mine! For a few minutes, I held on to that paper; I tried to imagine why I had never done this before. Why had I clung to pain, guilt, sorrow, and shame for so many years?
You see, at about the age of 11, I started gymnastics. I was never going to be any kind of star, but it was an activity I enjoyed and had fun at. That all came to a screeching halt when I was 12 years old, and the coach I had trusted molested me. This incident was just the start of a downward spiral. I lost both grandfathers about the same time, broke my leg and had crutches in middle school, and got braces all at once! Middle school transitions and puberty are so awkward, anyway, let alone adding all of this to it.
With no counseling to navigate what happened to me, I was left to my own understanding. For a while, I just put myself in survival mode but was always watching my back and feared the “what if’s.” What if he showed up at my school? What if I saw him out in public? Always.. what if. I spent many, many passing periods standing in the stairwell, staring out the window, looking at every car in the parking lot to be sure he didn’t show up at my school.
A few years later, I began hanging around with big, strong guys at school—somehow, I thought they could protect me! I engaged in unhealthy relationships, both emotionally and sexually. I continued to stuff those feelings, fears, and heartaches deeper and deeper until I had thought they were honestly gone! I convinced myself I had dealt with them.
In the book Boundaries I referenced at the beginning, I learned, “Victims of physical and sexual abuse often have a poor sense of boundaries. Early in life, they were taught that their property didn’t really begin at their skin” (Cloud et al., 36). Unfortunately, this happened to me, as, looking back, I can now see that my abuse triggered a tailspin of boundary issues for me during one of the toughest phases of life and, consequently, continued to perpetuate boundary issues later on.
For many years, I simply was treading water. I entertained conversations I shouldn’t have, I was exposed to fears I never should have been. As I look back many of those years I kept my head down, focus on school work and blacked out most of my memories. I went on and married my high school boyfriend after graduating college, went through treatment for infertility, and finally welcomed a beautiful little girl. Shortly after my marriage ended, my daughter decided she wanted to do gymnastics! Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with all those emotions I thought I had stuffed far enough down they couldn’t be brought up again!
Fast forward nearly 24 years after my life forever changed (and many mistakes later!)… I sat around that bonfire with tears pouring down my face. What exactly did letting go of all that hurt, unforgiveness, shame and condemnation really mean? Had I held on to it all those years unknowingly using it as a crutch? Had it been a justification of sorts for poor choices? A deep need to constantly control my environment to feel safe and, at times, even controlling those around me? Had I used it to justify unexplained emotions and pain I felt in different relationships?
I know I can’t ever fathom all the impacts holding on to it has had, but I knew I wanted it gone, and gone forever! I knew I wanted to see the prosperity of God’s promises to me come to flourish more than I wanted that crutch any longer. So, I chucked that list into the fire! The physical representation of those events and feelings became ash, and I saw how easily God could take away what I let define me for decades. It literally shriveled up and was gone in seconds! The emotional weight departed my shoulders, and I literally started feeling lighter. I left it all FOREVER at the foot of the cross….
Suddenly, my lungs held more air; there was space in my chest! My heart felt an unexplainable wave of peace, the Holy Spirit filling every single speck of space that had been consumed with fear, anxiety, blame, and shame before! I sat for a few moments conflicted—mourning the impact I’d let the unforgiveness have on me, mourning the paths some poor choices had led me down, but also with a half smile on my face as the realization set in that Satan NO longer gets to hold me hostage and in bondage!
God never, ever intended for me or any of you to feel that bondage or become hostage to the feelings of shame, blame, hopelessness, fear, anxiety, and so many more emotions from abuse! God wants us to feel the peace only He can offer us! And I found it—in the fire and ash.
So I ask, what do you need to let become ash in your life?