I have three brothers. Two older and one younger. We are all well into mid life, and we are all estranged. There are a lot of reasons, I suppose, for this estrangement. Some tragic and some just plain old dumb. Our mother is in a nursing home, and our father passed away long ago. So the bind of a whole family is well behind us. During the holidays, it often makes me sad to think so much time has gone by, and I’ll probably never know my earthly brothers any more than I do now.
For one brother, Steve, our relationship is especially painful. He has lived a life addicted to drugs, alcohol, lying, and self promotion. At one point he owned a pawn shop through which he became wealthy, and his drugs and alcohol and greed eventually landed him in jail, divorced and homeless.
Steve is a clever salesman. Ready, willing and able to say the right things to make you believe you either need what he has or have misinterpreted some event such that he is guiltless.
Recently, he entered a Christian rehabilitation facility. He’s been going to bible study, he’s been sober for 60 days, and he calls me several times a week asking why I won’t talk to him. “Afterall,” he has been saying, “I haven’t done anything wrong, have I?”
I talked to the pastor at the facility, and I told him my side of the story. I think he already knew the darker sides of Steve, and was aware of the challenges ahead. He said two things that have been nagging me.
First, he told me that he has been helping Steve understand his old life is gone, and never coming back. No fancy cars. No exotic vacations. No wife. No big income derived from pawning people’s possessions (in fact, more likely a job with an hourly wage).
Second, he said Steve is really charming. The life of the party. “And I can see how God might be able to use him.”
“Wait a minute, use Steve for what? Don’t you see that the lure and hook are set? he’s done this exact thing his whole life. Let me give you a few examples…”
“Maybe you’re right, Paul” Pastor Keith said. “But what if God has other plans and this is the point where Steve does change and this is the point when God begins to use Steve for His purposes?”
My reaction? Not possible. More than not possible. Impossible. No change ever possible and change for Steve will never, never happen. He has caused so much pain in people’s lives, he cannot be forgiven and he cannot be a part of God’s plan. That is solely reserved for people who are forgivable, and by no means does that include Steve.
In the last few weeks since the conversation with Pastor Keith, I have been thinking and praying about my brother and the way I have felt. I have wondered just how much my own self is getting in the way of what God is doing in the world. And what I have been really wondering about is whether or not I believe God really can do anything and really can use anyone and really, really offers salvation to everyone. I don’t want God forgiving him until I have had a chance to to confront him a bit. Fair enough, right?
For those of us who have been hurt deeply by others, this is no easy situation. But it really sits at the core of our belief. Are we as Christians really called to forgive those who have really hurt us? In my mind, this seems plausible. But my heart is far behind.
Each day, as I pray, the words are actually formulating in my head, and touching my heart, “I forgive you Steve, and I love you.” I am being changed slowly. But I admit I do not like it. This whole thing makes me uncomfortable. There is still a lot of work to be done.
So what I am learning now is that Steve has his own struggles. And he has a lot to overcome. But for me, if I can’t really forgive Steve, it says more about my capacity to forgive than Steve’s capacity to seek forgiveness. I am sure God understands this, but my sense is He wants to conform me more to His likeness — and his capacity for forgiveness — because that is what it means to be Christian.