“I’m holding down the sand!” My daughter stamped down the shifting beach sand with all her might, trying to keep the waves from pulling it away. Her desperate attempts to contain the earth beneath her feet has become an image of my own desire for control. I struggle to analyze and understand, to force clarity where things remain fuzzy. I take comfort in knowledge and facts, and not in allowing the mystery to unfold before me. I am a child “holding down the sand” of a shoreline, clueless to the relative insignificance of my 35-pound self within this vast landscape.
In the desert scene of today’s Gospel, the devil preys on this desire to control. He offers Jesus everything that could be lacking after forty days of fasting in solitude. Unlike Jesus who remains confident that God will provide all that He needs, I am swayed by fatigue, frustration, and fear.
These emotions can become crutches enabling me to cling to past hurts and expectations, rather than invitations to place my trust in God. The Lenten themes of penance, forgiveness, and reconciliation provide a poignant backdrop to these readings. The actions of sacrifice and self-giving in Lent are meant to create greater space to receive the forgiveness that Jesus offers on the cross. But what if I am feeling stuck in the desert in despair? Have I already decided that a significant relationship in my life is fractured beyond repair? Or the weight of my own failings is too heavy, and I cannot possibly crawl back from that pit? How might someone enter into the Lenten season while feeling significant resistance to forgiveness?
Feel the sand beneath your feet
God always meets me where I truly am, which is not necessarily where I think I am or where I want to be. One of the most helpful prayers for me when I am struggling with forgiveness (of myself or another person) is to get in touch with that reality. “Lord, I want to be able to forgive this person, but I am still so angry.” “I feel like a fraud, I cannot move on from this.” “Who am I to feel this hurt, other people have way bigger issues than me?” For me, healing comes in gradual waves, like Jesus healing the blind man at Bethsaida. Before I can truly forgive, I must be honest with myself about what remains broken in me.
I place myself in the desert alongside Jesus, and I feel the sand beneath our feet. I note the heat coming up from it, feel the coarse textures, and note the way it moves between my toes. The sand has both isolated me, and also given me the space to encounter my true self in a more vulnerable way. Where am I? Who am I with? What voices are calling out to me in that place? Can you find a physical space for prayer, a song, a Scripture, anything that grounds you in your authentic mental and spiritual state?
Name what is really going on
A friend recently shared how she recognized in herself a growing resentment for another person with whom she had conflict. The “wrong” the person had done had begun to morph into an actual dislike of the person. After listening to her, I realized I too struggled with this temptation. In a similar encounter, I kept waiting for the other person to change, or to admit that they were ineffective in their role. I lost sight of where God might have been calling me to greater compassion and mentorship. When the devil offers Jesus bread, Jesus responds “One does not live on bread alone.” I was so focused on what might feed me (or rather my own ego) that I missed opportunities to notice where God was offering me life-giving bread in my ministry and in my family.
In some relationships, we are always keeping track of who is more deserving (of excuses, sacrifices) and who has given more (finances, time, chances). When we get caught in that dynamic, we tend to cling more fiercely to what we have while demanding more from those around us. Suddenly our compassion and concern have more conditions on it. Instead of facing our own lukewarm desire to respond generously, we run from the discomfort and avoid engagement. We say things like: “despite what he has done to me” or “even though she is a ________.” Our focus shifts from the person before us to what we are “owed.”
Remember that forgiveness Isn’t a Pass/Fail test
Perhaps I am most guilty of holding God to this test. God who doesn’t answer my prayers, God who lets bad things happen to good people, God who responds in silence. I keep telling God how he hasn’t measured up to my expectations. Why should I show up in prayer again, or give HIM one more chance? Often when I am struggling to forgive another person, it is because I don’t want to deal with my own hurts, or I am not willing to change something in me that is contributing to that strained dynamic.
Three times the devil tempted Jesus to choose the easy way… and three times Jesus pushed back and chose the path of faithfulness. Lucky for us, God keeps inviting us over and over again (70×7 times) into that reconciling relationship with God. The ground shifts, a new opportunity to trust in God emerges. Some days I’ve missed every question God has sent my way, every invitation to forgive or be forgiven. I’ve chosen security, power, knowledge. Yet, God keeps calling out to me as God’s Beloved. And for that I am grateful.
Forgiveness has many different contexts and dimensions.
- If you are sitting with your own woundedness in prayer, Vinita Hampton Wright has some insights.
- If you are struggling to forgive yourself, this post by Charlotte Phillips is a wonderful resource.
- If you are seeking forgiveness from another person, this article from Beth Knobbe may guide you.
- If you are struggling to forgive another, consider reading Marina Berzins McCoy’s The Ignatian Guide to Forgiveness.
Read more from this series on the Into the Deep group blog.