Maybe some bridges are just too long to cross.
A young Harry Truman dreamed of attending West Point. Poor eye sight disqualified him, but it would not deter him from entering the military. Harry signed up with the National Guard in 1905. Reflecting on the event he said, "I was twenty-one ... and could do as I pleased."
Pulitzer-prize winning author David McCullough adds this interesting anecdote from the life of our thirty-third President:
His first encampment that summer was at Cape Girardeau, in the far-off southeastern corner of Missouri. He went by train as far as St. Louis, then down the Mississippi by steamboat, "quite an experience." He came home a corporal – "the biggest promotion I ever received" – and for a weekend visit to the Young farm put on his new dark blue dress uniform with its beautiful red piping on the sleeves, expecting to impress his grandmother. But as he stepped through the door, she could think only of Union soldiers. He was never to wear it again in her presence, she said.
Harry was a wise young man. He knew that his grandmother was steeped in Southern tradition, that she lived in a democratic hotbed, and that she had endured the ignominy of being on the "losing end" the Civil War. Asking her to appreciate his "dress blues" (the color of the North) was asking her to take a long walk over a bad memory.
Decades had not healed the rift in her heart. If anything, time had only exasperated the frustration she felt. And while forgiveness could bridge that divide, the wounds of the war had left her so tender that she was not willing to endure such a painful walk. That bridge was just too far to cross.
I still see the stubborn resistance of Truman's grandmother from time to time. I see it in Christians who have experienced the power of God's forgiveness, but somehow seem unable to extend it to others who have harmed them. This leaves me bewildered. How long is a Christian allowed to carry a grudge?
This bothers me -- not because I've got it all figured out, or because I have ceased to struggle with forgiveness myself. I'm caught between truth and pain. Truth says God has put away our sins as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). Truth says God's attitude of forgiveness is to be our motivation, model, and power for forgiveness: "Who should forgive, but those who have been forgiven" (Colossians 3:13). But then there is pain. The pain of biting words, bitter emotions, and bad blood. That is something not easily erased.
How do we live in this tension of truth and pain? I find a clue in Romans 12. Read this closely, especially verse eighteen (in bold):
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:14-21
Romans 12:18 has always seemed to me to be the asterisk attached to the command to forgive. The point here is not if we should forgive. Jesus has not left us an option on that matter (Matthew 18:21-22). The point is that forgiveness is hard. God knows that we are slow to forgive at times. He knows that some hurts are deep, that some wounds heal very slowly, and some reconciliation may never occur until bitter enemies meet on the streets of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:1-5). Because of this we must be patient in the process.
As for me, I can stand on the sidelines and bemoan the slowness of others to forgive, but I haven't lived with their pain. Of course that doesn't change the truth -- we are called to forgive -- but it does help me to remember that forgiveness can be a long and difficult process.
I am learning . . . to enjoy the forgiveness of God, to extend forgiveness as God has forgiven me, and to strive to be more patient as some look at the long bridge and tremble.
- "I was twenty-one and ..." from Robert F. Ferrell,ed, The Autobiography of Harry S. Truman, Boulder, Colorado: Colorado Associated University Press, 1980. Quoted in Truman, by David McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Page 72.
- "His first encampment that summer . . ." from Truman, page 72.