A woman who once was held captive in a Nazi prison camp struggled years later to forgive, and she admitted as much to a spiritual mentor. He gestured out the window and said, “Up in that tower is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But after the sexton lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging. First ding, then dong. Slower and slower, until there’s a final dong and it stops. I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down.”
The discipline of forgiveness
If it’s genuine, forgiving a small infraction can be a one-time event, even when the offender takes no responsibility. Yet as the story above suggests, for greater offenses, forgiveness is not an event but a discipline. It’s more like a marathon than a sprint. After miles of running at steady-state, a hill may suddenly appear making it seem as if you’re back at the starting line.
Such moments can bring a thirst for vengeance; but to indulge unforgiveness is to drink poison believing it will harm your offender. Forgiveness seems unfair because in fact it is. It’s the act of extending undeserved favor, which makes it a gift to the one on the receiving end. At the center of forgiveness is the word “give.”
Forgiving is not about fairness, but it can bring freedom. As the woman in the bell tower story concludes: “And so it proved to be. There were a few more midnight reverberations, a couple of dings when the subject came up in my conversations, but the force—which was my willingness in the matter—had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at the last stopped altogether— we can trust God not only above our emotions, but also above our thoughts.”
Have you ever found it difficult to take your hand off the rope? Did anything finally help you to let go?
Tim, I know that you know that Timothy Keller in “The Reason for God” says that there is a cost to forgiveness that is paid by the forgiver. He cites Jesus’ death as the price God paid for forgiving us. It is not easy to forgive, but essential to recovery. I like the bell analogy because the emotions do return over time as the memories are rekindled.
I guess over the years that I have been blessed with the ability to let go of “ropes” that I couldn’t do anything about. Perhaps, that is grace of a sort.
Tim Filston says
I don’t think I saw this comment until going back to rewrite this post and repost it. Thanks for the Keller quote. I may do something with it–perhaps a series on forgiveness this week.
Rope burn helps me let go. Sometimes, that’s what it takes. The trick for me is to not let the wound develop into a callous.