The following is an excerpt from the book, Falling to Heaven: The Surprising Path to Happiness, by James L. Ferrell. We will share one chapter or excerpt, with permission, each week. To see the previous chapter, click here.
I grew up in Seattle, Washington. We lived in what I would regard to be kind of an idyllic middle-class environment. We never really wanted for anything but, mercifully, weren’t surrounded by riches either. Our home was a one-story rambler with a walkout basement. Our two-car carport was half filled with an old eighteen-foot boat we used so little that it actually rusted to the trailer (a big embarrassment, I can assure you, when, after many years, we tried to launch it in front of an incredulous crowd at the marina). The other half of the carport was always occupied by a station wagon of some sort (yellow with brown wood paneling being my personal favorite).
From the facing on the roof of the carport hung a basketball hoop. Placed about nine feet high directly beneath the basket, it was eleven feet high from twenty feet away—the angle of the driveway making for a wonderful home court advantage. It is impossible to calculate how many hours I spent shooting baskets on that court. It is also impossible to calculate how important it was for my development—both in sports and in life—to have spent many of those hours playing against Mark and Dave Bean, my Church-member neighbors, who were three and four years older than I was. Both of them gifted athletes, for some reason they treated me as if I were their age, and we spent hours and days and likely years together playing basketball, or football, or baseball, or Ping-Pong, or anything else involving projectiles of one sort or another. The Beans were two of the most influential and best friends of my childhood. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t have our moments.
One day, when I was still quite young—perhaps nine years old or so—the three of us were playing a game on their back patio. It involved a wooden top that you launched into a wooden box that was arranged into compartments or rooms. In each room were placed miniature wooden bowling pins. The more difficult pins to reach had higher point values. The object was to make the top spin fast enough that it would frantically dart from one room to the next and knock down as many pins, for as many points, as possible. We had played this game many times, often as a brief diversion from Ping-Pong or some other activity. It was still quite early on this particular summer day, probably around nine A.M. or so, when I took my turn with the top. I gripped the string tightly and yanked it with everything I had. But then, instead of hearing the tight rumble of the whirling top, there was silence. The top had evaporated into thin air. We looked around and at each other. Where had it gone? After a moment it was obvious that instead of propelling the top onto the playing surface, I had somehow launched it skyward.
“Hey, Ferrell,” one of the Bean boys said, “you lost our top!”
“I didn’t mean to,” I defended myself. “I don’t know what happened.
“You better find it or we’re going to beat you up!” the other one threatened.
“But I don’t know what happened!” I said, bursting into tears.
“We don’t care, you’d better find it anyway.”
For a few minutes I wandered aimlessly around our adjoining yards. Nothing. Dave and Mark were looking as well, but they too came up empty.
“I can’t find it,” I lamented.
“Well, you’d better,” they insisted.
Their earlier threat still hung in the air between us. “But what if I can’t?”
At that, I dashed back to the safety of my house and locked the door.
So began more than a year of estrangement from my neighbors and best friends. We didn’t play with each other anymore. In fact, we barely spoke, and when we did, it was in threatening tones. I was terrified to walk to school at the same time they did, varying my schedule unnaturally just to avoid them. Looking back, I can remember that we all applied a kind of odd truce during our church meetings—we still didn’t speak much, but the violent undertones, at least, appeared to take a Sabbath. But come Monday, it was war again. If a ball of mine crossed the property line into their yard, they kicked it over a neighbor’s fence. When they weren’t looking, I returned the favor. Much more became lost than the single top that had started all the trouble.
More than a year went by like this—until the day my mother found the top while working in our garden. It wasn’t but thirty minutes later that the Bean boys were on my doorstep asking if I wanted to play some basketball.
Oh, to be a kid again, when heartache and grudges can be let go of in an instant! Unfortunately, somehow, somewhere, we come to prize our grudges, and we clutch to them and the lies they tell us despite all evidence or “found tops” to the contrary. Even worse, the “lost tops” aren’t always found. What then? Are we then compelled to resent and war against each other forever?
As with most questions, the clearest and truest answer can be found by pondering the Savior and his offering. The Lord effectively experienced all the “lost tops” in the history of the world, most of which were never found. And by proxy, he suffered for us all the mistreatment and heartache that followed those and all other experiences in mortality. Before we continue to rage against those we feel have hurt us, perhaps we should ponder over his response to the suffering he experienced on our behalf. His response, despite suffering that infinitely dwarfs our own, is to lovingly take us in his arms and work eternally to redeem and to sanctify us. And why? Because he wants to be with us, and he wants us to enjoy all that he has! How do our own responses to suffering compare to this?
One evening, my wife said something to me that I thought was unfair, and I took offense at it. In the instant I took offense, I began pulling away. My words no longer flowed. My thoughts became troubled. I no longer wanted to linger in her presence but instead retreated behind plastered walls that resembled the barriers I had erected in my heart. The evening became artificially silent—voices no longer filled the air, but the atmosphere around us nevertheless crackled with felt insult and accusation. I waited for the apology I thought I was owed, unaware that my waiting—the feeling that an apology was required before I would be willing to forgive and once again extend my love—was just as off-putting as the act that I had taken offense at in the first place! By my own internal logic, my wife would have as much reason to wait for my apology as I had to wait for hers. And so we each waited, and waited, and waited, every moment making it less likely that anyone would ever apologize for anything.
Had you been a guest in our home that night, you might have felt to grab my collar and say, “Grow up, Jim! Let it go! Forgive her—she didn’t mean anything by what she said. And even if she did, forgive her anyway!” Your counsel would have been good and wise. But it would have been unlikely to help. Why? Because in that moment and all others like it, I am misunderstanding what is meant by “forgiveness.”
The word itself sets us up for misunderstanding. To “forgive” someone sounds like such a gallant act—a favor dispensed upon another despite his or her despicable mistreatment or thoughtlessness. And if I view it this way, I will be tempted to wait for some act of contrition on the other’s part that I would be willing to accept in exchange for the love I am withholding. In the story I just shared, the price I had placed on receipt of my love was an apology. That price was increasing moment by moment, meaning that I was withholding my love more and more as my wife persisted in not apologizing! I was speaking less, looking at her less, being with her less. If she too took offense, then her demanded price would increase each moment as well. Each of us would insist that we were willing to forgive, but we would be blind to the deal we were actually offering: that we would be willing to extend our love to the other once again only after that person paid the price our offended selves had set for it.
Our idea of forgiveness in such cases is a small and miserly and decrepit thing. It must be earned, we insist, blind to our own unwillingness to pay the purchase price. We have sucked all the light and divinity from the redeeming act of forgiveness and are using it instead as a crass currency of exchange. As if love must, or can, be purchased. Does Christ withhold his love from us? Does he not, rather, come to us, and bid us come to him, “without price”?
Any withholding of love is itself a sin. So to have held it back on account of what another has done is itself an act for which we must repent. Sometimes, the act that precipitates this repentance is for the one who has harmed the other to come and beg the harmed party’s “forgiveness.” I think it may be partly for this reason that we call the aggrieved party’s act an act of forgiveness. But make no mistake, when I as the harmed party respond to this request by giving up my resentment and my grudge, what I am doing is repenting—repenting of my failing to love. Forgiveness is simply the word we use to describe this kind of repentance.
This kind of repentance—the repentance that we call forgiveness—is the most crucial kind of repentance of all. The Lord teaches us that if we don’t repent of withholding forgiveness, then we ourselves will not be able to receive the mercy that we need in order to be redeemed. Consider, for example, the Lord’s Prayer. One element in the prayer is not like the other elements, and it is my belief that the Lord uttered this prayer precisely so that we would see and learn from the element that is different. See if you can pick it out.
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever.Amen.
Do you notice the element in this prayer that is different from the others? The Lord puts a condition on one and only one item in the prayer: “Forgive us our debts,” he prays, “as we forgive our debtors.” The forgiveness of our eternal debts, the Lord is saying, depends on our repenting of the sin of failing to love those who have mistreated us. Just so we don’t miss that lesson, the Lord immediately tells us that this is the very point we are to get from this prayer: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses,” he explains after closing the prayer, “your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
If we have not been forgiving of others, then we are in urgent need of repentance. For, as James says, “he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy.” It will be of no profit to us, he adds, to have faith in the Lord’s mercy for us if we ourselves have not also shown merciful works to others.194 Such faith, James declares, “is dead, being alone.”
Pride would have me stay alone, waiting for others to earn my companionship. The Lord, on the other hand, beckons that we who don’t deserve his companionship nevertheless join him. Whether we accept this invitation or not will depend on two things. First, it will depend on whether we will rejoice in being joined to him with others—in particular, with those we are currently waiting to forgive.
The other matter, of course, is whether we feel we can join him ourselves. As we shall discuss in the next chapter, the matter of forgiving oneself is also commonly misunderstood. Here, as well, our normal inclinations can lead us astray.