How Not Forgiving is Killing You

The Bible teaches that forgiveness is good for the soul, but it turns out that what is good for the soul is good for the body as well. Medical research is increasingly showing a strong correlation between forgiveness and improved health. According to an article at John’s Hopkins:

Studies have found that the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. And research points  to an increase in the forgiveness-health connection as you age.

Too often people withhold forgiveness because they misunderstand what it means. They think it means minimizing the wrongness of what others have done or coming to the conclusion that it’s “All okay, no big deal.” Therefore, they view holding on to the grievance as a way of living honestly or setting the record straight. To forgive would let the other person “win.” But forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person. It doesn’t even require their participation.

Forgiveness is not about letting people off the hook or allowing them to take advantage of us. If, for example, you have forgiven an employee for theft and given him a second chance, but the crime happens again, it would be possible to fire that employee while still forgiving him. You must protect the integrity of your business, but you can forgive in the sense of letting go of resentment and hostility for that person.

Forgiveness is not an action performed in a single moment, like checking something off a list. It is a way of being or a way of approaching the world. It means you have a forgiving heart that wants to error on the side of making peace. Better to occasionally get duped or hurt in the cause of peace than move through life constantly suspicious and guarded. You might make it through life without ever getting taken advantage of, but it will come at the cost of cultivating a hard heart.

Holding onto grudges and reliving past hurt is a full time job. Protecting our ego is hard work. That is why Christ called his own life easy: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”(Matthew 11:30). When we read the Gospels, Christ’s life seems anything but easy, but he didn’t carry the mental and emotional burden of keeping track of whose fault it was and who started it. He asked us to try it out: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”

Many think their hard situation is a special exception to the need to forgive. “If only it were as simple as an employee stealing money! But my situation is toxic!” But our health doesn’t care about excuses, and it doesn’t make exceptions for so called “justified” anger and resentment. Our body doesn’t say, “Ah, well, this anger and judgement is completely understandable, so we’ll make sure it doesn’t affect our health.” Whether you think your anger is justified or not, your body will suffer.

Grudges, resentments, anger–these are not just concepts, but actual dark energies that reside in our body. When Christ healed people, he was not merely mending physical ailments; he was, at least in some cases, removing these energies: “Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk?” (Mark 2:9)

It has been said that lack of forgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. That isn’t just a nice metaphor. Resentment and anger really are poison to not only our souls, but our physical bodies. If spiritual reasons to forgive seem too abstract or unrealistic, then at least try to forgive in the interest of your health.

Sheldon Lawrence is an award winning essayist and author of the recent novel “Hearts of the Fathers,” a story of one soul’s journey into the afterlife to discover the truth of forgiveness and redemption, available here.  

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Descent into Hell (Ch. 1 Hearts of the Fathers)

They have let me come and speak to you in your sleep. They said it would help us heal but that I should not go alone because seeing my son again in the flesh could pull me back down—my love could lapse into need or self-pity. So my friend, my Guardian, has escorted me here and is watching me, taking care, ready to fill me with light if necessary. He is wise; even now, seeing you here, I long to be part of your life and wonder what might have been if I could have seen into your heart. But regret is heavy and can quickly drop into self-indulgent despair. I have come too far to risk that.

I want to tell you how I came to this point and where I have been since my death. I want to tell you about the hard path of repentance for someone with my stubborn heart and the difficulty of fixing things from where I am, close enough to touch you but separated by a universe. You carry so much of me within you—some good, some bad. I bear some of the burden you inherited from me, and I would labor for eternity if necessary to lift it from you. My greatest pain is knowing the problems I passed on to you like a virus, and knowing that you will in some degree pass them to your children. I have learned how deeply our paths and eternal destinies are intertwined.

I used to believe that we were all individuals dealing with our own problems, making our own way, succeeding or failing based on our own merits. But I was wrong. I have come to know we are not separate. We are parts of the same whole, a living organism. One of us is not saved without the other, and so on through the generations. When one is lifted, the entire organism is lifted; when one falls, the entire human family feels it.

We can make things right. That is the great truth, the beautiful mystery. You are still in the game, and I am one of legions cheering for you, encouraging you, and praying for you. You carry within you the hopes and burdens of your ancestors. Growth and repentance are so much easier where you are, in the flesh, but even here we are all involved in the work of salvation.

If you retain any of this, it will seem like a strange and disjointed dream. But I hope something I say will ring true to you. That one day while reading something, or in conversation, when you hear something true, you will feel a resonance, like you have heard it before, that somehow it makes sense. I did nothing to teach you faith while on Earth, but now I can at least whisper this story into your soul and hope that it somehow finds a place there. More than anything, I hope that, even if only in your dreams, your heart can begin to turn toward me, your father.

*

The first thing I remember after the accident is the powerful urge to flee the scene. There, in the darkness of a remote mountain highway, lay a steaming mess of two mangled vehicles. I told myself I was going for help, but there was no question that I was running from the mess I had just caused, running from the consequences of my choices.  I knew I had been driving drunk and that I would be arrested when the police arrived. I could hear moans of agony coming from the other car but did not go to help. I felt both relief and a small pang of guilt upon finding I had survived the wreck without even a scratch.

In the distance I thought I saw a house and told myself I would go there and get help, spinning my motives to look more innocent than they were. I would run and get help, I told myself. But there was no question why I was really running. I would run for the same reasons I had always run away, to escape, to hide from responsibility. I wanted the forest to bury me so its blanket of darkness would cover my sins. In the pale moonlight, I could see bodies in the twisted wreck, even, improbably, a motionless body in my own car—one I assumed had been thrown into my vehicle on impact. I could not face what I had done.

I heard a distinct voice say, “Don’t run.” I looked around to see who said it, but I was the only one standing in the cool night air. The voice came a second time, more like a warning, and seemed to come from within my chest.

Above the highway there appeared a piercing light that illuminated the entire scene. Not only were the mangled cars on display, but the truth of what had happened hung in the air, an undeniable reality. The true cause of the crash, my intentions in running, the injured people in the other car—they were all laid open before me with perfect clarity.

I told myself the light was from another car, or perhaps a result of hitting my head. But every time I lied to myself in the presence of this light, the absurdity of my thoughts were naked and obvious. If only in this moment I had yielded, submitted to the wisdom of this light, allowed it to lay me open and work its truth upon me, I could have been spared a lot of pain. The light invited me into it, but I resisted.

Now more than ever, I wanted to run. I could not bear the presence of the light and wanted to be as far from its influence as possible. The voice from within again begged me not to go into the forest, but I pushed it away and plunged off the embankment into the thick, dark trees below.

My descent was fast and steep. What I thought was a small drop leading to the flat bottom of the canyon now plunged deep into the darkness. I was not dropping into a canyon, but an abyss, a dark pit that would hide me from the all-knowing light at my back. As I pushed downward through the darkness, the voice of warning grew fainter with each step, and then finally, to my relief, fell silent.

I finally reached the bottom of the canyon as the ground gave way to a gentler but still downward slope. The steep wall I had stumbled down for so long was no longer visible. Nothing about the landscape looked familiar. I was now impossibly far away from the wreck; it seemed to be worlds away.

The moonlight was gone, replaced by a soft gray mist. The landscape was cold. A kind of bone-chilling emptiness pervaded the atmosphere. I kept walking, not knowing what else to do, still lying to myself by saying I was looking for help. In the dim light I saw a grove of trees ahead, a tangled mass of branches and undergrowth. I hesitated.

A voice, somehow familiar, came from deep within the forest. “Look! It can still see you. The grove will protect you. Hide!”

I looked up in the direction of the wreck and could still see a pinpoint of light like a single star in a black sky. The voice was right. The light was still watching me. Though distant, my movements and thoughts were as obvious to it as when I was directly under its gaze. Seized with the fear of being captured (by what or whom I could not tell) I ran into the grove, pushing deep within until the spark of light above was no longer visible.

I could hear beyond the trees—or was it deeper in the forest?—the muffled sound of human voices.

“Hey!” I shouted into the darkness. The sound of my own voice almost startled me. It was loud and forceful. Anger and frustration welled up and my voice felt powerful, even violent. The buzz of alcohol was completely gone, and I was more alert and more alive than ever.

I pushed on toward the direction of the voices, but the forest grew thicker and darker. I no longer felt I was among living trees but only thick, finger-like shadows, sometimes snagging me and holding me back, not like branches so much as hands. This sense of being held down made me even angrier, and I threw off the branches, or shadows, in frustration. Whenever I expressed my anger vocally or even mentally, I heard the sound of mocking laughter.

The laughter grew loud and someone said, “Not yet; let him keep going.” Was it a real voice or just inside my head? I couldn’t tell.

“Who is that?” I yelled.

The aggressiveness of my own voice frightened me. The air was thick with rage, and I breathed it in. Fear had given way to anger. An animal was growing inside me, nourished by the waves of violence and hate that filled the grove. As my anger grew, so did my physical strength. I walked with my fists and teeth clenched. I could fight, or kill, anything. I dared something to challenge me. I forgot the lie of looking for help. Walking through the trees had become its own purpose, something to push against, something to fight against.

Every thought, every memory, was an irritation. The accident, now like a distant memory, was an annoyance. If it weren’t for the stupidity of the other driver, I wouldn’t be wandering through this forest looking for…whatever I was looking for. I didn’t care if those in the other car had survived. Their death would be their just consequence. Something softer inside me listened in horror as I said aloud, “I hope they’re all dead.”

The few voices in the forest—or in my mind—were now the indistinct murmur of a crowd. Sometimes laughter would ring out, sometimes a cry of pain, sometimes frustration, and sometimes all of these at once. I was going mad with confusion. No way could so many people be here, in the middle of nowhere, at the bottom of a canyon. But I was watched. My every step was counted, calculated. The trees watched me, the shadows watched me. They followed me, all of them. The shadows closed in and collapsed the path behind me, and ahead of me they grew thicker with each step.

The black branches seemed to intentionally grab at my face or trip my feet. Fueled by an inexhaustible hatred, I pushed down the shadowy branches and snapped their limbs with strength I had never before experienced. I was a beast wrecking my way through the undergrowth. Sometimes a tree would wrap a limb around my neck or my waist, but I would rip it away with ease.

A joyless laughter came from deep in the shadows, a mocking, triumphant laughter. I stopped and listened in the darkness. Aggression swelled within me.

“Who is that?” I yelled.

Nothing. Only a faint, suppressed laughter.

I was hopelessly lost; the scene of the wreck felt like a thousand miles away. Should I turn and fight my way back up the hill? I turned around, and not a trace of my path could be detected. A grayish light illuminated an ocean of tangled shadows that had closed the path behind me.  No mountain, no light in the distance.

Both rage and fear swept over me, one moment coaxing me to turn back, the next moment prodding me deeper into the forest. My mind was now a crowd of voices, mostly in the form of my own voice complaining and raging about the wreck, my job that made me take that trip, and this pointless trek.

I pushed on through the tangled mess of trees, but they no longer felt like trees. Rough bark was now smooth and cold, like—I didn’t want to admit it—the skin of something dead. The shadowy branches now bent and coiled like snakes. One reached down and caressed my cheek and neck, pulling away when I reached for it. Another jabbed me hard in the ribs, and I grabbed it and pulled it apart, its flesh tearing in my hands. It shrieked in pain, but the cry was only a mocking one followed by laughter, like when a child proves it isn’t really hurt.

In a normal state, I would have been terrified at what was happening. But the hateful and oppressive atmosphere overshadowed any sense of good judgement or even self-preservation. It was like being in a dream; you do not stop to wonder at the strangeness of events, but simply take the world as it is, not questioning its reality.

In this world the overwhelming desire, the most obvious thing to do, was to fight someone or something. My rage transformed me. Nothing was stronger than me. I now dared them to come for me, these voices, whatever they were.

“He’s almost ripe,” said one of them. Their shadowy figures began to take form. They were like hungry wolves waiting to be let off a chain. They howled and laughed in anticipation.

“When?” they cried. “When?”

There were now hundreds of them, perhaps thousands. I turned to run, but my legs and arms were bound. Fingerlike branches, black against the gray atmosphere, wrapped around my body, forcing me to the ground. Like a fly caught in a web, the more I struggled, the more I sent waves of excitement through the legion of beings gathered around me. They had waited a long time for this, and they were ready to reap the harvest.

An authoritative voice from the darkness finally let them have their reward.

“Now.”

Read more here.

This is the first chapter of the exciting new spiritual novel Hearts of the Fathers–a story of one man’s journey out of Hell to discover a universe grounded in God’s love. 

Fleeing from a deadly head on collision, a man descends into a hellish realm to hide from Heaven’s beckoning light. God can rescue him from the darkness, but escaping Hell is only the beginning. The greatest test will come as he confronts his broken relationships and sees himself and others in truth. 

 In a journey through spirit worlds where beliefs, pain, and addictions continue to limit the progress of departed souls, Hearts of the Fathers takes on the critical question: How can we overcome the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual blocks that prevent us from reaching our God-given potential? 

 Inspired by the research of hundreds of near-death experiences, this book will transform the way you view spiritual growth. Available on Amazon here.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aiming at Heaven

“Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” – C. S. Lewis

When I was a teenager growing up in West Yellowstone, Montana, I heard of the death of two snowmobilers caught in an avalanche. I could see from my home the mountain where it happened. It was not a very uncommon event; every winter people died on their snow machines in one way or another. But for some reason the news haunted me; maybe because the winters in Yellowstone were long and dark, and my mood would often match the landscape. A day after hearing the news, I was napping in a half-asleep, half-awake state when a vision of the men’s death came to mind. I saw and felt the men tumbling in the chaos of hundreds of tons of snow, and then silence and suffocation—the last gasping breaths of being buried alive. I woke suddenly, startled with the realization that someday, somehow, I would take my last breath on earth.

From this and other experiences, I sought from an early age to better understand death and the afterlife. Death may be, as the poet Wallace Stevens says, the mother of beauty. For me it has also been the mother of spirituality. I know some think this is backwards—that true spirituality is born of a love of God or love of one’s neighbor. Death and what lay beyond, they argue, is a distraction from the “here and now” where life is truly lived. There’s much truth to all that, of course.

But the mystery of death looms over every moment. This fact is haunting, beautiful, horrifying, and hopeful all at the same time. Shakespeare called death the undiscovered country from which no traveler returns. Yet, with modern medicine, an increasing number of people do return after experiencing clinical death. They return with stories of light and love and reunion with deceased family members. A small minority even have hellish experiences.

People who have these experiences are changed in profound ways. They often have difficulty re-adjusting to normal life. The things of this world—money, ambition, fame, status—lose their appeal. Instead, they become interested in learning and improving their relationships. They become highly sensitive to violence and conflict—no longer able to even watch movies they once enjoyed.

I have read literally hundreds, if not thousands, of these experiences. Yes, like any event, the stories are filtered through the worldview of the experiencers, but I believe they are essentially true. I believe these people have caught a glimpse of something real, something that makes this life seem like a dream by comparison.

Too often we make every effort to sanitize death or pretend it won’t happen, but NDEs remind us of the fragility of life—the car accident, the sudden heart attack, the drowning at the local pool, the slow deterioration caused by chronic disease. Yet they also teach that death is not the end, nor is it an escape from the self. We continue to make choices and learn from those choices beyond the grave. We take ourselves with us, so it’s worth paying attention to what kind of self we cultivate in this life.

A few years ago I saw, in my mind’s eye, a soul wandering in the afterlife. It was a lost soul, essentially good and reaching out for something higher, but desperately clinging to former fears and attachments. I wasn’t sure who he was or where he was going or what was driving him, but I wanted to find out. Writing Hearts of the Fathers was largely a process of following this man on his journey and discovering what was in his heart—what was giving him hope and what was preventing him from rising into the light. I do not presume with this little novel to offer final answers to the mystery of what lay beyond death. This book represents a spiritual journey, an exploration of possibilities, not a final destination. It is my hope and prayer that readers enjoy this journey and maybe make a few discoveries along the way.

Sheldon Lawrence is an award winning essayist and author of the recent novel “Hearts of the Fathers: A story of Heaven, Hell, and the hope of new life after life,” available here.  

Superstar

 

“In the mouth of the foolish is a rod of pride: but the lips of the wise shall preserve them.” Proverbs 14:3

Ever since I was a little boy I have struggled to keep my zipper locked in its secure and upright position. I remember wearing brown corduroys and the way the fly would gape open like a brass-toothed mouth announcing my shame to the world. I didn’t see shame in it. But my older siblings made sure I understood what an embarrassment this failure was.

When I comprehended the mechanical nature of the device and that sometimes mechanics can fail, I had my excuse. “It’s broken,” I would say. “That’s why!”

Even new pants came with the defect. “Broken again?” my brother jeered one day. “Are all your pants broken?” Well, what else could it be? I remembered zipping it earlier. The problem was I couldn’t tell which day the memory came from. I was certain I had zipped it yesterday, piece-a-junk.

The whole business of zippers seemed like an unnecessary hassle. Why would God put a hole in your pants right in that most inauspicious place? That the zipper was to facilitate using the bathroom never occurred to me since, like all other self-respecting boys my age I dropped my drawers to my ankles to do my business–shirt tucked under chin and hips thrust forward. A three inch opening could never compete with that level of freedom.

Things have improved in adulthood, but I’m still not out of the woods with malfunctioning zippers. As I teacher, I have taught entire classes on the fly, only for students to inform me of the indiscretion at the end of class. Because of my favorable marriage to an alert woman, I now have a support system much less harsh than mocking siblings and friends. It turns out my problem needed understanding, not ridicule. My wife now helps refine my presentation in polite society.

The value of this support hit home recently when my wife and I attended a book club. After a good meal and conversation we retired to the living room to discuss the book at hand, a significant work on culture and philosophy. The evening progressed smoothly in a lively exchange of wit and wisdom punctuated with light laughter.

Just after I made one comment that I felt was particularly insightful, my wife leaned over and whispered, “You’re a superstar!” Indeed, I thought, and smiled with satisfaction. It was a rather fine comment, though I had never heard her compliment my intellect in such glowing terms. I was happy to wear this new title.

Moments later, and after another poignant comment, she again lavished me with praise, leaning even closer to my ear, “You’re a superstar!” Again! I must really be on a roll tonight. And I was just getting warmed up.

But I grew suspicious. In seventeen years of marriage, I had sometimes been told I was a good husband or father, but I had never been a superstar. And now I was a superstar twice in one night.

Then it hit me. I was not a superstar at all. I was the very opposite—a clumsy little boy in brown corduroys.

As the reality of my condition slowly sunk in, she leaned in again to remove all doubt: “Your zipper’s down.”

In addition to having a zipper problem, I’ve always been a little hard of hearing, and it turns out “superstar” and “zipper’s down” have remarkably similar phonetic structures. Or maybe the problem is better diagnosed as wishful hearing, a condition where my pride transforms unpleasant news into whatever it would rather hear.

Sheldon Lawrence is an award winning essayist and author of the recent novel “Hearts of the Fathers: A story of Heaven, Hell, and the hope of new life after life,” available here.