How do we forgive ourselves when we have harmed, even maimed, someone else?
There was a man name Alan I spoke with who went to the hospital for a routine podiatrist appointment. An accident occurred while he was driving his vehicle to the hospital, resulting in a gentleman losing his leg.
“I thought my foot was on the brake. I was putting it in park.”
Alan’s foot slipped, the vehicle kept going. The vehicle struck a hospital worker, resulting in a severe injury to the hospital worker’s leg. Days later, we all found out amputation of said leg was needed.
Alan was angry, ashamed, sorrowful, and suffering of total despair. He couldn’t help but see dark and bitter irony to the circumstance, coming to the hospital for a small procedure on his foot and, in his own words, “at the expense of someone else’s leg.”
In our conversation, Alan repeated Christian motifs over and over, his knowledge of Christ saving us from our sins, forgiveness that comes through Him alone and His sacrfice. Nonetheless, he couldn’t forgive himself, indicating he should have never come to the hospital. It didn’t matter to Alan that this was an accident, and the grace that he believes Christ gives him didn’t seem to address the personal resentment he had for himself for this accident. Alan was furious with himself, calling himself a list of names and regarded his own medical needs—having cancer in addition to diabetes that was affecting his foot—as insignificant in light of the event. I think in part Alan wished he would have suffered bodily himself, to be martyr to his own medical complications rather than suffer the accident. Putting myself in his shoes, I don’t blame him for such sentiments. I can’t imagine living with that guilt, even knowing it was a total accident.
How are we to make sense of such things? Both Alan and the medical worker suffer from immeasurable grief from something accidental, something so blameless. There was no impariment. There was no malice. What is to be said to Alan? What is to be said to the medical worker? What consolation or sense can be made out of this?
We are tempted to offer our own explanation for such things, to provide some answer for the calamity. We offer this both when we are asked and sometimes we offer this unsolicited. But it is a haughty thing for us to espouse a particular meaning or message out of it, and we must be careful as we attempt to offer explanation that we do not become like Job’s friends.
In the Book of Job, we hear the tale of a righteous man who undergoes undeserved suffering. The reader sees in the beginning that Job is tested due to the devil being given certain permissions to afflict Job; Satan seems to think Job will stop praising God once his fortune turns around, and God allows Satan—with some parameters—to afflict Job. Job laments for the lives lost in the calamity, for the illness he endures. He does voice some hard questions to both God and to his friends that come to “comfort him.” But what we find at the end of the Job’s story is that Job is not satisfied with the explanation for his senseless suffering, nor is God satisfied. At the very end, God restores Job and gives Job the holy responsibility to offer prayers and sacrifice on behalf of his friends who attempted to rationalize the calamity. In short, God rewards Job for wrestling with Him and with the calamity, whereas the friends are looked down upon for their poor counsel.
Looking back on my conversation with Alan, I can’t help but see Job shine in him. Alan is a dedicated man of prayer, faithful in reading his devotionals, doing his daily prayers, and can theologize about grace. Alan carries a kind of blameless record that Job had of being an upstanding servant of the Lord. Like Job, there is wrestling for the calamity, questioning as to why he has to suffer such things.
But no answer will suffice, perhaps because it is not our part to offer the answer and perhaps because both the sufferer and the counselor cannot examine any answer until a due time presents such clarity. In short, empathy does not come in the form of explanation, and answers cannot provide a balm of healing to such pain.
I think of another encounter I had some time ago with a grieving grandmother and her family as they were about to pull life support from a poor teenage boy who had shot himself. Why had the grandmother’s prayers not been answered? Why had this boy not been protected from such a horrible tragedy in spite of all the prayers and devotion the family had to God?
“What am I supposed to tell my daughter who is grieving her son and my grandson?” The grandmother asked me quite angrily—and understandably irate. “What can I offer her?”
“Today is not a day for answers. You cannot provide your daughter with that answer, and neither can I. And truthfully, I’m not sure any answer will suffice how awful this tragedy is. But here you are, pouring your soul out. You are here for your family, you are here for your daughter, and for your grandson. That’s what matters. That’s what she needs. That’s what this family needs.”
All praise to God for giving that to me in such a harrowing moment.
Similarly, I nor anyone else could give Alan a proper explanation for such a senseless and horrible thing.
That being said, Alan and I did pray, and we prayed for his health and for his needs to be met. But we also prayed for the medical worker who had lost his leg, for his needs to be met. We prayed acknowledging only God’s hand being able to sustain them both in these awful circumstances. Alan cried at that, shaking horribly as we prayed for this man. In closing of the prayer, i saw some hope in Alan’s eyes. He found some hope in this. Further, Alan seemed open to the possibility of becoming an intercessor for this medical worker for the rest of his life, to lift this man’s concerns up in his own prayers each day.
Did this accident happen so that Alan would become a prayer warrior? Did the man had to lose his leg in order to have an intercessor? It’s not for us to pose such possibilities. God has purpose, but it is His and not our own.
That being said, I do believe God uses us to two specific ends when we are witnesses to calamity, when we are Job’s friends:
-Sit in the muck of the tragedy with the Job in our life. Don’t sugar coat, silver line, or wax on about some answer we have little discernment of. Let us not presume to be God or know His will…
-But let us fervently pour our heart out in prayer for God’s hand to be in that calamity. Rather than use our words to imagine meaning, let us ask God to make meaning and make mercy in light of the tragedy.
-Lastly, encourage action, with discernment. While I think it’s not our place to offer answers, I think offering action can provide catharsis. That being said, this is something earned and not granted. We ought not lead our empathy with suggestions. In the case of Alan, at the end of the visit, I suggested the possibility of him praying for this man, and it seemed earned as it came after our prayer together and I could see both grace and hope shine forth. In the case of the grandmother, I had sat with the family for about an hour silently listening, confessing my own powerlessness in the circumstances. When the grandmother asked what she could possibly do or say for her daughter while feeling so powerless, I offered her to see to what she was already doing, to continue doing what she was doing: showing up, being present, and nothing more or less than that.
Brothers and sisters, let us forgive each other and one another and seek out the Lord for forgiveness. Let us acknowledge the suffering each of us endures and provide what Job lacked in his friends.