During this Lenten season, I’ve been thinking a lot about my disposition towards forgiving others, a virtue we all should at least be thinking about today, on Good Friday. Join me on a journey through Psalm 88, and then through the lens of a woman’s testimony from the Rwandan genocide only two decades ago. Let’s start in Psalm 88:
LORD, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry out to you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry. I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care. You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.Psalm 88:1-6
In Psalm 88, we find some of the darkest of laments in the psalms, if not the darkest of them all. In many psalms, we find a transition in the middle of the psalm that begins with a “But”… where the psalmist begins praising the Lord. This psalm does not have that. No, this psalm does not look like it offers hope…
Psalm 88: A Prophesy of Christ’s Crucifixion?
Look back at those verses, this time imagining how Christ might relate as he cries on the cross.
A little familiar to Matthew 27:45-46, right?:
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Check out this commentary from Unveiling Mercy by Chad Bird (as he’s explaining the Hebrew word t’fillah as prayer):
“St. Augustine sees in Psalm 88 a prophecy of Christ’s passion. Every word speaks with a crucifixion accent. On that cruel tree, Jesus still prayed, as the poet of Psalm 88 does. He prays for himself, for us, for the world, even for those who hammered the nails. And his t’fillah was heard, for after his days of darkness, he walked into the sunrise of a resurrection morning so that we too may live and pray to him.”p. 281
There we have it: Psalm 88, as dark as it is, is still a prayer.
In the hardest of times, we can cry out to God honestly about what we feel. That is how close He wants us to be to him — to tell him how we feel, the lament over what is lost, over what we hoped for and now know will not have. This brings me to a real-life story of praying in the midst of the darkest moments of our lives. To do so requires a journey back to the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
I recently read Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculee Ilibagiza with Steve Erwin. This autobiography chronicles a Tutsi woman’s testimony of miracles and God’s power while she hid in a bathroom for many months while being hunted by the Hutus during the 1994 genocide. (Learn more about Immaculee’s story here.) Hearing this story, it does not appear like the perpetrators deserve forgiveness – not from the victims’ families or from God. As I read it, I couldn’t even recognize what happened as something humans could even do to another human.
She lived out the cry of the psalmist in Psalm 88:8 when her “friends” and teachers prior to the genocide were killing her family members and friends: “You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow.”
And Following the Darkness? Full Forgiveness
Yet after the genocide ended, this woman went to the prison and looked in the eyes of the leader of the killer, who split open her beloved brother’s skull and cut him up into parts, and said, “I forgive you.”
If that doesn’t make your jaw drop, read it again: This woman looked in the eyes of the leader of the killers, who split open her beloved brother’s skull and cut him up into parts, and said, “I forgive you.”
Just like Jesus after the criminal who was hung next to him asked Jesus to remember him in heaven:
“And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”Luke 23:43
I think back to the people in my life who have hurt me or those I love at some point in the past. I look at Jesus on the cross. I ask, “Who do I need to forgive like Jesus does, seventy times seven?” I’ve struggled with this off and on throughout my faith journey, wondering how the Lord looks at these people with the same love he looks at, in contrast, the holiest people I know of. I understand every instance I don’t forgive or wonder about this is further revealing how much I still have to learn — about grace and about our individual chosenness by God.
Then, in light of these amazing acts of forgiveness from our Redeemer and from Immaculee, I remember how unjust it is of me to be unforgiving in any situation whatsoever. Each of us has an opportunity to fully forgive, and while our situations are unlikely to be anywhere close to Immaculee’s, it’s still just as beautiful in God’s eyes when we overcome the temptations to remain hardened of heart.
The quickest way to unharden my heart is to look at the cross. It’s not until I meditate on Christ’s last days that I see how much room I have to grow as a forgiver of my friends and family (and strangers). And this grace to forgive over and over again is made possible because we have been forgiven by our perfect Father, who sees every single way we fall short of perfection and yet still loves us the same. And I am reminded of the central message of Good Friday: nothing is too dark to be forgiven by our merciful Savior who lived a perfect life, obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8). That is grace.
I encourage you to spend some intentional time today in prayer. Here’s a prayer on my heart as I write this:
Lord, thank you that you have heard us. Thank you for healing us the moment we ask for it. I cannot relate at all to the extreme suffering other believers have endured, yet when I learn of Immaculee’s extraordinary acts of faith and forgiveness, I know there is nothing anyone has ever done to me that cannot be fully redeemed and healed in my heart and theirs. On this day where we remember your crucifixion, I pray we are led to contemplate what You did leading up to the cross, and more importantly, what you did three days later. You returned. You will return again to deliver us. We await Your glory and repent of the times even today we have already forsaken that mercy. Have mercy on us and help us to choose You and Your kingdom, rather than our own self-kingdoms. Renew our desires for You. In your holy and precious Name, Amen.