The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering.
—Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
I found the old photo several days ago while organizing a stack of neglected files.
It’s a picture of three-year-old me celebrating Easter. My mom kneels on the floor next to me, large curlers covering her head. My Easter basket sits nearby, and I’m holding a colorful pinwheel, my cheeks puffed out as I blow and make it spin. It’s a picture of purity, childlike innocence full of possibility and promise.
As I studied the photo these many years later, I looked at the little girl with a heart of compassion. This is a new practice for me. Historically my habit has been a shame-filled one, as I tend to browbeat myself with all the coulda, shoulda, woulda’s of years gone by. But this particular day, photo in hand, I felt compassion, a wave of motherly kindness for the little girl who would one day face so many losses.
Bless her. She was so small, innocent. She still believed in dreams come true, didn’t yet understand that life can be so very hard.
Perhaps it is the result of my age and the knowledge that my life is likely more than half over, but I feel a bit melancholy as I consider this one life I’ve lived. If I could travel back in time, I would do so many things differently. I see too many mistakes and missteps, and the regret weighs heavily on me.
But I also see the wrongs done by people I trusted, the ones who snuffed out that little girl’s innocence. Because of their own unhealed pain, they caused much of my own. When I look at the girl holding the pinwheel, I see a tangled and complex history that is impossible to fully unravel and understand. Who is responsible? Where did it all go wrong, and how did her heart end up such a tangled mess?
On a sleepless night long ago, Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane on the night before His crucifixion and death. Unlike my three-year-old self, He knew what was coming, the betrayals and denials and abandonment by everyone who earlier that same day claimed to love Him. He knew that before the night was done He would be alone. Of course, He didn’t want it that way. He pleaded with Peter, James, and John to help him through: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me” (Matt. 26:38).
But Peter and the others didn’t have the same problem with sleep that Jesus did. Three times, Jesus caught them with their eyes closed. Then a short time later, Jesus was arrested in that very spot, and “all the disciples deserted him and fled” (v. 56).
I’ve been thinking a lot about this dark night. I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ sleeplessness and His loneliness, the agony and necessity of His suffering. Is there a deeper wound than to be betrayed by someone you love, especially when you need them the most? But I’ve also been thinking about what happened a handful of days later, on the other side of the crucifixion and resurrection, when Jesus ran into Peter, James, and John again:
“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you!’” (John 20:19–21).
Three days before, Jesus’ closest friends had slept while He wept, fled while He faced arrest, denied Him while Jerusalem denounced Him, and then hid while He hung on a cross. They wounded their Savior as much as did the Roman soldiers who swung the hammers that hit the nails. And yet three days later, Jesus went and found them. These cowardly, fair-weather, tuck-tail-and-run friends who royally failed Him.
Rather than punishment, He offered them peace.
“Peace be with you!” He said.
While I can easily waste years nursing a wound, Jesus didn’t allow Himself even a couple of days. Instead, He initiated peace to those who had condemned Him as well as those who had crucified Him even while He still hung on a cross:
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Then, three days later, He forgave His closest friends with a gift of peace.
With this tender image of Jesus in mind, I look at the little girl with her pinwheel. No, she had no idea of the losses that would mark her life. My body and soul carry the weight of those wounds. I feel them even as I desperately try to be free of them.
But I also see how, on the cross, Jesus began to heal my wounds through the agony of His own. To those of us stuck in stories we never asked for or wanted, Jesus enters in with a promise: Peace be with you! He says.
And so today, when I look at the picture of the three-year-old me, I honor the wounds but also forgive those who caused them. Because I know that when you and I choose to forgive as Jesus did, the locked doors of our sorrow are opened to the healing presence of the Savior.
Peace be with you! He offers. In spite of everything, I receive it.