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Erik Reed: Forgiving the Unforgivable

with Erik Reed | April 26, 2022
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Author Erik Reed knows well the searing anger toward someone who's changed your life forever. He retraces his path toward forgiving the unforgivable.
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Author Erik Reed knows well the searing anger toward someone who’s changed your life forever. He retraces his path toward forgiving the unforgivable.

Erik Reed: Forgiving the Unforgivable

With Erik Reed
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April 26, 2022
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Erik: All of those questions about a future that you don’t control started crippling my heart. I had never dealt with anxiety; I had never dealt with panic attacks in my life. I didn’t even know—I thought I was going crazy; I didn’t even know what was happening to me—I thought I was having a heart attack, driving down the road. I’m like, “I’m too young to have a heart attack; that can’t be it!” [Laughter] But my heart was about to beat out of my chest; you know?

Dave: That’s what it felt like.

Erik: I pulled over on the side of the road, and I called my wife [while] on the interstate. I was like, “I don’t know what’s happening to my heart. I’m sweating; it’s 30 degrees outside. And my heart is beating out of my chest.” She was like, “Go to the hospital! I don’t know.” She didn’t know what was happening either.

I learned soon: “Oh, that’s a panic attack.” I would irrationally have those for years ahead: out of nowhere, they would happen.

Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.

Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.

Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.

Dave: So not too long ago, I sat in a diner with a good friend of mine, who’s a dad. His daughter was in Oxford High School, walking down the hall, when one of her classmates started shooting kids in the hallway. I knew his daughter was at Oxford High School; I didn’t know the details that she actually saw the shooter, realized it was a shooting, and ran out of the school, got in her car and drove home.

Ann: And this is a friend of yours that you coached with/coached football with.

Dave: Yes; I coached high school football with him for a decade almost. His question to me is: “How do I trust God? How do we trust God? How do I help my daughter trust God in the middle of this kind of tragedy?”

Ann: —when she has seen friends shot, and she’s asking the question: “How does a good God allow this?”

Dave: Yes; and her biggest thing was—she’s still afraid—it’s hard for her to shut the door at night and even sleep in her bedroom as, I think, she’s a junior in high school. You know, that tragedy, like any tragedy, rocks the world. It rocks non-believers, who say, “That’s why I can’t believe”; and believers, like us, say, “Yes, that’s the reality of the world we live in.” There are no easy answers to that question.

We’ve been discussing that already with Erik Reed, who’s back in the studio with us—a pastor—and a man who wrote a book called Uncommon Trust. So if we’re going to find somebody who can help us understand: “How do we trust God in this situation?” Erik, you’re the guy. Welcome back to FamilyLife.

Erik: Yes, I’m not sure if I’m the guy; but I’m certainly a fellow traveler, trying to figure it out.

Dave: Yes; and obviously, we’ve already talked about you as a pastor, husband, three kids.

Erik: Yes.

Dave: And on our first episode, we talked about—and I want to take us back there; we don’t have to go through the whole story; because, again, if you missed yesterday, go listen to it, because Erik told us the whole story—but one of the things that was fascinating about your tragedy is, when Caleb is born, there’s a surgery that can be done that you think is going to make everything okay.

I never got to ask you this question before: it’s like, “Okay, so the doctor botches the surgery/makes a mistake,”—that, in my mind, is even harder—it's like things in life happen that are out of our control; and all you can say is: “It’s a natural disaster,” or “Something went wrong,”—but when a human mistake causes tragedy—

Erik: Yes.

Dave: —not only in your life, but in your son’s life—it feels like it’s even harder to understand. Talk about your feelings in that moment. I mean, how did you deal with, not only the sadness, but the anger I’m guessing you had to feel?

Erik: Well, we would deal with bitterness, and resentment, and anger for a good year after the surgery. We would replay that conversation so many times; you know?—his demeanor, his attitude—all the things—every retelling, you know, he became more of a monster in the story.

Ann: Yes, I bet.

Erik: Yes.

Dave: Yes.

Ann: For our listeners, who maybe haven’t heard yesterday, the doctor unknowingly removed both kidneys.

Erik: That’s right.

Ann: And so—

Dave: —the bad kidney and the good kidney.

Ann: —your newborn son is left without kidneys, and he has to be on dialysis.

Erik: And he looked as if he [the doctor] were completely indifferent—you know, no remorse; no empathy—so you know, honestly, we grew to hate him. We were so shattered. Every time we would watch our son struggle—every time he was sick; every time we would have to go back to the hospital; every time we were in a surgery waiting room, eager to hear a surgeon come out and say, “It went okay,” and still wondering, “Did it really go okay?”—we would go back to that moment and that man.

I remember having dreams about: “What would I do if I got to run into him?” You know, I was in the army; so I wasn’t always a pastor; you know? [Laughter] So there were times when I was like, “Boy! If I found him out—just out—what would I do?”—you know? I couldn’t stand him. We even had family talking about: “Let’s find out where he lives”; you know? It got to that place.

Ann: Wow!

Erik: And I knew, “Now, this is not healthy. This is not healthy for our hearts,”—forget healthy, legally; [Laughter] forget jail time!—I mean, “This is not good for our souls!” And it wasn’t. It was so/you know, bitterness and resentment are like drinking poison; every little sip is killing you.

Dave: But it gives us a glimpse into how angry and how—

Erik: It’s real!

Dave: —I mean, you have a name for the person that caused this.

Erik: That’s right.

Dave: It isn’t something out there; it’s like: “I know—

Erik: Yes; it’s not abstract—this is a real person; it’s a face—and it’s a son, who is living out the implications of it.

Dave: Yes; you’re looking at him every day.

Erik: —every day.

Dave: So how long? What did you do?

Erik: So over the course of that year, finally reaching the end of what I knew wasn’t healthy, I started to tell my wife: “We’ve got to figure this out. We’ve got to get to a place, where our hearts can forgive him.” Forgiveness is all over the Bible. It’s like you can’t even read the New Testament without hearing Jesus say something about forgiveness. And it’s all terrible stuff when you’re hating somebody! [Laughter] You know, when you’re hating somebody, and then Jesus says, “Forgive as you’ve been forgiven.

Ann: “Love your enemies!”

Erik: “If you don’t, you won’t be forgiven your sins.” You’re like, “Nooo!” You know, Peter says, “How many times should we forgive somebody that’s hurt us? Seven times?” And Jesus says, “No, I tell you 70 times 7.” He’s not telling you to do the math; He’s saying it’s endless.

Dave: Yes.

Erik: You forgive; you forgive indefinitely.

And then He tells a parable about a king who forgave a lesser servant a great debt. And then that lesser servant goes out and holds over the head of an even lesser servant a lesser debt. The king hears about it and actually puts the debt back on him. Then Jesus ends that whole story/that whole parable by saying, “So be it with you if you don’t forgive those who’ve hurt you.” And I’m just like, “Whew.”

I had to start grappling with: “Okay; what does forgiveness look like?” Here’s what I realized: “Forgiveness has nothing to do with the person”; because the reality is he [the doctor] wasn’t asking for our forgiveness. We may never have the chance to see him, face to face, to give him forgiveness. “Forgiveness had everything to do with our hearts before God,”—it could be said like this—“Forgiveness always begins, vertically, ever before it ever goes out horizontally.”

And the way that we finally came to a place—and it wasn’t a light switch, alright?—it wasn’t like flipping it on and flipping it off; forgiveness was a process. It was a process of going, vertically to God, to say, “You have forgiven me infinitely more than I’ve ever been asked to forgive another”; and really feeling that.

I think, as Christians, it’s like, “Yes, God’s forgiven us of our sins.” But it’s like, “Do you really understand the gravity of that? What have you been forgiven? What have you been rescued from?” I mean, I deserve eternal judgment; my life has not been lived in righteousness. If there’s a getting in on your own account, I’m going to be at the bottom of the list. So as I look, vertically, at the grace and mercy of God in forgiving me through Christ, I’m not being asked to do anything more than Christ has done for me. In fact, I’m actually being asked to do a lot less.

Dave: Yes.

Erik: And so I had to really keep preaching that to my heart over, and over, and over before I could get to a place, where I really could say, “I forgive him; I forgive this man.”

It was a process for me and my wife together. It was a process, then, that we had to lead our family through, because our bitterness just echoed out to everyone else. We had to say, “Guys, this is not honoring to God. He’s given us so much grace and so much mercy, so we’re not being asked to do something that we haven’t been recipients of.”

That process led us to a place of forgiving the doctor, genuinely, in our hearts. Truth be told, it’s not one time.

Ann: Yes.

Erik: We have to keep choosing to forgive.

Dave: You get triggered, and—

Erik: That’s right. Even as I sit here before you, let my mind wander off into:

  • everything that surgery cost our family;
  • when I’m at my son’s grave with my daughters, and we’re talking about his life—if I let my mind wander off into—“You know, he could possibly be here today if that surgery hadn’t happened.”

It doesn’t take much for bitterness and resentment to come back.

Dave: Yes.

Erik: So forgiveness is a choice that you have to keep making. That became our mantra; it’s like, “We’re going to keep forgiving. We’re going to keep choosing to forgive.” Anytime our mind starts focusing, horizontally, on all that he did, we’re going to send them back, vertically, to all that Christ has done for us. That’s the only way that we can give forgiveness: is it has to come from above.

Dave: Were you able to see if Caleb was able to forgive him—your son?

Erik: Absolutely, yes! This was a process: from the time he was little, his whole life, this was a conversation we were having—talking about suffering, and sovereignty, and forgiveness, and trusting God’s plans for your life—it was mandatory! It could not not be part of the conversation with his whole life, because we were going to have to explain to him why he was different from his friends: “Why has he got this feeding tube in his stomach?” “Why does he have all these scars on his chest?” “Why does he have to take these medicines every day?” You know, “Why does he have to do all these things that are normal to him, but then he sees his friends, and he's like, ‘Oh, y’all don’t have feeding tubes in your stomach?’”

I mean, we just had to raise him, understanding, “Hey, this is your story, and this is what is so unique about you. This is how God has worked in your life.” Caleb, fortunately, never had the issue of having to forgive him, because he just understood God had his life in His hands, even a surgical mistake.

Dave: Well, I’m also imagining that watching his mom and dad—

Ann: Yes.

Dave: —being able to forgive the doctor was a powerful model for him.

Erik: Yes; so a fascinating story that we never anticipated: one day, after finishing dialysis in the hospital—Caleb had not had a transplant yet; he was almost two—it was getting close to time, where it was like, “We’re running out of time. He needs a transplant.”

Ann: Just for our listeners, who maybe listened to the first one, we kind of left them on a cliffhanger—

Erik: Yes.

Ann: —like, “Wait! So what happened?” You decided, “We want him to live; we’ll do whatever it takes.”

Erik: “We’re going forward”; yes.

Ann: So at two, he had a kidney transplant.

Erik: He ended up getting a kidney transplant. He was on a list forever—right?—a national registry. We never got a phone call. Everybody got tested; me and Katrina got tested; neither one of us were a match. And he was having to have new surgeries all the time for new catheters, because his catheters would clot off. We were running out of spots for catheters. It was getting—literally, the last one he got, the surgeon was like, “I don’t know if we’ll get another one in,”—which is terrifying!

It’s like, “Well, we don’t have surgery scheduled already, so what are our options?”—you know? And then, they retested us in a moment of desperation. My wife came back as a match; she was not previously a match.

Ann: That’s miraculous.

Erik: It’s unbelievable! It’s unbelievable. So my wife ended up being the donor for his transplant when he was two years old. Right before that surgery happened, we were there for dialysis. I was coming down the elevator. I’m holding Caleb in my arms, and the elevator door opens; and it’s the surgeon who took his kidney out.

Dave: —standing right in front of you.

Erik: I hadn’t seen him in two years.

Ann: Ugh!

Erik: He was standing, face to face. It was one of those moments, where, you know, if you see somebody, you like try to—like you wanted to look away and pretend like you didn’t see each other?—

Dave: Yes.

Erik: —we both tried to do that, but we were literally, face to face, in an open elevator; there was nowhere to go. I attempt to walk one direction, and he’s like going the same direction. We even do the little dance, where it’s like you’re trying—

Dave: No!

Erik: —and then, finally, it was like, “Okay, this is so awkward; we’re going to have to acknowledge each other.”

Dave: It wasn’t like you were just some patient—he knew when he saw your eyes—the same thing.

Erik: Oh, yes; yes. And so, actually, I asked him/I said, “Can I talk to you for a second?” We actually stepped out and into the lobby.

Dave: —with your son still in your arms?

Erik: Caleb was right here in my arms. I looked at him, and I said, “I just want you to know that my family and I forgive you for what happened.” He broke down, crying, in the lobby.

Ann: Oh!

Erik: And I broke down, crying, after that. Of course, I had over-hydrated tear ducts that day; so it was one of those rare exceptions. [Laughter]

And listen, we forgave him, even if we never saw him again; but what it showed me was that he had actually carried a deep burden as well. We found out later he was a Christian surgeon. He had actually done all kinds of missionary work on children, who could never have care. Of course, it was like, “Of course, that’s the case! [Laughter] Of course!”

Ann: And you had probably had never considered the nights that he had been up, just beating himself up.

Erik: No! Because, you know, when you’re bitter, you don’t want to consider the other side; you know?

Dave: Right.

Ann: Right.

Erik: And so, you know, with some time and some maturity, hopefully, I’m able to look back and go, “There’s no telling why he came across that day the way he did.” We were hurt—we may have heard even things—you know, it’s like you just can’t even trust what you perceived on that day to be completely accurate. But even so, he broke down; and he told me/he said, “You have no idea how much that means to hear.” And that’s the last time I ever saw him.

Dave: Yes.

Erik: But it was transformative for me; because it reminded me that we, often, make people into monsters. They’re just people; you know? They’re just people too. He made a mistake, and he felt that mistake all the time.

Dave: Just think how different that moment would have been if you were bitter;—

Erik: Absolutely!

Dave: —and you opened the elevator door, and there he is.

Erik: If that happened to me before, I don’t know what I’m saying to him or doing to him.

Dave: Yes.

Ann: It’s so sweet of God to connect you guys to free you both up.

Erik: That’s right.

Ann: He needed that freedom.

Erik: And for us, we had forgiven him; but you talk about just the weight off your shoulders—

Ann: Yes.

Erik: —to be able to say that to him—to look him in the face and to go, “We forgive you.” To see his face just break in front of me; it was a powerful lesson.

Ann: It is a picture of the gospel.

Erik: It is; that’s exactly right. Forgiveness is all about the gospel. You can only forgive by the power of the gospel; right? Christ’s forgiveness to you is how you can ever forgive another person.

Dave: Yes, and what you did—and as you said, you’re still doing—

Erik: Still choosing to have to do!

Dave: —is not possible apart from the power of God, I don’t think.

Erik: One hundred percent.

Dave: I mean, you can’t get there.

Erik: Well, if you’re hoping that somebody will be forgivable; [Laughter] right?—

Dave: Yes.

Erik: —that they’re going to come begging for mercy and forgiveness; that they’re going to come to their senses of what they’ve done. There are no conditions that Jesus puts on our forgiving—so when you always put it on the other to be forgivable—I think you’re going to find yourself withholding forgiveness or finding a lot of excuses to withhold forgiveness.

Dave: Yes.

Erik: There are some people, who will never want your forgiveness, who you need to forgive.

Dave: I mean, if God did that to us, we’re still not forgiven.

Erik: Exactly! That’s exactly right!

Dave: We’ve never gotten to the place where we’re forgivable!

Erik: We were never forgivable; that’s right! [Laughter][

Ann: What about the person, who maybe just stayed angry with God?

Erik: Yes; I think that’s a really good question. So going back to when I was, with my Bible in hand and notebook in hand, that day and I got to the book of Daniel. The very first thing that happens in Daniel 1 is God allows for Nebuchadnezzar to go in and take Israel and turns them upside down. These young men, and all the best and brightest of the land, get ripped, kicking and screaming, out of their homes, away from their families. Everything changed in a moment: new identities, new names, new language, new everything.

I remember reading that; and I just stopped and I was like/that’s how I felt—our world is turned upside down; everything has changed now—I felt I could identify with these people. I kept reading; and you eventually, get introduced to Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego. You see the command to bow down, and they won’t do it. All of a sudden, they get summoned to Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar, you know, says, “This is it; this is your chance. Here’s the fiery furnace. You can feel the heat on your face. Bow down and worship me and live.”

And their response to him—it exploded into life when they said—“The God whom we serve is able to save us.” And then I read the rest of the verse; and I was wrecked when I read, “But even if He doesn’t—but if not—we will still not bow down and serve you.” The thing that I kept reading in the Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego story was, after they were thrown into the furnace—He is in it—the fourth figure in the fire.

Dave: [Singing] “There is another in the fire!”

Erik: I would sing it with you, but your listeners should be spared that. [Laughter]

You know, for somebody who had never read that, you know, there was no cliché for me to say, “God’s in this furnace right now; He’s with us.” He has the power to rescue them, and keep them from ever going in it; yet, allows them to go in it, only to show Himself to be there. What’s really fascinating to me, too, is that—it’s not like God decided to show up—God was always there!

Ann: That’s a great point.

Erik: He was always with them! But fascinatingly, He became visible to them in the fire; and so they saw Him.

Ann: Yes.

Erik: They saw Him in the fire. He was always there, but the fire made Him visible. I think that’s true in life: God is always with us; but it’s in our suffering and sorrows that He is, I believe, most visible to us—because “Man of sorrows [Isaiah 53:3]”—Jesus is the man of sorrows who came and suffered. I would argue we’re never more like Christ than when we’re in our sufferings; right?—the One who came and suffered for us.

So those three things, immediately—you know, I was just sitting there, with my son in the room with me—and I’m going, “I’ve got a lot to learn. I can grasp these with my head, but I’ve got to get these into my heart.” The Lord showed me a few other things that I knew would guide us that day. The presence of God in that fire was on display to everybody outside the furnace too: the satraps, the prefects, the governors. And the Lord made it clear: “Other people are going to watch how y’all go through this, so you need to be faithful.”

Dave: Yes; and yet, it’s interesting, as I read your story—you know, you have these miracle moments—

Erik: Yes.

Dave: —and your wife’s able to give a kidney, and Caleb’s going to have somewhat of a normal life.

Erik: Yes, normal compared to the first two years.

Dave: Yes; and then you experience panic attacks and anxiety, which is so normal. What did that look like?

 

Shelby: You’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson as they’ve been talking with Erik Reed on FamilyLife Today. We’re going to hear Erik’s response in just a minute; but first, we would love to send you a copy of his book, Uncommon Trust: Learning to Trust God When Life Doesn’t Make Sense. It’s our gift to you when you make a donation of any amount this week to support the work of FamilyLife Today and become a partner with us. You can give and become a partner at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call with your donation at 1-800-358-6329. That could be a one-time gift, or you could become a partner with us and give a recurring monthly gift. Again, the number is 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”

Alright, now back to Dave and Ann’s conversation with Erik Reed.

Erik: I had all the right ideas from the text; and yet, my heart would soon be under crippling panic attacks. I think that’s another reason why I’m saying it had to go from my head to my heart; because I could agree with those things, but those things weren’t in my bones yet—to trust that God is with us, and that that’s enough—it wasn’t in my bones yet, so I was still fearful; I was still worried.

Everything was still about: “What’s going to happen tomorrow?” “What’s going to happen next month?” “Is he going to survive to get a transplant?” “What happens if he gets the transplant, and it doesn’t last long?” Because here’s what we knew/we knew from the homework we had to do: his life would be forever affected. There’s no reset at this point; one transplant isn’t going to last a lifetime, which means, at some point, that kidney would fail. We’d be back in the boat of needing dialysis until we got another kidney.

All the questions of: “We almost ran out of dialysis options this time. Are we going to even be able to do dialysis?” and “Who’s going to give him a kidney?” All those questions about a future that you don’t control started crippling my heart. I had never dealt with anxiety; I had never dealt with panic attacks in my life. I didn’t even know—I thought I was going crazy—I didn’t even know what was happening to me. I thought I was having a heart attack, driving down the road. I’m like, “I’m too young to have a heart attack; that can’t be it!” [Laughter] But my heart was about to beat out of my chest; you know?

Dave: That’s what it felt like.

Erik: I pulled over on the side of the road, and I called my wife [while] on the interstate. I was like, “I don’t know what’s happening to my heart. I’m sweating; it’s 30 degrees outside. And my heart is beating out of my chest.” She was like, “Go to the hospital! I don’t know.” She didn’t know what was happening either.

I learned soon: “Oh, that’s a panic attack.” I would irrationally have those for years ahead: out of nowhere, they would happen.

Dave: What’s really interesting, when I hear you say that, so many of us think believers don’t have those.

Erik: Oh, mercy!

Dave: “Pastors certainly don’t have panic attacks.”

Erik: Right.

Dave: But there you were; anxiety is real!

Erik: And I was ashamed of it. Once I learned what it was, for a while, I never told anybody; because I was like, “I don’t want anybody to think I’m crazy!”—you know? “I don’t want anybody to think, ‘Oh, wow! He’s a wreck! He doesn’t have his life together.’”

And then, I started to realize, “Oh, actually, a lot of people struggle with this.” What would begin to unfold in the years ahead would be, not only learning to deal with that, but learning to get under the root of why I was having them. I didn’t want to treat symptoms; I wanted to get to the root. So much of my anxiety was driven by leaning on my own understanding: trying to make sense of what was happening/what was going to happen, trying to control and cling to what the future was that I didn’t have any ability to direct. That’s a hard thing to do when it’s your son, and his future, and his health.

Ann: Well, I think what you said was you were learning to trust God; but you hadn’t learned to trust Him in your bones yet.

Erik: Yes; yes.

Ann: And I think that’s where a lot of people are—hearing that/thinking—“I haven’t learned that either

Erik: Yes.

Ann: “I need to know how to do that.”

Dave: “And we’ve got to find out!” We’ve all quoted what you said—Proverbs 3: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding,”—we don’t know what that looks like. We don’t have time for you to do it, so we’ve got to bring you back.

Erik: Okay; I’d be happy to come back!

Shelby: You’ve been listening to FamilyLife Today. If you know of anyone who needs to hear a conversation like the one Dave and Ann had with Erik Reed, you can share it from wherever you get your podcasts. And while you’re there, it would really help if you would rate and review us.

So how do you answer the theological questions of a child, who has gone through what Erik’s son went through? We’re going to hear how Erik handled those difficult questions tomorrow.

On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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Episodes in this Series

Erik Reed: Where is God When it Hurts?
with Erik Reed April 27, 2022
Where is God when it hurts? Author Erik Reed reflects on his intimate experience of God amidst his son's suffering -- and learning to trust God in the hard.
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Erik Reed: Learning to Trust God When Life Doesn’t Make Sense
with Erik Reed April 25, 2022
What's it look like to trust God when bad things happen to good people? Author Erik Reed describes his search for God's goodness amidst tragedy.
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