95. The List

95. The List

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

The List

We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.

~Rick Warren

My list really wasn’t all that long. While I could not read anybody else’s, I sat close enough that at a glance I could tell the guys around me had longer lists than mine.

This was a special time for my fellow inmates and me, and the men who came to spend the weekend showered us with the love of Christ. We were expected to participate in every activity and today’s focus was on forgiveness. They talked to us about God’s forgiveness of our sins, and our need to forgive others—that forgiveness cleaned the slate and provided motivation to serve God.

Now that the talks were over, we were given a sheet of paper and a pen. The lights were dimmed and it was very quiet. The very air felt holy, somehow. Set apart by God for this special moment with him.

“Your forgiveness list is between you and God,” the group leader explained in a quiet, sincere voice. “Nobody but you and God will see it. We don’t see it, and the guards aren’t allowed to look at it. Be real. The names you write down on that list are for your eyes only. God knows your heart, and any names you leave off for your forgiveness list, well, that’s between you and Jesus. But just so you know, Jesus said in Mark 11, ‘And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’ ”

Silence.

I knew this was an important moment for me. I already had a few names written down, though going into this activity I had already forgiven them all. I had been wronged. I’d been abused, neglected, used and offended in many ways, but I never was much for holding grudges against anyone. And I’d never been one to blame others for my own mistakes.

Perhaps that’s why my list wasn’t very long. But that was also why the last name on my forgiveness list was the most difficult to write down. I took the exercise seriously, and I knew God did as well. I could hear him calling my name. It was my name he was telling me to write down on the piece of paper.

I’d hurt a lot of people in many different ways. I ruined my life, and in some ways, that of my family too. I had sinned against God, against my country, against my family and friends, and against myself. God offered me forgiveness for my sin, but could I forgive myself?

Everything was my own fault. I had made the wrong decisions. I went to Sunday school. I knew right from wrong, and I was without excuse, regardless of what the contributing factors were in my life. I learned one of life’s hardest lessons—actions have consequences. And now God was willing to forgive me, so why was it so hard to forgive myself?

Tears blurred my eyes as I sat and stared at my little list. I was aware that everybody else—all forty-one other inmates—had already completed their lists and were in line. Nobody could burn his list in the fire until all of us were done, so everyone waited quietly for me.

I broke the silence with a bitter-sounding chuckle as I considered how some of the others were probably thinking I must have a lot of people to forgive. I shook my head, and with tears splashing onto my paper I wrote my own name in big letters.

“Okay, God, there it is,” I prayed, preparing myself to stand and join my peers in line. “If you can forgive me, then I forgive me too. But I’m gonna need your help.”

I didn’t bother to pick up the pen when it fell to the floor. I was on a mission, one that was long overdue. I had to burn this list. I felt a sudden panic attack coming on as I approached the line. I’d taken so long, I feared the fire might go out before I got there to burn my list.

The group leader intercepted me halfway across the room. He hugged me and told me everything was going to be okay. He was the speaker whose talk focused on the need for forgiveness. And rather than lead me to the line of men that stretched down a hallway to the front door of the chapel, he led me past it. I didn’t know where we were going, and I don’t recall exactly what I was thinking, except that I had taken too long. I had held up the program, and I feared I would not be allowed to burn my forgiveness list.

I noticed that several of the men in that long line were crying too, and almost all of them were smiling either in encouragement or understanding at me.

When we had passed them all, and stepped out of the front door of the chapel, I saw the little fire there, struggling to survive. I had it in mind to toss the list on the flame as we passed by—I had to burn it.

But my scheming was foolish. The group leader stopped me right in front of the flame, squeezed my shoulder and spoke softly in my ear, “Do it, brother. Free yourself.”

It’s really true. When the burden was lifted from my heart, the air smelled cleaner, the sky looked bluer, and the future looked brighter. “And when (Jesus) had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ ” (John 20:22-23 NKJV)

The act of forgiveness had set my spirit free.

~Robbie Freeman

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