Day after day I would pray for justification.
Actually, more than for justification, I would plead for what I considered the best solution. I thought when it was served, my restlessness would be satiated, and my heart would return to its stillness.
My daughter Catherine was one of the first-graders lost in the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in 2012. She was 6 when she died.
Slowly over time, without even realizing it, by focusing on how my hurt could be reconciled, I had become fixated on reliving what caused it in the first place. There was a debt that I felt needed to be repaid in full, and justification boils down to restitution: a fair and even exchange that repays a debt that is owed. But reality is different: There is no fair and even exchange when it comes to a matter of the heart.
This quest for justification had grown like an invasive plant. Resentment, bitterness, and anger had taken root in my life. They affected my relationship with God: Prayers turned to pleading, resulting in the expectation that if I was loved, my solution would have been accepted, and my timeline met.
When the response was silence and the whole atrocity seemingly justified, I reminded my heavenly Father of all I had done, how I was the one who was his good and faithful servant, that this was not the first trial in my life. I went as far as to question his love for me.
My need for justification turned into vindication. I became judge and jury, snatching back any surrender I had offered in the breaking day. Living like this was exhausting and it is embarrassing to consider, let alone share.
Clouded in what is considered a cry and rationalization for my contrived miracle, I forget that surrender comes first. The miracle always comes after the surrender: the surrender of Israelites, our heavenly mother’s surrendered fiat and our Savior’s surrendered life.
In my season of justification, I thought silence was the response, and yet a simple statement often came to mind: “You steer where you stare.” It is an expression often used in navigation to guide sailors to and from celestial points. It is an expression any equestrian will validate. In fact, it was told to my Catherine during one of her first riding lessons.
Steering where you stare is a saying that even St. Paul seems to paraphrase in his Letter to the Hebrews. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that weighs us down and the sins that so easily distract us and with perseverance run the race that lies ahead of us, with our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, ignoring its shame, and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1–2).
I entered this Lenten season pondering the simple statement. This Lent, I decided, I would stare down whatever needed to be my surrender in this race that I am running.
As much as I wanted to believe my stare was fixed on Jesus, that I was running his race, my heart knew differently. Deep down, we all know what is really weighing on our hearts. We simply need to stop long enough to consider: What do our fisted hands cling to? What causes you to catch your breath at the thought of surrendering? Maybe it was your Lenten fast: the coffee on the way to work, the glass of wine at the end of the day?
Or perhaps it’s more serious: the child who is no longer practicing the faith, or the job search, or forgiving the seemingly unforgivable, that affront so egregious that there is no resolve?
I began to realize over these 40 days that behind my “staring” at justification was a need for comfort and security. I was veering away from my Lord, from my Provider. Everything hinged on a miracle that would never come because my surrender was never offered. I was fixated on judging another and their actions, and my gaze had shifted.
If my eyes were truly fixed on Jesus, I would have seen the cross upon which he endured unjust torture for me, for my sins, for my salvation, so that he could claim my heart for eternity. My stare would not mistake the very place where in his final breaths, he uttered a prayer for me and all of us: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Perhaps this is why forgiveness is defined as the repayment of a debt. Perhaps when we surrender the outcome or the consequences, when we ourselves surrender what we feel we are due and fix our eyes on Jesus, we realize the currency of our heart is forgiveness offered and accepted. In forgiveness is the surrender.
And that surrender, we should remember, makes way for the miracle for which those 40 days prepare.