For more than 40 years, we would sneer the name whenever it came up in conversation. And come up, it did—with increasing frequency as my husband’s hip pain worsened. Anytime someone asked Elliot about his limp, he’d tell of that seventh grade basketball game, when Stuie intentionally stuck out a leg to trip him.
The smashed knee finally mended but left a souvenir of the “accident”—a peculiar angle to the lower leg that would, in time, prematurely wear out his right hip. The first indication of trouble was the need to trade jogging for a lower-impact elliptical routine. Next, our neighborhood walks had to be eliminated. And finally, just getting up from his desk at work became so difficult that Elliot dreaded walking to the next room.
When the relentless pain shrouded his cheery personality in a veil of crankiness, he finally scheduled hip replacement. We’d just recently begun attending the church near our home and felt touched that people who barely knew us signed up to bring meals during Elliot’s convalescence. Even more than receiving some very deluxe dinners, it was a blessing to get acquainted with the folks bringing them.
One young couple’s visit was especially memorable. As we chatted with Cindy and Bob about their life and ours, they asked what led to Elliot’s surgery. Once again, we launched into the story of Stuie and the painful, lengthy repercussions of his mean prank. Instead of the sympathy we expected, however, Bob sensitively asked, “Have you ever thought about forgiving him?”
We hadn’t. But the seed took root. Later that evening, Elliot poked around on Facebook, found a Stuart with the right last name, and sent a message asking whether he had attended our junior high school. The next day an affirmative reply arrived—with a phone number.
It was pretty remarkable to have a front-row seat as this unfolded. I was impressed with both Elliot’s teachability and his promptness to comply once he saw what God expected. Not only that, but I myself felt challenged to reconsider how I’d been processing certain biblical directives and applying them (or not). For example, I had heard many a sermon about unforgiveness, but to be honest, I never put Elliot’s injury in that category. The basketball incident had taken place what felt like a lifetime ago. So now, all these decades later, forgiving seemed irrelevant—as if time eroded the necessity, or different rules applied because the players were just kids. But Bob’s question helped us see that when it comes to obeying God, there’s no age constraint or statute of limitations.
Another thing about all those sermons I’d listened to: In various ways, they each described unforgiveness as an attitude that was intended to somehow punish the perpetrator but never succeeded. That’s because, though we remain keenly mindful of the wrong done to us, most often the culprit is totally unaware of our disgruntlement, the injury, or the part he or she might have played in it. Pastor after pastor alluded to the fact that unforgiveness backfires, holding the offended hostage while having no impact on the offender.
Wait a minute—our unforgiveness holds us hostage? I found that hard to conceptualize no matter how often it was preached, and my understanding remained academic at best. But now, as Elliot punched the numbers into his phone, all those teachings were about to pop alive with a real-time demonstration of how forgiveness actually works. Only, not the way I expected.
I had assumed that after some initial pleasantries, a description of the surgery, and a reminder of its seventh grade origin, Elliot would say something to the effect of, “I just wanted to let you know I forgive you.” That’s not what happened. Instead, I was shocked to hear him say, “I called to ask you to forgive me, because all these years I’ve been speaking your name in anger.”
I suddenly realized Elliot had forgiven his old classmate even before placing the call, which set him free to ask forgiveness for his own part. As soon as he did, that 40-year-old anger simply vanished from us both. Though we hadn’t recognized we were hostages, release felt wonderful. We never again felt a drop of resentment, and never again hissed Stuie’s name.
Illustration by Jeff Östberg