When the Islamic extremist group ISIS invaded the Nineveh Plains in North Eastern Iraq over four years ago, the 140,000 Assyrian Christians living there were given three choices convert to Islam, die or flee.
The Nineveh Plains are home to the ancient ruins of Nineveh, the city that the prophet Jonah called to repentance. Christians have inhabited this area for 2,000 years and many speak modern Aramaic, a version of the language that many believe Jesus spoke.
Tens of thousands of Assyrian Christians fled into neighboring countries where they lived for years as ISIS ravaged their homeland. The Islamic extremists were determined to wipe out any evidence of the Christian faith on the Nineveh plain.
ISIS leveled an estimated 13,000 homes of Christians, destroyed 263 Christian churches and obliterated Christian monuments including the tomb of Jonah. Christian cemeteries were also destroyed and purposefully desecrated.
ISIS was determined to wipe out the memory of the Christians who had lived on this plain for the past 2,000 years. But with ISIS routed, four years later Christians are now returning to their homeland.
And according to Father Salar Kajo one of the first things they are doing is forgiving their enemies:
“The people have suffered greatly; for three years as refugees in Iraq/Kurdistan they faced many difficulties. But they have faith that has enabled them to overcome everything, although not without difficulty…. This faith also makes it possible for them to truly live this forgiveness.”
For Christians, forgiving your family, friends and enemies is not an option.
Jesus said that we must forgive our debtors to be forgiven ourselves (Matthew 6:14).
But there is more to this than that.
I believe forgiveness is critical step to healing our emotions.
After I had graduated from seminary, I sold advertising for a small paper. One day as I was walking down a busy street going to the next business, I had a flashback of an incident that I had growing up as a child.
This wasn’t the first time this had happened. I got these regularly. These memories would come out of nowhere sparked by something I had seen or heard and suddenly I would be reliving these negative incidents in my mind and it was always the same four.
There were tens of thousands of memories from my past that I could not remember even if someone paid me, but there were four that I couldn’t forget. These memories were so livid and real, it was if they had happened yesterday.
However, this time was different. For the first time I asked God why I was having these flashbacks and I felt the Holy Spirit say I needed to forgive the people who had caused the hurt. Because I hadn’t forgiven, these memories still had an emotional charge that was literally keeping them alive in my mind.
At this point, I began the process of forgiving. And it was a process. I forgave and then forgave again whenever the memory popped up.
It was through this process that I learned forgiveness is like an onion. When you forgive you peel back one layer and everything seems fine. But then a while later that memory pops up again, so you forgive one more time and you peel away another layer.
Then one day the onion is gone.
And today I can’t even remember those four memories that used to plague me. Because I forgave the people involved, they became like all the other memories now decades old.
Another thing began to change as well. I had an anger that would explode out of nowhere over the dumbest things, seemingly triggered by things that reminded me of the past.
As I went through this process of forgiveness, I noticed the anger starting to wane. The explosions became less frequent.
This happens because as we forgive others, the Holy Spirit can began to heal the woundings and hurts of the past. God can pull out the roots of bitterness in our heart.
9 Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:9 NIV)
If we repay evil with a blessing, we will in turn be blessed. In order to bless our enemies, we must first forgive.
Through anger and bitterness, ISIS tried to wipe out any physical memory of Christians on the plains of Nineveh, but through Christ, we have the hope of inner healing and removal of past memories as we forgive those who have hurt us.