I saw a photograph of a picketer one day seven years ago. A white, middle-aged man wearing Tevas and socks over pasty ankles held a large, colorful sign reading “God Hates You”. Under the photo’s caption was “Westboro Baptist Church.”

I was raised in a baptist church with conservative values and strong beliefs about the Bible, but I had never heard of anyone speaking those words or holding signs that bore them before. I looked up this church but had a difficult time finding their website until I realized their website address was godhatesfags.com. I thought this must be a joke. A really awful and disgusting joke. I wish it was.

Fast forward to Thursday morning, when the founder, a horribly abusive and manipulative man, Fred Phelps, died at age 84. I was asked earlier this week by Mike Dronkers to comment on Phelps impending death and why the world shouldn’t do the happy dance on his grave. My first thought, juvenile and rash as it was, was good riddance. I’m glad such an evil liar who has slandered God’s name will be gone and won’t be able to cause any more damage to people loved by God. But the more I discovered about him, the more he became a person in my mind instead of just a sum total of the pain he had caused others. I didn’t find myself justifying the hurt he has caused or giving him grace for those countless evils, but I did discover a person with a story.

Isn’t that the case when we step back from our hurts or traumas? Or when we give our anger or gut reactions a moment of space to allow the pain or hate sit still, to marinate, to rest? It’s unnerving to find a person with a story on the other side of evil. It’s easier to hold onto what they have done to society or to us personally and let go of their personhood. Holding onto that pain and hurt gives us power. It makes us feel in control of the trauma, like we have a handle on what happened. Forgiveness? Seeing the person as a person with a story, that’s much harder.

Whether it is Fred Phelps who has hurt you, or if it’s another person in your life who has caused you pain, forgiveness is the only thing which will release you. Can you think about that person or people who have hurt you? Maybe it was someone you trusted — your friend from grade school, or you best friend in college who took advantage of your kindness too many times, who used you when they needed something and left you when they were done. Perhaps you were cheated on by your boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse and the pain they caused you has left lasting scars on your heart. Maybe you were taken advantage of at a young age by a family member or family friend who abused you, molested you, made you believe you were worthless, fat, ugly, not smart enough. Maybe you felt rejected by your church or youth leaders or Christians because you could never measure up to their standard of righteousness. Maybe you are in a place where you can’t believe all the ways you have hurt another person and you can’t forgive even yourself.

If we could visually see how much hurt each person carries around inside of them because of what another has done to them, every room would be full. We are all swimming in the pain that others have caused us. I am swimming alongside you in that pool of pain.

Some relationships where there is hurt or pain, or where you’ve been used or taken advantage of, are toxic. While forgiveness must happen for your own sake, that relationship must end.

Forgiveness is a tricky thing for most of us though, right? Wishing that person well, hoping the best for them, is tricky. Because letting go of pain, releasing what another has done to us, is easier said than done. We hold onto our hurts and hold onto our resentments tighter than most of our convictions. Our resentments become our convictions and in the process we hold the person or people who hurt us hostage, making them pay penance and grovel and beg until we finally release them from their wrong. And then we use their mistakes, their wrongs, against them.

Anne Lamott says, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”

Choosing not to forgive another robs us of our very life. We hold that person hostage in unforgiveness, but we are holding own lives hostage. To forgive doesn’t mean to forget, and for some of us forgiveness is a daily choice. Today, again, I choose to forgive what this person did, I choose to forgive myself, I choose to release the resentments and lay down my weapons which keep me from true relationships. I choose to repair and restore the relationships which can be renewed and release and let go of the toxic relationships which cannot be restored.

Fred Phelps twisted the Bible and Jesus to use them as a bludgeon, to spread hate and hurt. I find myself wanting to place blame on him and hold the idea of him hostage because of the evil pain he has caused so many. But Jesus forever gently pulls me into a different, deeper way of living into the truth of love and forgiveness. So I will continue to learn to forgive, and through forgiveness learn to love.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only Light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only Love can do that.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.