Dr. Stacie Norman

Several summers ago, my family and I went kayaking in Panama City. It was a beautiful morning. The sun was bright, the breeze was warm, and the waters were calm. It was only a 15-minute paddle to a small island that boasted of a beautiful beach with exciting waves and an abundance of seashells. While the members of my family are by no means professional kayakers, we did have some experience, and certainly did not consider ourselves novices. We paddled over to the island that morning with no problem at all. While at the island, we looked for shells and played in the waves, which were exciting on a beach that was beautiful.

Off in the distance, my husband noticed a storm cloud and recommended that we paddle back to our campground before the weather turned worse. We got out of the waves, into the kayaks and launched offshore. We had paddled for about five minutes when the storm arrived. It turns out that weather can move significantly faster than we can kayak! In a matter of moments, we were right in the middle of a terrible storm. The winds were so strong and the waves were so high, that our kayaks were filling with water. No matter how hard we paddled, we made no progress at all. Then the torrential rain started and I could no longer see. In a matter of seconds, I lost sight of all my family. We were each in our own kayaks fighting the storm alone. I could feel panic rising, especially when I lost sight of my children. My heart began to fill with fear the way my kayak was filling with water. I prayed and used every coping skill I could think of to try to stop myself from falling into a full-fledged panic attack. In that moment, I felt trapped. Trapped by the storm. Trapped by fear. Trapped with thoughts that some of us might not make it out of this storm alive.

Finally, I heard the sweetest sound ever: “Mama!” I looked up and saw a dolphin tour boat sailing in my direction. My three children were on the boat waving and calling out to me. Thank God, they had been rescued and I was about to join them! The relief that flooded my soul was overwhelming and I praised God and thanked the boat’s captain for rescuing me and my children. After they picked me up, we found my husband. He had made it to a buoy and was holding on to that waiting for the storm to pass. When the ordeal was over, we learned that my son’s kayak was completely underwater when the dolphin tour captain saw him and realized we needed help. My youngest daughter’s kayak crashed into the rocks shortly after she was rescued and could not be salvaged. We were trapped in the storm, filled with fear and doubt, unable to see, when God sent help to rescue us. We were finally free from the storm and peace overtook the place where fear once dwelt.

There was another time I felt trapped. That time was not a physical storm, but an emotional storm. I had been deeply wounded by people that I loved, and I was hit by winds of disbelief and waves of anger. The torrential rains of unforgiveness filled my life to the point I could not see clearly. I avoided going places for fear of crossing paths with those who hurt me, and if I did venture out, I rode around parking lots before entering the building, looking for familiar cars or people that I might not want to see. If I saw anyone, I would leave and go somewhere else or go home and try again later. Again I felt trapped, but this time in a storm of my own making. Yes, I was hurt by others’ words and actions, but I chose to hold on to the anger and unforgiveness until it became a strong hold in my life. It controlled me. It dictated where I went, who I talked to and the amount of joy and peace I experienced – which was not a lot. I realized that being trapped in an emotional storm is just as frightening as being trapped in a physical storm.

Matthew 6:15 states, “But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (KJV) Wait, what? You mean, if we want to walk in true freedom and forgiveness, we have to freely forgive others? Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be ye kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” (KJV) We have to be kind and tenderhearted too? Yes. Proverbs 10:12 explains that hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses. When we choose to be offended and hold grudges against others, we choose to remain in emotional storms that can trap us for days, weeks, months or even years. However, when we choose to forgive, it is as if the Rescuer calls our name and says, “I’m here to rescue you from this storm.” Through forgiveness, the hurt and anger subside, and peace overtakes the place where fear and hopelessness used to dwell.

Forgiveness is not always an easy journey. Many of you have experienced horrible, tragic, traumatic events and you cannot begin to fathom how to forgive. It feels that forgiving those people is giving them a free pass or sending the message that what they did to you was ok. That is not what forgiveness is, though. Forgiveness is stating, “You have hurt me, abused me, frightened me or controlled me long enough, and today, I take that power away from you. I release you from the hold you have had on my life, and l trust God to heal the hurt that your actions caused.” When I did that, I felt like a prisoner set free. I no longer scoped out the grocery store or restaurants trying to avoid people or memories. I was no longer filled with anger, disappointment and hopelessness. The joy and peace that I had before the emotional storm came was restored and I began to enjoy life again. I know forgiveness is not easy. Sometimes it even seems impossible. However, all things are possible with God. He has the power to calm both physical and emotional storms, and when you choose forgiveness, He meets you with peace.

• Dr. Norman is a professional counselor at Cord of Three.