I’ve never been good at forgiveness.
A buddy in high school dated my dream girl. My neighbor’s weeds have crept across the property line. Last week, I signed and mailed a book to a fan that didn’t even say thank you.
Did I mention I’ve never been good at forgiveness?
No, you might not have known this about me, but God sure has. By crossing our paths, he introduced me recently to a woman who’s taught me more about forgiveness than I thought possible.
Her name is Ashlee Birk, and you might just learn something, too.
In the early hours of March 12, 2011, Birk of Meridian, Idaho, walked into her closet and pled with God. Slowly, despite the ice-cold shock of the night and floods of anger and grief, she felt peace wash over her.
Then, in that quiet closet, she was greeted by heavenly, loving whispers.
“Be still,” she heard.
How could she? Moments earlier, Ashlee Birk learned from detectives she’d just become a 28-year-old widow.
“It will be hard,” the whispers said. “But you have to keep moving forward. You have to have faith for a brighter day.”
Faith? Earlier that evening, her husband, Emmett Corrigan, had been shot in a Walgreen’s parking lot in Meridian.
“You are not alone,” the whispers continued. “You have been watched over.”
There was no dispute. Her husband had been shot and killed by Robert Hall, an angry man that would later be found guilty of second-degree murder.
“Ashlee, be still.” The whispers persisted. "Breathe. You are an incredible mother.”
A mother? Yes, the newly initiated widow had five children waiting on her to explain, to recover, to raise and to help heal.
“You are still you. Believe in yourself.”
Why was the killer so angry? Because he’d discovered that his wife, Kandi Hall, had been having an affair with Corrigan, Ashlee Birk’s husband. Their confrontation that night had ended not with confessions and apologies, but with gunshots and screams.
“Find forgiveness and peace,” Birk heard, still on her knees.
Peace? Moments earlier she’d heard from strangers that her husband wasn’t just dead, but murdered.
Not just murdered — shot by a lover’s spouse.
Not just a lover, but a woman Birk knew, a woman who’d been an employee of her husband’s law firm.
“This is the time to find the beauty around you,” the still, small voice pressed on. “I will carry you when it gets unbearable, but I need you to stand.”
Ashlee Birk, ever obedient to the laws of God and Earth, did just that.
And she’s been standing ever since.
Recently, I’ve been honored and humbled to get to know this remarkable woman. I’ve been touched not just by the things she’s learned through this horrific ordeal, but by how willing she is to share the lessons with the world.
“Where does that willingness come from?” I wondered.
Birk confided that it hadn’t always been easy. After three years of struggle, after remarrying a wonderful man and working hard to blend their families, her painful memories and lessons learned were known only to her closest family and friends.
On Jan. 6, Birk, a very talented wordsmith, began sharing her story — both the heartache and the joys — and the world has come to listen. In just two months, more than a million people have been touched by Ashlee’s courageous desire to stand and be the voice God wants her to be.
When I asked Birk what she’s learned from the pain of betrayal and loss, her response made me want to stand, too. “I’ve discovered that just like the Savior’s pain brings hope, my own pain can bring hope, too.”
After taking time to update me on the legal side of her story — Robert Hall was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 30 years — Birk was quick to go on record with her views on forgiveness. “Listen,” she said, “I’ve discovered that forgiveness is not a checkbox.”
We spoke about friends who’ve moved on surprisingly quickly after being wronged. “For me, it’s just not been like that. It’s not a perfect process.”
She shared with me her anger, denial and a deep desire for an apology from the three people who hurt her beyond description. “But those apologies will never come,” she said.
Birk's honesty is refreshing.
On her road to forgiveness, she’s written many letters to Kandi Hall, letters she’s never sent, and sought diligently to find empathy for her husband’s killer. “He must have been hurting, too,” she offered. “Everyone of us can have our lives shattered. But with the Lord near us, we’ll be all right. Without him we’ll break, but with him we’ll break through.”
With those perspectives, she might be further down the road than she realizes.
“If you had to sum up your experiences,” I asked, “If you could wrap it all into one message for people who have come to sympathize with your trials, what would it be?”
“No one can avoid the dark days,” she said, confidently. “Just when you think you’ve been hit with all the hard things, when you think you’re finally done, you’re not. Until we’re with him again, living in his presence, life will test and refine us again and again.”
She’s right. Life will test and people will stretch our capacity to forgive. Friends will offend. Family will bruise hearts. Neighbors might even let their weeds wander from their yard to ours.
And when they do, perhaps we might remember the example of a young, anguished mother kneeling in her closet before finally standing to live and to forgive.
It's true. I’ve never been good at forgiveness, but I’d like to be.
Thanks to Ashlee Birk, I plan to try.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times bestselling author, columnist and speaker. His newest book “A Letter to Mary: The Savior's Loving Letter to His Mother” is available on Amazon. Subscribe to his weekly columns, join him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.