Lal Shahbaz Qalandar was a holy man and scholar born in the 1100s whose ancient travels sound as contemporary as today’s news feeds. He was born in what is now Afghanistan; he was the descendant of immigrating Iraqis; he lived and died in Pakistan; and his shrine was constructed by donations from the Iranian royalty.
Maybe the only thing more extraordinary than Lal Shahbaz’s wide-reaching travels and popularity are the many mythological stories that have been attached to him over the centuries. In one story, recorded by William Dalrymple, Lal Shabaz was wandering through the desert with a friend as evening began to fall. The desert was terribly cold, so the two pilgrims began to gather wood for a fire.
With their pyre neatly constructed, they realized they had no way of igniting it. Lal Shahbaz’s friend suggested that he transform himself into a great bird (the meaning of “Shahbaz”) and fly down into hell to collect coals for a fire. Lal Shahbaz considered this a wise suggestion and flew away.
After many cold hours Lal Shahbaz returned to his friend empty-handed. Puzzled, he asked why he had not returned with fire to keep them warm. Lal Shahbaz replied, “There is no fire in hell. Everyone who goes there brings their own fire, their own pain, from this world.”
There is a great deal of truth in this story. If we think of hell as a self-imposed prison or a self-ignited blaze, then Lal Shahbaz is correct: Anyone suffering from the results of their own hard-hearted decisions or their own hand is truly suffering hell. They have not been cast away by God; they have kindled their own fire. They have hurt themselves, and nothing hurts worse than a self-inflicted wound.
By Jesus’ definition, the most “burning torture to bear” is the scorching heat of resentment and unforgiveness. When we refuse to forgive others, we sentence ourselves and our world to hellish suffering. Our future – and today’s well-being – depends upon our willingness to extinguish the burning inferno in our souls by forgiving those who have harmed us.
Granted, we don’t naturally respond to injustice with this kind of Christ-infused grace. If you hit me, I will hit you harder. Maim my brother, and I will kill your father. Set off a bomb in my marketplace, and I will wipe out your entire village. Firebomb my hospital, and I will bomb your capital.
It’s human nature to retaliate, not with equity, but with greater force than what was first inflicted. It is a hellacious, vicious cycle; and the only thing that can shut down the scorching cycles of suffering is forgiveness.
Dr. Fred Luskin offers this hopeful counsel: “To forgive is to give up all hope for a better past…Forgiveness allows you a fresh start…It’s like a rain coming to a polluted environment. It clears things. At some point, you can say that this awful thing happened to me. It hurt like hell, yet I’m not going to allow it to take over my life.” Forgiveness forges a firebreak and says, “It ends here!”
So when we hear the names of Auschwitz and Ravensbruck, we answer with the names of Maximilian Kolbe, Corrie Ten Boom, and Bernard Lichtenberg – people who were not overcome by evil, but overcame evil with good.
When someone speaks of the past or current hatefulness in South Africa, Darfur, Armenia, Sand Creek, Selma, or Croatia we speak the names of Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Miroslav Volf, Dirk Willems, and the Amish of Nickel Mines – those who lived (and some died) for the sake of grace.
The only way to stop the continual and rampant hate in this world is to make peace. The only way to make peace is to forgive. The only way to forgive is through the unrelenting love and forgiveness of God. We can become the instruments of that peace, tools of God’s forgiveness, and the images of God’s love. That love will extinguish the fires of hell. That love will indeed change the world.