What if, when we have hurt each other, we could just nix the seemingly inevitable cold war of silence and contempt? What if we became suddenly uninterested in who can hold out the longest, apologize the least, and come out on top? Will we always view the act of being the first to give in to our need for resolution as a sign of weakness? What if, instead, we raced each other to the finish line of apology and forgiveness?
I’m reading Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? and it is ripping into my marriage and ministering to my sometimes-wounded spirit as Sean and I muddle our way through these first few months of a lifetime together. We struggle with conflict and communication styles, as every couple does. Our cultural differences enrich our marriage and threaten it, often pulling us in both directions during the same situation. What has been the toughest for me — thus far — hasn’t really been the character of these differences, or their substance. It has been the fact of them — the reality that they exist, and persist, despite all our conflict-avoidance, prayers for patience, and desperate attempts at character development.
After a hurt happens — what can we do? How can we find resolution? I explain myself, he explains himself, we attempt to understand each other, and eventually do come to some conclusion about what happened to cause the conflict. We may even have some concrete things to work on or do differently next time. But the wounds still sting. The fact that we fought, that he hurt me or that I hurt him, is still unacceptable to me, and I really don’t know how to get over it. When we fight, I grieve. In part, I grieve over the separation from him that I feel when we are in conflict. More selfishly, I grieve because I was hurt, I don’t think I deserve it, and it just seems Meet and Right that someone (ok, usually Sean) should take the blame and suffer for it.
Enter Yancey, who quotes Helmut Thielicke, a German who lived through the Nazi era:
This business of forgiving is by no means a simple thing… We say, ‘Very well, if the other fellow is sorry and begs my pardon, I will forgive him, then I’ll give in.’ We make of forgiveness a law of reciprocity. And this never works. For then both of us say to ourselves, ‘The other fellow has to make the first move.’ And then I watch like a hawk to see whether I can detect some small hint between the lines of his letter which shows that he is sorry. I am always on the point of forgiving… but I never forgive. I am far to just.”
Yancey emphasizes that forgiveness contradicts justice, and therefore contradicts our most basic, natural instincts. Justice looks at forgiveness and sees a wimp, a school kid so scared of the bullies waiting to beat him up that he just hands over his milk money and apologizes that it’s not enough. Let’s get real: when I consider forgiving someone who has wronged or hurt me, that’s what I see, too. Apologizing to Sean when I think that it’s my fault is hard enough. Apologizing to him when I think it’s his fault seems downright unreasonable, unfair, and just weak.
So we get stuck in this pattern that Yancey calls ungrace. It’s a standoff, each waiting for the other to weaken first, each determined not to give up our right to being right. But it gets us nowhere.
Yancey goes into several reasons for us to take an exit ramp out of this ungraceful cycle. My most immediate reason is that ending the successive rounds of standoffs will probably save our marriage. But as always, the most compelling motivation to live by grace, and not ungrace, is the cross. This is where the essences of justice and forgiveness are reconciled: “By accepting onto his innocent self all the severe demands of justice, Jesus broke forever the chain of ungrace”. Someone has suffered for my hurt — someone who most certainly did not deserve to. Through Him and through that act, we all find justice for the wrongs committed against us, forgiveness for the wrongs we commit against others, and a code of grace by which we turn the laws of nature and fairness upside down. That’s just scandalous.
One last thing that Yancey says which I want to — need to — remember:
In the final analysis, forgiveness is an act of faith. By forgiving another, I am trusting that God is a better justice-maker than I am. By forgiving, I release my own right to get even and leave all issues of fairness for God to work out.”
God, allow me to turn over to You all the demands and burdens of justice that I carry unnecessarily. Grant me the humility to make the first move, to always progress — run — towards apology, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Give me the strength to kill my instinct for revenge, and to grow a new reflex that produces grace without even considering another option.