When confrontations do not end up working the end result that we would like – restoration of a healthy relationship with someone who has offended us – we have to figure out how to continue to relate to them and to others in a healthy way which allows us to safety and continued growth as well as optimism. This task becomes even more difficult if we started out with unhealthy relationships in the beginning of the process – and those unhealthy relationships might even play a role in the reason for our offense.
Even when we look at forgiveness as a process, patience and time and work may not result in resolution. We may not be among those who seem to get the positive results that the gurus seem to promise us.
General Guidelines, Not Formulas
Many people offer advice and wisdom concerning this topic – and some make the healing of damaged, broken, or dysfunctional relationships sound like a sure thing, something one can achieve by following a formula. I'm sure that would work if the person who is committed to forgiveness had complete control over themselves and the other person as well, but this is a fantasy. As a Christian, I count on God working through and in me while He also works through and in the other person with whom I have conflict, because my own efforts alone do not change anyone. Some people may change their opinion of me based on how I behave with them, but chances are just as good that people will not treat me any differently.
This brings to mind a memory of the conflict that I had with my mother-in-law years ago, praying as I was preparing for her come for a visit in a few days. I so vividly remember praying while working in my garden. While on my hands and knees as I worked at weeding as the sweat ran down my brow, and I cried out to God from the depths of my being for Him to to change the relationship. I prayed and prayed to be like Ruth (the Old Testament icon of virtue who cares for her mother-in-law after the death of her husband), and tears rolled down my face along with the beads of sweat. My heart ached and ached, and I poured that into a prayer, begging God to make me like Ruth. I did this for some time and felt exhausted after the emotional release of prayer and hard work.
As I sat in the shade to rest, I thought to myself, “What am I missing? If I could only be like Ruth!” If I were like Ruth, it would fix everything. I would have mastered the formula. Suddenly, a thought that didn't even seem to be mine popped into my consciousness, and like a wise sage whispering in my ear, I heard “Have you considered that your mother-in-law is no Naomi? She doesn't want to be a Naomi, and there's not a thing that you can do about that.”
I'd treated that relationship as though it was a problem to be solved if I could just find the right figure to plug in to “solve for x.” But that day, I stopped to consider that though God guides us and governs our circumstances – and even He does not force any of us to become what we do not want to be against our will. He waits for us to surrender. The Holy Spirit is like a dove, and a dove will only light where it is invited and will leave if unwelcome. Maybe I was like Ruth, but I couldn't turn someone into Naomi. I don't think that God would do it against their will, either. It was one of the first moments in a very difficult relationship when I realized that the only factor over which I had control and my only real power was self-control. I could control how I thought, what I did, and what feelings I could entertain. I could devote myself to being like Ruth, but I could not turn an “irregular person” into a gentle, devoted Naomi who loved her Ruth. I suppose that it was then when I had a first glimmer in my heart about what that Prayer of Serenity was really trying to say instead of just understanding the words intellectually. I also had a new appreciation for why “Let go and let God” is a much repeated phrase in the literature and in the practice of recovery.
Separating as Letting Go
We human creatures were endowed with the gift of choice and a measure of free will, and as a consequence, we can easily tend to believe that we have complete control and an unbridled will. The hard part of maturity comes not in learning how to wield one's will but in how to reign it in. Hopefully, we learn good and healthy lessons about where we start and where others begin as we grow in our youth. We start out feeling that we are a part of everything and continue like this for 36 months or so, according to Allan Schore. When we've laid down enough brain matter and have grown enough connections within the left side of our little, growing brains, we just start the process of scratching the surface of understanding that we are discrete and separate beings. We start the process of learning all about how that works and continue it in some manner or degree for the rest of our lives. Part of that learning involves letting go of the self-centeredness of youth, and that brings with it lessons about how much power we have and where that influence ends.
Though we may learn set principles, formally or informally, we still have to work out how the social rules work in practice as well as theory. We're not really given an instruction book about the unwritten rules that social convention convey about how we can be separate people and still connected to others as social creatures, too. We learn through life experience, translating all we've learned into what hopefully turns out to be a functional, mature, meaningful life. This process of transformation points out the lessons that we missed along the way or our natural weaknesses as well as our strengths.
For many of us, we learn many of those lessons through the process of forgiveness, particularly forgiveness that doesn't look like the ideal. Offense teaches us the harder lessons about where we stop and others begin, along with how to negotiate what that means. This forces us to learn how to negotiate as well. It is our responsibility to learn, but not everyone always wants to show up for school! Not everyone wants to negotiate forgiveness in a healthy way or live with the consequences.
What We Must Learn
When offense and forgiveness fails to deliver us the ideal that we read about in the Bible which results in some kind of mutually agreed upon peace the best scenario of reconciliation, we can at least use it as a motivation for personal growth. We can use the information from the conflict like a mirror which reveals our hearts to us. If we look closely enough while seeking to develop good ethics and spirituality, the process will tell us which lessons we failed to learn in that process of growing up. Conflicts can become something of a proficiency test for us to give us clues about the gaps in our social learning and our sense of who we are. Though all families are somewhat dysfunctional to some degree, some of us have more to go back to learn some of these old lessons as adults. (This series of posts explores the primary lessons of childhood which we commonly do not master in dysfunctional homes.)
In learning about where we end and others begin, we find ourselves in the midst of the discussion of “boundaries,” the subject of a few upcoming posts. Part of coming to a place of peace with less than ideal relationships involves fortifying, defending, and respecting personal boundaries. As we learn those many lessons – lessons about those unwritten rules about how to get along well with others which we hopefully saw modeled well by others in our lives – we learn about our limitations.
Perhaps the hardest thing for a willful creature to learn involves what psychology calls the “locus of control.” The term refers to the extent to which we believe that we control the things that happen to us. (This post discusses how we can get deceived into the unhealthy idea of an external locus of control wherein we try to bolster our sense of worth through external factors.) In an effort to understand our will and our power so as to live fully and well, we now have books that discuss the issue of locus of control. I found many of them as I recovered from spiritual abuse, reading and understanding more about manipulation by individuals and within groups. People who turn to addictions learn these lessons through their recovery process. They teach us the serenity of both making the most of the opportunities over which we have influence, taking appropriate responsibility for them, as well as the acceptance of those things outside of control. This touches on the issue of expectation in relationships as we noted in the discussion of the book, Irregular People. As the Prayer of Serenity tells us, we can't do that until we learn the skill and wisdom of understanding our limitations while balancing that with making the most of the things we can change for the better.
What does this mean in the context of a broken relationship?
Neither a blog post nor a library full of books can supply such easy answers. The process of forgiveness remains a journey that each of us must work out for ourselves as we learn about ourselves and others. The process teaches us deeper lessons about where we begin and how to care for our needs while respecting the needs of others. We learn how to reach out to help to care for others. Where each of us will eventually find ourselves in relation to our offenders will be ever changing if we keep on the path learning the skills of balance and self-control and self-care. Through working at this personal maturity, we can come to a place of compromise – but what that looks like must be a personal and unique choice. It will be different for everyone.
I remember one morning in my early twenties when I sat pondering a troubled relationship and thought of a couple of Scriptures. If I am to essentially imitate the character of Christ until I internalize His virtue, I wondered how Jesus got along as a young person as He matured. This touches on the mystery of the kenosis. I thought of Hebrews 5 which says that Jesus “learned obedience by the things that he suffered” and was “made perfect.” He matured in a process which Luke wrote about, noting that He “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” Though Jesus did not always remain in favor with man, He lived peaceably with them and submitted himself to those same social conventions that we do in life. I thought of the Proverb that says “when a man's ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.” Surely this could be done within the relationships which struggled in conflict. But how could this be?
I thought of how enemies dealt with one another, and I inevitably thought of peace agreements between countries at war with one another. After waging battles, sometimes countries with opposing views will sit down and negotiate a treaty of peace. If one party does not want to negotiate and invades borders and boundaries, the only thing that the other party can do is to literally shore up their boundaries. They can defend themselves through force and fences, and they can limit the amount of interaction they have with their enemies. They do what they can to protect their citizens while staying as far out of harms way as much as they can. Sometimes they even set up demilitarized zones to maintain not only a barrier but a buffering boundary also, respecting the conflict by maintaining a safe distance. I really liked that idea of a buffer zone of avoidance – a form of “less than ideal” peace that resists open war.
On my own journey which is certainly no paragon, I am in a process like everyone else who copes with unique circumstances, limitations and skills. I constantly evaluate where I stand within my troubled relationships (this one in particular) and whether there is any opportunity to pursue a new measure that might work towards reconciliation. I assess myself and my limits and my new and old skills to ask whether it might be wise to try something new, but not as a fantasy of chasing empty hope. I continually evaluate circumstances as matter of personal responsibility and as a person with a non-optional duty before God forgive others out of a spirit of love. I don't want to dismiss the ideal of reconciliation, so I work to find and maintain a happy medium of balance between the ideal and the reasonable so that my expectations remain reasonable. To guard against my own errors of the past, I have to make sure that I don't make idols out of my expectations, even out of the desire to see a virtuous end. Situations change and people change, so relationships change. That makes remaining on the Path of Healing an ongoing, dynamic experience of balance for me, if only by virtue of my own growth and my own seasons of fatigue or stress.
In a long term, problematic relationship in my own life, what were once few or weak or spongy boundaries became a wall. That wall morphed into something of a DMZ of protection at one point. It can change into a chain link fence, and it may or may not be adorned with the equivalent of barbed wire, depending on how well the fence is respected by the other party. Sometimes, my only boundary has been something more like a “Do Not Trespass” sign. These boundaries change based on my limitations as well as my growth, along with both the needs of others and whether or not “the weather” of my situation has changed. As a Christian, I must take all of these ideas “captive to Christ,” making sure that my ideas and my actions are subject to the Word of God. Learning about my reasonable sphere of control and how to have the healthiest boundaries also keep me on course and help me wisely decide what to do each day. I look to trusted friends and advisors to help me, too.
My Agreement With God About Miracles
I also pray often that if God decides to work a miracle in the stalled, problematic relationship by dramatically changing either the players or the playing field, I ask that the Holy Spirit will make me aware of that change and will prepare me accordingly. It is so easy to misinterpret my distress or my own will as something good or even what God requires of me – a remarkable ability we by which we can deceive ourselves through confirmation bias. (It can be easy for people to claim that God is responsible for how they feel or what they have decided, but I am reluctant to blame anything on God until I see the well developed fruit of such things, especially if I am deeply emotionally engaged in a matter.) Knowing that we tend to only see what we want to see as human beings, I look to God to open my eyes in the event something about the relationship would change. In my heart, I have accepted that I cannot change much of anything about the relationship as it stands. To maintain an optimistic love that “believes all things” that are good, I have handed that hope of reconciliation over to God to keep for me because it is so difficult for me to balance in my own heart and mind. Quite often, I have to reaffirm that choice, especially when I feel melancholy over the fact that the relationship doesn't look anything like the ideal.
I adopted a set of kittens a number of years ago, and now I have a reminder of my prayer in the name of my cat. Looking for two related names for two litter mate kittens we adopted over a decade ago, my husband and I chose “Simeon” and “Anna,” the two people who prophesied over the baby Jesus, recognizing and declaring Him to be the Salvation of Israel. Anna lived at the Temple and recognized Jesus when she saw Him, but Simeon was not always there. The Book of Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit made it divinely known to Simeon that he would see Jesus that day, and so Simeon went, or as it is written, he “came by the Spirit into the temple.” God alerted Him to go to see the desire of his heart and the promise of God to Him in the form of the Savior who was just still a baby.
I affirm and remind God in my prayers to make me like Simeon. Simeon did not go every day to the temple in the hope that he might just so happen to run into Jesus. He didn't live every moment of his life in desperation, hoping with anxiety or care as though he had work to make it happen. He didn't have to try to see the Salvation of Israel before he died, even though this was something that Scripture says that God revealed to him as something that would happen before he died. Simeon didn't make it happen but he instead waited on God and trusted God to work out the details. He was not told where, when, or how the event would happen from what we are told by Luke. We do know that when the time came, God made it unequivocally clear to Simeon when the moment arrived. And we are told that the Holy Spirit was upon Simeon, giving to reason that Simeon also followed the Spirit, too. So I pray that as I “walk in the Spirit” myself, if God choses to change my relationship of conflict (in this life) into one of reconciliation and restoration, He will apprehend me in the same way that he did with Simeon.
And in the meanwhile, I work on evaluating, maintaining, and mastering that balance of forgiveness. I work out my faith in God, my growth and capabilities, the growth and capabilities of others, the ever changing situations we find ourselves in, needs, wants, desires, and the ideal of reconciliation, and that which God requires of me in terms of character which includes a forgiving, patient Spirit. So in that meanwhile, I'll never want for something to do while I wait! Somewhere in there, I sometimes find a place of peaceful contentment, but I often wobble and stumble and trip. But I get back up and start again.
. . . My only alternative would be choosing to change course to walk another path. It took me a long time to get off those paths of least resistance. The Path of Bitterness is exhausting and full of torment. The Path of Denial is too frustrating and false and self-deprecating, something I found inconsistent with being able to live in a remotely healthy way, and I'm still working at that. Though I don't always like it and though it is often uncomfortable, I choose the obedient way of healing instead.
New posts to come will discuss a host of topics
such as boundaries in forgiveness
and other considerations
concerning respecting others and dealing patiently with them.