Since embarking upon this exploration of forgiveness, I've offered several of my own examples of relationship conflict here and there. We've explored the problem of the “hard cases” of forgiveness when it just “doesn't work like it should.” Joyce Landorf Heatherley explores this in her book, delving into it deeply and honestly through a discussion of both forgiveness and our expectations for the process with “irregular people.” I've also received emails from several people with questions and personal stories about the same kinds of problems. Communication problems due to lack of maturity often come through as a common feature in forgiveness, something I think of in terms of the “weaker brother.”
Realistically Esteeming the Weaker Brother
As the book Irregular People points out, the profile of the irregular person paints a picture of someone who is immature spiritually and emotionally. Try as they may, the irregular person just never sees eye to eye with us, and we never seem to come to any kind of compromise or collaboration in our relationships with them. They don't want to share their appropriate burden of responsibility for the problems, so they consistently lay blame for conflict on other people, events, or circumstances. Given the person's age, level of function, and perhaps their authority status, it seems reasonable for us to expect more of them, but they just can't deliver because of their own personal setbacks. They use what are actually very childish ways of coping through denial and diffusion instead of maturely tolerating discomfort and tension when it inevitably arises in life. (Read more here about "primitive ego defense mechanisms.")
Christians should enter into relationships in a spirit of love, believing and hoping good things, giving others the benefit of the doubt. People who are emotionally healthy possess this kind of optimism which comes very naturally – that is until they are given cause to readjust their expectations which makes matters more complicated. This caution usually comes as a result of a disappointment of some type, perhaps through an offense or a sin. Their wisdom kicks in and warns them to be more reserved and to guard their sense of trust.
We need maturity at this point so that we don't make ourselves feel better by “one upping” ourselves morally so that we can “look down our noses” at those who offend us – especially those irregular people in our lives. I'm not suggesting that we moralize or objectify people (treating them more like objects instead of people worthy of consideration and respect) by labeling them unfairly. People often preserve their own comfort this way when the feel offended, something that children often do to cope with disappointment (though plenty of adults do this, too). Rather than demoralizing people in this way, I suggest something different: an honest assessment of the limitations of person with whom you experience conflict. I like to think of this kind of assessment of others in terms of this analogy: We wouldn't expect a two year old to be able to tie their shoes or balance the checkbook, but this is often what we do when we expect others to behave beyond their level of emotional and spiritual maturity. Assessing their limitations honestly in this way does not objectify others – it actually honors and protects them.
This realistic assessment process also touches on Sandra Wilson's concept of radical realism and giving up on our fantasies as an essential element of forgiveness. We want to think the best of people, but some just consistently fall below the level of maturity that we'd like to see in them. To be wise in our interactions and to be forgiving, we have to be honest with ourselves about our limitations to avoid bitterness and frustration with them. This helps our ability to cope, makes our task easier, and it helps us have more love for the person where they are. It's also that part of the Prayer of Serenity where it talks about “taking this sinful world as He did [realistically in the way that it is] and not as I would have it.” It helps us avoid Portia Nelson's hole in the sidewalk and that which Einstein defined as insanity, repeating the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.
When People are Just Too Broken or Aren't Ready to Forgive “by the Book”
In this recent post about the Path of Denial, I touched on these limitations as an element of this kind of fantasy in forgiveness:
People can also be immature and inexperienced in relationships, not knowing how to relate to people in healthy ways. If they're ignorant or incapable of better behavior, do you really have a right to get upset? You have a right to be offended, but you have a much more complicated job when you go to address the problem.What if you know that a person happens to be going through a very difficult personal situation? What if they get so easily offended that you wonder if your breathing bothers them, too? If they mistreat you, do you have a right to get offended if they are actively wounded and suffering? Some people will actually diffuse and deflect criticism, manipulating others, by pulling all of these factors out as a “sympathy card.” What kind of cruel and inhumane person gets offended by a person who doesn't know any better, if they're suffering, or if they're “thin skinned”? This factor also becomes a cause for denial of offense if the offended person has lousy boundaries. None of these characteristics absolve the offender from their wrongs, and they don't undo the harm suffered by the offended.
Just a few days ago, I spoke to the beloved friend of mine who first recommended the book Irregular People to me. We talked about how the way I was treated by a person with whom I have conflict likely has less to do with me and our situation and more to do with their limitations. They can't stand up to the people in their life who have hurt them, but because I am safe and tender with them, they displace their angst at other people and transfer it over onto me. I created a place of honor for them, giving them liberty to say and do whatever they wanted, and the person used this place of trust to essentially vomit their excess blame and shame because they had no other place to go with it. And for whatever reason, they just are not able to consider that I've been deeply wounded by their actions. I became something of a buoy that could help them hold their head above water in their attempt at emotional survival, and in that process of their fighting for their life, they pushed me under the water and held me there. It's not really a personal thing necessarily – it's just what they had to do to survive.
When I expect this kind of person to behave reasonably, I get more deeply offended. Perhaps if I had more realistic expectations of them to start with, I would have never been offended by them at all. Either they get stymied emotionally in cognitive dissonance which inhibits our ability to communicate because of their own fears and concerns, or they just are not yet mature enough to deal with matters without feeling great intimidation. They can't be rational, but I set myself up for disappointment and bitterness when I expect them to behave above and beyond that which they are capable. I have to learn how to love them, just as they are, even though it seems that they should be capable of something much better.
Modeling Maturity in a Spirit of Love
When we encounter the weaker brother who, for whatever reason, just can't negotiate forgiveness in the way we would like best, or if they just can't communicate at an appropriate level in a spirit of trust with us, we can be the stronger party and the “bigger person.” We must learn to do so out of a spirit of Christian love for them, letting God flow through us.
If a person has no boundaries of their own and cannot respect others, we have to establish our own relationship boundaries with them in order to maintain our own sense of peace. If a person runs roughshod all over others because of their own pain or their own ignorance, it becomes the Christian thing to do to establish the boundary of appropriate behavior for them, just like we would with a child who is too young to exercise self-control. They don't know how to behave with us, so we end up giving them feedback by setting limits with them concerning what we will tolerate. We have to let them know when they've violated our boundaries – because they don't know or perhaps can't even manage themselves. We do this with children all the time, but we often don't think of it as an appropriate measure with adults. If you think about it in this way, setting limits on what you will tolerate actually helps them. It becomes a loving and Christian thing to do.
Likewise, we have to respect the boundaries of others and cannot run roughshod over them. We must develop our own strong internal boundaries, governing what we impose on people through our behavior. I just talked with a friend who had been physically abused while in a bad marriage with a physically abusive husband, and she told me about how she felt angry when a new friend of hers came up to her and hugged her. In this example, the new male friend had not yet established enough trust with her for a hug, and it didn't occur to him that a hug might be threatening to her. Out of ignorance and lack of familiarity about physical contact with a survivor of physical abuse, this man failed to maintain a respectful boundary by controlling and containing his own behavior. Out of affection for my friend, even though the hug seemed completely natural and harmless to him, he could have been the bigger person out of Christian love by considering her weakness and the boundaries that she needs for her own comfort. He may have had the desire to hug her, but he needed to balance his desire with her needs and limits.
I have a different friend who cannot keep certain information to herself because she becomes emotionally overwhelmed very easily. Certain subject matter causes her great distress, and when brought up, it triggers pain for her. It also triggers her own ineffective ways of coping because of the baggage of her past and the inherent weaknesses of her unique personality. The subject is not a particularly difficult one, and with everyone else I know, I can discuss it with ease. But when it comes with my friend, I've learned that she cannot handle discussion of this topic at all. I could easily tell myself that I have the right to discuss this subject. After all, my friend is the one with the problem, right? But I've learned through experience that this subject causes so much distress for her that if I really do love her, it's pretty unChristian of to bring it up. Her boundaries and self-awareness are so limited, and even though this friend is much older than me and mature concerning other matters, I have to be “the bigger person” for them in this area because they become the “weaker brother.”
Putting Their Needs Before Our Own
(When we can and when it's appropriate)
The Apostle Paul discusses the issue of weaker brothers in Romans 14 in the passage about the eating of meat that people have used to sacrifice to idols, food that could then be purchased at a cheaper price. Some Christians felt that it was wrong to eat this perfectly edible meat, but they saw it as dishonoring to God to partake of this food because it had been used in a pagan ritual. Other Christians didn't feel that eating this meat was sinful. The didn't acknowledge the the pagan gods and saw the rituals as empty, so the meat was just plain old food to them. They felt complete liberty and freedom to eat it. Paul explains that concerning certain matters as in the meat sacrificed to idols, we have to follow our own convictions, but we should not also impose those convictions on everyone else. We cannot judge others unfairly for the liberty that they have or don't have, just because they feel differently about the matter than we do.
The flip side of this liberty that we offer others carries a consideration for the weaknesses of others, too. If you are a person who is perfectly okay with eating the meat that was sacrificed to idols, you still have to be mindful of those who do not feel that liberty. Out of respect for them for example, you wouldn't serve them this meat when you invited them to dinner. Paul says that the “kingdom of God is not eating or drinking,” but it should be governed by the primary focus of walking in the Holy Spirit. But we also must be considerate of others. Note how The Message describes this consideration for others who don't share in the same level of liberty that you enjoy in your own spiritual life (emphasis mine):
Romans 14:15-16. If you confuse others by making a big issue over what they eat or don’t eat, you’re no longer a companion with them in love, are you? These, remember, are persons for whom Christ died. Would you risk sending them to hell over an item in their diet? Don’t you dare let a piece of God-blessed food become an occasion of soul-poisoning!. . .19-21. So let’s agree to use all our energy in getting along with each other. Help others with encouraging words; don’t drag them down by finding fault. You’re certainly not going to permit an argument over what is served or not served at supper to wreck God’s work among you, are you? I said it before and I’ll say it again: All food is good, but it can turn bad if you use it badly, if you use it to trip others up and send them sprawling. When you sit down to a meal, your primary concern should not be to feed your own face but to share the life of Jesus. So be sensitive and courteous to the others who are eating. Don’t eat or say or do things that might interfere with the free exchange of love.22-23(a). Cultivate your own relationship with God, but don’t impose it on others. You’re fortunate if your behavior and your belief are coherent. But if you’re not sure, if you notice that you are acting in ways inconsistent with what you believe—some days trying to impose your opinions on others, other days just trying to please them—then you know that you’re out of line.
Offenses and Weaker Brethren
When we are offended, we are called to go directly to those who have offended us to address matters with them. Several passages in Matthew (the Sermon on the Mount and forgiveness in Chapter 18) talk about how we should assertively and directly bring up matters of offense and sin with fellow Christians. We are duty bound to address such matters – but we must also put those matters into perspective.
This past week, a person that I know who suffers from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder felt threatened about something. Rather than tolerating their own discomfort and frustration with life in a mature way, they “unloaded” it on to me in an accusatory way, not knowing where else to go with their angst. They were not strong enough to tolerate their feelings, so the vented their frustration in the safest place that they could through an unwarranted statement that I found personally offensive. My first impulse involved really blasting them out of my own sense of offense, and I hammered out an email, forcing the responsibility of the statement back on to them. But after writing it, I realized that though I was completely justified in addressing the matter, I had written in a spirit of my own offense (mild anger in self-defense) and not in a spirit of love. I immediately thought of Ephesians 4 which admonishes us to speak only things which build up and help others.
I had a perfect right to be offended and a right to address the offense, but in recognizing the wounds, history, baggage, and the limitations of the this other person, as a Christian, I had to a duty to extend care and consideration to them, too. They weren't capable of maturely taking responsibility of what they'd written to me, and it would be cruel for me to disregard their limitations. I rewrote and sent a different email, but even now, I wonder if I was wise to even address the matter. I did have the option to “let love cover” the offense, but because it is a repeated issue that regularly creates this type of friction in the relationship, I made the judgement call to just send the email. Before I did, I had to go back to reconsider that this person is weak in this particular area, and I had a duty to respect their boundaries and limitations.
What I might do today or what I did yesterday may not be the appropriate thing to do tomorrow in cases of conflict with my friend. There are no set rules in these matters, and we have to constantly use our better judgement to discern how to act. In addition to the the fact that forgiveness is an act of offering unmerited cancelation of a debt – something that can't be merited, this having to go about the hard work of discernment about what to do within dynamic relationships and situations makes forgiveness an undertaking that is not a simple one. It would be easy if we could just follow a set of static rules to resolve our problems. Instead, we have to experience and tolerate the tension of these situations, and we have to bear the responsibility of the hard work of discernment. That involves a lot of risk, learning, and the making of mistakes until we develop our skill and balance in the process.
“Don't indulge your ego at the expense of your soul.”
Another good example of the limitations of the weaker brother appears in this previous post under the subheading of The Sin of Anger, Tone, and the Family Code. I understand forgiveness and reconciliation in a particular way, and I suffer with some serious limitations that pose difficulties within the relationship with my parents. They also have their own limitations which I must also respect. But try as I may, over the course of twenty years, I cannot progress beyond a certain point of communication with them. Cognitive dissonance and their own fears and wounds prevent them from hearing me, let alone from negotiating a better way of relating to me. Not for lack of trying or for a lack of love, we just haven't managed to get past the communication barriers created by complex and painful factors that we each struggle with on our respective sides of the relationship.
No matter who is right and who is wrong, considering the dissonance and our individual limitations of both understanding and emotion, the process of forcing confrontation becomes very cruel. Pushing the process of reasonable forgiveness turns into terrible strife which accomplishes greater and ongoing harm and becomes something that Paul advised us to resist and avoid. I also like how the passage in 1 Peter 2 describes this, especially how it is parsed in The Message. If Christians are to be known notably for their great love for one another, how much more important is this for us when we deal with offenses? We can't indulge our egos at the expense of our soul or someone else's.
Friends, this world is not your home, so don’t make yourselves cozy in it. Don’t indulge your ego at the expense of your soul. Live an exemplary life among the natives so that your actions will refute their prejudices. Then they’ll be won over to God’s side and be there to join in the celebration when he arrives (verses 11-12).
Leaving the Outcome with God
This reminds me of a friend who emailed a question to me about a confrontation that didn't resolve in a way that they thought was reasonable and asked me whether I thought forgiveness really took place. They offended someone and went to them to repent, but the person didn't respond to them at all – neither in a positive nor a negative way. After giving it some time, the repentant person went back to the other party a second time, feeling like they'd denied forgiveness. They were grieved and contrite over the matter and felt confused and hurt by this person's silence. It turned out that the other party didn't feel like they had to express to their offender that they were forgiven and felt as though it was not required of them to express forgiveness. (My friend felt cheated out of what was right. I guess that in some ways, he was, but the matter was not really in his hands anymore.)
Here we see another example where forgiveness ends up taking a different route than we expect or feel like we “need.” We don't control the way other people respond, and sometimes, we just have to accept what we're given, making peace with the results. This person may have been completely uncomfortable with confrontation itself, o they may not have been ready or able to express forgiveness at that time. They may have forgiven, but they may not have the skill or the ability to express it in light of their own pain. Or maybe, it was the first time they'd encountered a situation when another person formally repented to them, and they didn't know what to do!
When we've fulfilled our obligation to do the right thing, we then have to leave the results of the effort with God, reminding ourselves that forgiveness is a journey for both the offended and the offender. The status of our relationship can change in the future, and in time, we may see the results that we desire, but as discussed in the previous post, we can only really control our own actions. We have no power over whether others forgive us, how they go about forgiving us, or whether they are even capable of doing so. We have to accept their responses as part of those “things which we cannot change” that the Prayer of Serenity mentions.
In the meanwhile, we have to be patient with ourselves and others, resting in the comfort that we did what was right. Consider that the onus about how to resolve offense in the New Testament rests almost entirely upon the duty of the offended person to initiate the confrontation, and little is said about the offender by comparison. The greater problem is one of initial offense, the source of conflict, though conflicts are inevitable (Matthew 18:7). In this example of what seems like rejected forgiveness that's not offered formally, we have to accept the vantage and te limitations of the other person, even though it may not result the ideal that we'd like or “need.” We may not be forgiven, and we may be forgiven but may never be told about the result. We may never know if forgiveness really took place, but that is not why we forgive or repent. We do what we are called to do out of love and obedience. We then have to leave the people and the situation with God once we've followed through on our part.
I may have a need as well as a duty to address an offense with someone, but as we've learned in these hard examples where forgiveness doesn't work according to the ideal, we often have to settle for that which others can tolerate and process. That may meant that they are so weak that we must just bear the injustice of not even being able to follow through on the ideal of addressing offenses at all. This certainly shouldn't be our first approach to offenses, otherwise, we would never confront those who hurt us. But after we've tried and made a reasonable effort to resolve our differences, we may learn that the most Christian thing to do involves just letting the matter go to resist strife. When we've done all that we can do in the right spirit that offers consideration for those who are weaker than we are, we have to leave the matter in God's hands.
More to follow about style differences, boundaries,
and other factors that make forgiveness tough
~ along with ideas that can help us.