Let me speak to my fellow writers out there for just a moment. Have you ever started writing with a specific idea in mind, only to have God segue you into another thought entirely? It happens to me all the time, more often than not, I’d say. I think it happens to a lot of people who are open to God’s steering of their mental vehicle. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve clicked on a Francis Chan video named for one topic only to watch 25 minutes or so of him teaching a completely different topic, then have my world rocked by his wisdom and insight, and finally realize that his message has careened so wildly off-topic that I can’t be sure how we arrived at our current destination. And yet every single time, I’m so glad for the ride he’s just invited me along for. You can just tell with that man, you can tell that God isn’t a passenger in his car. He’s the driver, the pilot, the captain.
I can’t pretend to say that I stand anywhere near to Mr. Chan on the scale of Godly wisdom, but I’d like to have enough confidence in my faith to say that when I recognize God’s voice, and I listen to it, the words tend to take me where I least expect.
Take tonight for example. I came in here to talk about a throwback topic from 2 years ago when I made a Facebook poll asking my friends whether I should take back a single dollar bill that was given me by mistake while at the bank. You see I was at Bed, Bath & Beyond the other day to buy coasters, and the clerk somehow forgot to ring them up before bagging them, and so I never got charged for them. I realized only after I got home and found that the total on my receipt was 8 dollar and some change. I knew the coasters to be 12.99 alone, so, you can see where my thinking was headed. It wasn’t just a dollar this time….. But I digress. Because of course, as I’ve already mentioned, I don’t have the heart to write about that.
I’m rather uncomfortable with this topic because it’s such a personal one. This one’s a heavy hitter for me, so if you start to feel a little beat up, just remember I’m right there with you.
When I sat down tonight, what flowed from my heart wasn’t about coasters or retail justice like I’d thought it would be. No. Here’s what God has laid on my heart.
Forgiveness. No, not that kind of forgiveness. Real forgiveness. The kind that allows you to look someone in the eye for the first time in years. The kind that begins to erase the pathways of pain in your mind.
Forgiveness is what allows people to change. Did you know that? It’s been my children that have taught me about the need for forgiveness, as well as to forgive and be forgiven. I have seen how difficult it is to change a behavior if there is even one person in your life who treats you like they don’t believe you capable of it, and I’ve felt it for myself. If you keep holding someone to an outdated standard of who you’ve known them to be, then barring a herculean effort on their part, the most likely outcome is that they’ll indeed always be that person when in your presence. Think about that family member or friend who has let you down, disappointed you, or maybe they’ve even attacked you personally. What do you expect from them? Do you cringe internally whenever they’re near? Yea, me too. We all have those. Those prickly people whom we have never learned to love, and because we can’t love them, we never allow them to change.
What if one day you woke up with amnesia, God forbid. What if the very next time you shared a dinner table with the person you most dread being near, you had no recollection of any difficult past you’d shared with them? Clean slate. You wouldn’t expect him to bite your head off because the painful memory of him ever doing that is gone. And why would you be scared of her? As far as you can remember, she’s never belittled you. Those little recollections of rejection……all gone. No pain. No fear. No anxiety.
I believe – no, I know – that we are capable of something very akin to this, though not identical. None of us has the power to completely shut down the stress response we endure when a difficult personality is present, but what I want you to consider for a moment is just whether it’s possible that you yourself are contributing to how difficult it feels to be around that person. I submit to you that if you believe about that person that they can never change, then even without saying the words out loud in their presence, they know how you feel. They know precisely the judgment and the rejection. That’s right, you’re not the only one who feels rejected. So do they. Mistakes have been made, without a doubt, but how does a person come back from mistakes that he or she has made? Only one way. Forgiveness.
Ideally, forgiveness is something to be sought out by the person who needs it, but as is the case with so much in a broken world, the people who do the most hurting are hurting so badly themselves that they don’t know the steps to take to ask for it. Sometimes they’re blinded by pride, but other times it’s their own fear of rejection that stands in the way. So I wonder if we all ought not to become better at extending the invitation of forgiveness.
A couple of years ago we had a powerful experience of forgiveness with one of our own children. I want to protect the privacy of the person here, so I won’t give most of the details. It was a school conduct issue, a single occurrence that broke school policy and was stumbled into in a legitimately innocent way. It was a serious infraction nonetheless, and something that quite frankly this particular son should have known better than to do. When he came home from school that day, we had already received an email from the principle, and a lengthy phone call from his teacher, so we knew, and he knew that we knew. He was emotionally devastated, and obviously had braced himself for the worst.
Now if you’ve ever been about the Shelby residence (especially during mealtime), you’ll already know that there can be bickering. The dishes, clearing the table, not being too loud…don’t break the TV!….sit down, sit down, SIT DOWN!! As parents, we do tend to bicker and we get after the children frequently for behavior we find inappropriate. And I’m going to admit it right now, I’m a shouter. It doesn’t happen often, maybe a few times a year, but when I’ve had it, I have HAD it, and I do shout in those moments. However, when my son came out from school and could barely look at our faces, I can tell you there was no amount of misbehavior on his part that could’ve made me shout in that moment. There was only love and forgiveness on my mind. He was so ashamed, so far gone in his own mind, having committed the absolute worst sin possible for a small boy of his age, and the stress showed all over his body. In his mind, he had no way back for what he’d done.
We knew our son had already been given the business by his school administrators, and he had lost some privileges going forward that year, which I would knew had to be humiliating for him. We were disappointed, of course, but I did not even want to yell, and neither did Aaron. He carried so much shame on his tiny shoulders already. What he needed was forgiveness. Without knowing that we loved him more than we cared about what he’d done, he never could’ve come back to us that day. We told him he was not a bad person, not a bad son, not a bad student, and we invited him back into our favor by wiping away the mistake. And it was only after forgiving his failure that he came to a place where he felt safe enough to really talk through what had happened that day. Forgiveness became the path to the solution, not the other way around.
How can a person make their way back to you unless you allow them to through the gift of forgiveness? The gift of being forgiven is the great equalizer that washes away the stains of the past. It reaches out and says “Yes, you wronged me, but I am no better than you because I have wronged others as well.” And that’s what we did with our son. We explained to him that we had made mistakes, and then we told a few stories. We shared what we learned from those experiences, and then we had a wonderful, genuine conversation about what it means to fail and then recover from failure. I’ve never seen a kiddo more relieved than I did that day when we refused to condemn him for what he had done wrong.
What if we refused to condemn anyone for what they do wrong? My son’s small shoulders were stooped with the weight and knowledge of his mistake. How much heavier are the weights on adult shoulders who fully realize the implications of what they’ve done? Go back to that person who sometimes causes discord in your life. They know that they do that. Oh sure, they don’t admit it; they don’t even apologize for it. But truth is truth, and they know what their part is, and that’s the weight of what they live with. How can they ever take hold of the new creation God wants them to be if you stand witness to their past? Are you silently pointing to the old mistakes as though there is something to be gained for yourself in doing so? It’s ok to admit it if you are, because I will be there with you. Without realizing it, I have been forcing people into old molds for years, expecting history to repeat itself, rolling my eyes in smug self-righteousness when it does. But I hope you can agree with me that that’s sick. It’s the symptom of a sickness to console yourself with an “I told you so” while someone in your life needs love. It’s cruel to marginalize someone for being difficult when their only path to end the difficulty is authentic relationship, which may not even have been offered.
So what does this look like? What are the concrete, self-help steps to reaching out in authentic relationship? I’d love to give them to you, but I haven’t got them. I’m pretty sure it’s not a formula you can type up in black and white anyhow, but if you ever come across such a thing, send it my way, will you?
Here’s what I do know, and even if I’d had a list to give you, I’d still tell you that this is of infinitely greater value: God can move your heart and theirs. You don’t need to have a plan, and I don’t need to worry about making the change happen myself. Leave room for God. Go into encounters with an open heart, and leave room for Him to work. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just shown up and done nothing more, only to see God working for me because I’ve finally gotten out of the way to let Him. He can do this even without your help, but you cannot do it without His, so why not give him a little more room to work with?
While I don’t have a list of steps to take, I do have a personal list of things that make for a more joyful Christina, and they have led me to greater peace in conversation, stronger relationships, and a deeper acceptance of others. So this is just my 2 cents, and I’m happy if you take it or if you leave it all, but it’s just what works for me.
Say fewer things. Be flexible. Smile, but only if it’s a natural smile. Ask for forgiveness. Treat people like you’ve forgiven them even if you’re still working it out in your heart. Talk to people with respect. Apologize. Have fewer opinions, especially about things that just don’t matter. Give God control of the schedule. We all have the same 24 hours every day and why does it matter whether we’re napping or working or cooking or coloring or stuck in traffic? Be careful about assumptions. Care less about the detours and more about eternity. Take in more than you put out. Believe people, even when they say something crazy. Find a healthy balance, not going too far one way, nor too far the other. Encourage others. Sing. If you think of someone, or if you say a prayer for them, tell them. Don’t be afraid to say I love you. Pray, all the time. Patience. Trust God more than any human construct. Be the friend you wish everyone else would be to you. Be inclusive. Throw a party every now and then, for the heck of it. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive.
It bears repeating because if it’s needed once, it’s almost always needed more than once. 70 times 7 was not a math problem. It also wasn’t a suggestion.
Who do you need to forgive?