Unmended relationships: You never simply discard another person

September 9th, 2020

At dusk my wife Joy, our daughter Meredith, our dog Gracie and I were strolling through our hurricane-damaged neighborhood. Shattered trees, broken branches, and all manner of debris lined either side of the street. People had been hard at work beginning to restore their homes and their yards to some semblance of pre-Laura normal.

Scanning the scene I had a moment of clarity: “I always knew that my mother loved me, no matter what. But I had to keep trying to prove myself to my father, because I never succeeded.”

If you’re one of my regular readers, you might be thinking, “Well, no kidding!” My articles frequently recount stories about my mom. And I’ve described my father’s emotional and physical abusiveness in A Resurrection Shaped Life.

Maybe it was seeing heap after heap of things so broken that they could only be discarded that crystallized my thinking. One of my chief spiritual challenges has been to forgive where genuine reconciliation wasn’t likely to happen.

Unless you snooze your way through the Gospels, you can’t help but notice that Jesus teaches his followers to forgive and to seek reconciliation.

Forgiveness is a one-way street. You and I can forgive no matter what. It’s not always easy to do. For that matter, forgiving another person for a serious injury can be a lifelong process.

But Jesus teaches us to forgive whether or not the other person is sorry for what they did. He told us to turn the other cheek. To love your enemy.

It’s for our own good, really. As Anne Lamott likes to say, refusing to forgive is like eating rat poison and waiting for the rat to die. It kills you from the inside and does not the first bit of harm to the one you want to get back at.

What Anne says is true enough. But in addition to that, we shape the world every time we act. When we forgive, we cast our vote for a world where broken things get mended. When we retaliate, we’ve chosen to make a more fractured, less habitable planet for everybody, ourselves included.

Forgiveness opens the way to reconciliation, to the restoration of a fractured relationship. But unlike forgiveness, reconciliation is a two-way street. Here’s how I have put it elsewhere:

“Reconciliation is always reciprocal. The injured person’s forgiveness is met with genuine remorse and amended behavior. While the relationship will probably not return to what it was like before it was broken, a new kind of relationship can gradually emerge.” (A Resurrection Shaped Life, p. 69)

The challenge I faced with my father was to forgive him even though I never heard him apologize and sensed no fundamental change in his character. Honestly, I can’t claim perfection on this, but I’ve made some progress.

I say that I’ve made progress on the basis of Jesus’ teaching about unmended relationships. In Matthew’s Gospel account, Jesus outlines a process for holding a sinner accountable and seeking reconciliation. It seems to have been originally a teaching about congregations as a whole, but it applies to personal relationships as well.

First you talk to the one who injured you. If that person just won’t listen, you invite others in your shared circle of friends to join in the process.

Finally, if the offending person simply refuses to admit wrongdoing and change their ways, you have to admit that reconciliation is not going to happen anytime soon. At that point, you relate to the person “as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17)

Some have read this text as permission to shun others or to excommunicate them. But since Jesus explicitly befriended Gentiles and tax collectors, I draw a different conclusion.

Drawing again on what I wrote elsewhere, “When we forgive an unrepentant person, forgiveness takes the form of reinforced boundaries and keeping a safe distance.” (A Resurrection Shaped Life, p. 68) The relationship may be strained and cause serious heartache, but forgiveness leaves open the possibility of reconciliation in the future. You never simply discard another person.

My father died in 2006. We were still estranged. But I have not lost hope in a future reconciliation. After all, reconciliation is ultimately God’s work. The work of infinite love. A love that mends all things. Even if it takes eternity.

This essay originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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