The Bible is very clear about three things:
- God's way is always the best way (Psalm 119:160).
- God's way will not always seem the best way to you (Proverb 14:12).
- What you plant, you will harvest (Galatians 6:7ff).
In every relationship, every day you harvest what you previously planted and plant what you will someday harvest. When division and acrimony take place in a relationship, we aren't experiencing mysterious difficulty. No, sadly, we're harvesting what we have sown.
In this fallen world, where we are always sinners in relationship with sinners, one of the most beautiful and protective things God calls us to is forgiveness. But forgiveness doesn't always look beautiful to us. Sometimes holding onto a wrong seems to us to be a better way. Isn't it amazing that we who rest in and celebrate the forgiveness we have been given, find forgiveness often difficult and unattractive!
Forgiveness and unforgiveness are not neutral; each plants certain seeds and each produces a certain kind of harvest. So, it is important to consider the relationship-damaging stages of the harvest of unforgiveness. I am deeply persuaded that many, many people are in some way following this path and many of them do not know it.
1) Immaturity and Failure
Not only are all people in relationships sinners, but most of us live in our relationships all too casually and naive. Often we really do have an immature attitude toward the relationships in our life. Because of this we do dumb, selfish, sinful things—things that none of us thought the other would do. In our surprise and hurt, we give way to accusation, blame, judgment, and punishment rather than to honest confrontation, confession, and forgiveness.
What we fail to realize is that not only are we responding poorly to the present moment, but we are beginning to set the direction of the relationship. Each selfish act followed by a bitter response damages the affection and loyalty we have for one another and the unity and respect we are meant to enjoy.
2) Falling into Comfortable Patterns
Since confrontation, confession, and forgiveness are all hard work, it is easier to give way to lower urges. It is easier to harrumph and walk away, to rehearse in your mind the other’s wrongs, to compile your list, to yell in anger, and to level a threat. So many people allow themselves to fall into comfortable but relationally destructive patterns. Meanwhile, the affection and respect between them is weakening, and the distance between them is widening.
3) Establishing Defenses
Rather than hope and courage growing as the result of a healthy relational lifestyle of honesty and forgiveness, many people learn how to construct walls of defense against each other’s irritated accusations. And we soon learn that the best defense is an offense, so we tackle the increasing criticism of the other by reaching into the list we have compiled and reminding the other how imperfect he or she is and, therefore, how difficult it is to have a relationship with them.
This combination of self-righteousness (convincing ourselves that we are not the problem) and accusation (telling the other person that he or she is the problem) precludes relationship. We are not standing together seeking to defend this relationship against attack. No, we are viewing each other as adversaries and throwing up walls of defense against one another.
4) Nurturing Dislike
Because we are allowing ourselves to meditate on what is wrong about the other rather than celebrating the good God has done in and through him or her, our perspective becomes increasingly negative. Since human beings do not live by the facts of their experience but by their interpretation of the facts, this globally negative assessment becomes the interpretive lens through which we begin to see all that the other person says and does. So what we once would not have seen as negative, we now interpret as negative.
I have counseled many people, who once had great appreciation and respect for one another, who simply don’t like one another very much anymore. If fact, I have had people say to me that it is hard for them to look back and remember when the relationship was peaceful and good.
5) Becoming Overwhelmed
At some point, being in a relationship with someone you don’t like very much and feeling the need to daily defend yourself against attack becomes very exhausting and discouraging. The same offenses are taken and the same accusations are leveled over and over again. The same debate over who is the harder to relate to happens again and again. You come to the point of dreading seeing the person and you avoid it if you can. You walk on eggshells, wondering when the next bomb will drop and shatter what little peace is left.
6) Envy of Others
It’s hard when you live like this not to look over the fence or across the room and envy relationships that seem to have everything you don’t. And when you do this, it's tempting to doubt God’s love and wisdom when you feel that you have been singled out for difficulties that others aren’t facing.
Comparing your relationship to the distant, airbrushed public persona of another relationship is always dangerous but particularly destructive to a relationship where day after day you're already not giving yourself much reason to continue.
7) Fantasies of Escape
If kept alone, unforgiveness always seems to lead here. You are angry, hurt, and overwhelmed. You don’t really like the other person very much, and you don’t look forward to the times when you are together. You feel overwhelmed and smothered. You tell yourself that you are the daily victim of the other’s sin. You can’t imagine that the other person is really going to change. It all seems impossible, so you begin to fantasize about escape.
At first, it’s just the unrealistic daydreams of the tired, but it becomes more than that. The road between fantasy and obsession or fantasy and resolve is often not very long. You are in a place of being very susceptible to walking away, allowing this relationship to be yet another casualty in your relational history.
You may be thinking, “Wow, Paul, that is a very bleak picture!” Well, I would ask you this: do you have a relationship in your life that is moving or has moved down this pathway?
The God of forgiveness and grace enables you by his forgiveness and grace to live in relationships of forgiveness and grace. By his grace you can plant seeds of forgiveness that grow relationships of appreciation, respect and love even though you're always in relationship with sinners.
By God's grace you don't have to lug yesterday's hurt into today's relationship. Jesus died, not only to forgive you, but by his sin-conquering death, to enable you to forgive others. By his grace reconciliation and restoration really are possible. He really is the Prince of Peace.
Where should you start? You start by admitting your sin and your weakness. It is only when you admit your need that you will then get excited about seeking his forgiveness and power.
When you do this something else happens; you remember that the other person is not the only sinner in the relationship. This makes it possible for you to admit that you are more like the other person than unlike them. It is then you begin to realize the only way two sinners can forge a relationship of respect, appreciation, and peace is when they are relying on God's grace and are committed to give grace to one another.
By his powerful grace you really can avoid the sad pathway and the bitter harvest that is the condition of many relationships this side of eternity.