Defining forgiveness can be accomplished in many ways, utilizing a variety of metaphors and word pictures; but what comes to mind as I color forgiveness in my own thinking involves birds. There is nothing more sad then seeing a flightless bird struggle on the ground because it has injured its wing. It is vulnerable to predators and will soon die if it is not relieved.
Forgiveness is like giving flight to a helpless sparrow. When people commit wrongdoings they become weighted under the guilt of their offenses. To forgive is to give the guilty fresh wings. The art of forgiveness is a skill that we discover many times throughout our life. A life of forgiving cannot be ignored for it is typically a daily adventure that becomes so common place that it is often taken for granted, ignored, and regulated to everyday life. Rarely do we see the practice of forgiveness as a spiritual enterprise that is shaping who we are and who we are becoming.
To forgive is to embrace our own humanity, acknowledging the simple yet profound truth that each of us is capable of any crime and any offense. The statement “I can’t believe you did that!” or “I can’t believe you said that” disconnects us from the fullness of forgiveness because it sets the stage for pride and superiority. In truth, as we approach forgiveness, we should say within ourselves, “Yes, I can see how you would do that or say that because I too am human.”
Concerning marriage, one could view it like a studio in which couples learn to paint. Sharing forgiveness with your spouse allows you to become the rescuer of the wounded bird, giving your spouse the ability to heal and fly again.
When I was a child, I thought forgiveness was something that was owed to me if I simply said, “I’m sorry” (even if I had my fingers crossed behind my back). As a young adult, I understood forgiveness to be something that I gave to someone if they begged and pleaded for it and then promised to never hurt or disappoint me again in life. And you know what that got me? More hurt and disappointment.
Now, as a married woman of 22 years, I have discovered a new way of viewing forgiveness. The compound word forgive contains two words: FOR and GIVE. Depending on the situation, I now say, “FOR the sake of our friendship, I will GIVE you understanding.” “FOR the sake of our children, I will to GIVE you the benefit of the doubt.” “FOR the sake of your heart for me, I will GIVE you grace.” “FOR the sake of the forgiveness I have received from Jesus Christ, I will GIVE you an extra dose of love.” Etc, etc, etc. You fill in the blanks. Looking at forgiveness in this way has empowered me to be generous with this special gift.
So you may be asking, “But what can my spouse and I do so that we don’t find ourselves needing forgiveness so much?” Here are a few tools we have used over the years that have been beneficial for our relationship.
It is impossible to completely forgive another if we cannot forgive ourselves. Self-forgiveness is like self-love. Jesus said that we are to love others as we love ourselves. He was operating under the assumption that we naturally love and care for ourselves. In order to do the same with forgiveness, we must lose our false ideas of perfection. This side of heaven, we will never be perfect. Sin will be part of our story until we meet God. This does not mean that we treat sin lightly, but it should mean that we forgive ourselves abundantly and often.
It has been my experience that I have discovered God’s grace for me only after some bout with failure. Jesus has whispered His love to my heart in moments of weakness and wrongdoing and reminded me of His eternal commitment to me. Yet, at times, I have failed to forgive myself. If I am to extend the kindness of forgiveness to Dionne, I should frequently give it to myself. God already has forgiven me and if I resist self-forgiveness, it weakens the forgiveness I offer to my wife.
One of the greatest tools that Dionne and I have used over the years is something we call checking-in. We have always been intrigued by how couples communicate in public. Together we have witnessed many good moments when spouses honor one another with kind, respectful words and warm touches. We have also witnessed the opposite where couples criticize each other and demean a person’s character.
It is not difficult to imagine why some struggle in their relationships particularly if it is so easy to treat one another with disrespect around others. After recognizing this for a while, we decided to always ask each other if anything was said or done that made the other feel uncomfortable or disrespected. We simply take turns asking, “Did I say or do anything that bothered you tonight?” This has been so very valuable for us. There have been times when I had to tell Dionne that I didn’t like it when she interrupted me in the middle of a conversation, and she has had to tell me that she did not like a particular comment or joke. We answer each other honestly and quickly, not giving the issue time to grow. We have made this such a habit that we instinctively became good at not having many offenses between us.
Often it is the little things that produce problems in a relationship – like little foxes that spoil the vine. If we can learn to end problems before they begin, we will find ourselves needing to forgive less and enjoy one another more.
When I think about vaults, I picture Fort Knox or, on a smaller scale, a safety deposit box at a bank. These vaults contain very precious treasures and only a few people have access to them. Over the years, we have developed a vault where either of us can share anything without risk of judgment or condemnation.
For a moment, we take off the husband/wife hat and become honest friends. During this time of sharing, there is no fear of rejection or abandonment. The pressure of hurting the other’s feelings or creating an argument is lifted. It is simply a space to be completely vulnerable and transparent when dealing with a topic that isn’t normally involved in everyday life. After the conversation has ended and closure is achieved, it is locked away in the vault, accruing value, only to be brought out and cashed in when mutually agreed upon by both of us.
So, what kinds of conversations deserve to go in the vault? Here’s one. After being a stay-at-homeschooling mom for 11 years, I went to work at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. I loved my job and felt a new sense of accomplishment. What I wasn’t prepared for was the attention I started to receive from males on campus. Whether it was a professor or a college student, this interest affected me. It was time to go the vault.
I told Troy that we needed to go to the vault when he was ready. Once ‘there’ I was able to freely share how it all made me feel great about myself, how I momentarily thought about what clothes I would wear to work, etc. The beauty of having this vault talk was that before we even began, our guards were down. I wasn’t worried that I would somehow make Troy feel inadequate as a husband and he wasn’t tempted to say something like, “WHAT! I don’t give you enough attention??!!” Instead, he listened like a friend and encouraged me like a sister.
Once this was locked away, we were stronger as husband and wife. Now, you must know that this concept only works if you are completely honest the first time you go to the vault. You can’t say, “Remember that vault talk we had five months ago about x, y, and z? Well, a, b, and c also happened and I’m telling you now because…” This scenario is a recipe for disaster!
Acceptance vs. Forgiveness
Another tool that has been useful for us is learning the difference between when acceptance is needed versus forgiveness.
Many times I was trying to find it in my heart to forgive Troy, when really, I needed to accept the beautiful creation God had formed in him. This comes easier with time as you get to know one another. Each time you check-in after being in the company of others, or have a vault conversation, you are growing in your understanding of one another. The deeper this understanding goes, the easier it is to trust the other person’s heart and diffuse offense before it has a chance to turn into a situation where forgiveness is needed.
I remember a time when Troy and I were at the store. We decided to split up to get one or two items and meet back at line 12. Well, I got my item and was at line 12 in no time. I waited, and waited, and waited. I realized I had a choice to make. I could have stomped through the store trying to find him, stayed there fixing the look on my face so when he finally turned the corner he would know how mad I was, or I could’ve had a talk with myself, reminding me of his heart for me and how he would never want me waiting alone like this unless it was for something important.
So, I picked up a magazine and waited some more. Sure enough, when he got to me, he quickly apologized then explained who he was talking to and why. Thankfully, I was already in a good place mentally and I had an opportunity to re-accept why I love him so much in the first place- he generously gives himself to people. Because I accepted him, he didn’t have to beg for forgiveness. We were at peace.
As we think about the many layers of forgiveness, it is important that we rid ourselves of religious language and legalism that actually prevents forgiveness. It is very easy to hide behind religious activity and never truly forgive or ask for forgiveness. Religion in some forms can mistakenly give us a license to be dishonest.
Growing up in church, everyone seemed to ‘have it all together.’ You’ve heard it said that people wear their best masks to church. But what would happen in the church if married couples could be honest about what is happening in their relationships without the fear of judgment or rejection? How many homes could be saved if more honesty was expressed? What would happen if we learned to be vulnerable with our fears, temptations, failures, and triumphs? Could we begin to see statistics move in a more positive direction? Let’s endeavor to have honest, caring, and healing relationships so we can soar… just like the birds.
Pastor Troy and Dionne have served the congregation of Freshwater Dream Center for 6 years. They fellowship at 921 Mt. Hermon Rd. Salisbury, MD 21804. For more info visit: freshdreams.org