I posted this in the first of this series and will repeat it at the beginning of each – I am convinced more and more that if we want to live the life that God intends for us then the practice of forgiveness needs to be at the center of our daily existence. Without it, we will not become the person that God has in mind – plain and simple.
The following is research and information that I gleaned from different internet sites – it is not the definitive answer but a representation of what is happening to our most cherished relationship – the one with our spouse or partner and our children.
In American society the average length of a marriage is now 8.8 years. First time marriages have around a 50% success rate. Second time marriages are successful about 35% of the time and third plus marriages succeed 25% of the time. I am scheduled to officiate at 14 weddings this year – by these statistics 7 of these couples will make it their whole lives in union one with the other; the other 7 will end in divorce.
The top ten reasons for divorce vary from list to list but here is a fairly common grouping of them: infidelity, collapse of meaningful communication, physical, emotional or substance abuse, financial problems, intimacy issues, no romance, too diverse of backgrounds, differences in raising children, disruptive personal habits, or different goals and values.
And according to researchers we adults can transition reasonably well after a divorce – it is the children who are most effected by it. Statistics show that children of divorced parents are 4 times more likely to divorce than their counterparts.
It is a sad state of affairs. What is at the root of this? This is my opinion – not empirical research. I believe the underlying issue is that we lack the ability to subject our selfish wants and needs to what is best for those we love the most. And the breakdown happens when we become too stubborn to say “I am sorry” and too wounded to say and truly mean “I forgive you.” Then the wall goes up that separates us all the way into the divorce proceedings and beyond. It really takes a lot of effort to destroy your intimate relationships, to get a divorce and then raise kids in the aftermath. What if we put that energy toward a more positive outcome? What if we fought with every fiber of our being to preserve our relationship with our spouse and kids?
Adam Hamilton in his book titled “Forgiveness” said this about marriage:
“Marriage and long-term relationships are part determination, part willpower and a constant willingness to seek and grant forgiveness. These relationships cannot stand without forgiveness.”
So what kind of forgiveness are we talking about?
Jesus told several stories to try to convey to his hears the depth of God’s love for everyone. One day he made up a story about a father who had two sons – in spite of his love both of his boys had issues! One day the youngest son came to his father and demanded his portion of the inheritance. On the surface we probably don’t see anything outrageous about this but in Jesus’ day the hearers would have gasped loudly and murmured about this. Men did not inherit property until after their father had died. By the son asking for his share he in essence is saying “dad, I wish you were dead.” Get the point of how disruptive to the relationship this son’s request is? Rather than rebuking the son, the father concedes to his request and gives him one-third of the property – as the younger son that was his portion.
Jesus goes on to say that the boy leaves home taking his inheritance with him and goes off to live without limits or boundaries. As a matter of fact he squanders everything he has on riotous living – unbridled pleasure. But then the inheritance runs out and he has nothing left – oh and a famine comes so he is struggling to eat. So he goes and gets a job – the only one that he can find is feeding pigs. Homeless, penniless, and now feeding a ritually unclean animal. He becomes so destitute that he even considers eating the stuff that he is feeding to the pigs. Consider this with me – he did not squander what he had earned; he squandered what his father had worked hard for and saved up. The younger son dishonored his father by asking for his inheritance prematurely and by misusing it on temporary pleasures.
But then the storyteller puts a twist in the story – the young man comes to his senses and recalls that his father’s servants actually have it better than he currently does. They have enough bread to eat with some left over. So why not go home and become a slave in his father’s house. He gathers himself together and starts for home – while on the road he rehearses his speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me one of your hired servants.” I can imagine him practicing this speech over and over as he places one foot in front of the other to make the journey home.
Meanwhile, the hopeful father has been longing for the day his son would return. It was customary for the elders to gather at the gates of the city. This is where they conducted official business. It reminds me of the small town café where men gather over coffee to talk shop and do business. The hopeful father makes his daily appearance at the city gates but he isn’t interested in business – he is peering down the road to see if he can catch sight of his son. Daily he comes longing and daily he has returned home disappointed. But then one day he sees a glimpse of someone who might be; then a few steps closer to the city the father recognizes the frame, the gait, the son who had left home.
(The next part of this is where most of us may struggle – I’m not sure I would respond this way and you may feel the same way.)
Jesus says that the father launches off and runs to meet the son on the road outside the city. I would say that the son had not seen the father – his head was down and he was watching footstep after footstep while reciting his story; but the father sees him and goes out to meet him. Upon the encounter the son launches off into his rehearsed speech. “Father I have sinned against heaven and you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” And the father cuts him off – his response is to order his servants to bring the finest robe and place it on the son’s shoulders, to bring his signet ring and put it on his hand, to bring a new pair of sandals and place them on his feet, and to kill the best calf so that they can celebrate. The story that Jesus tells is a demonstration of the extravagant forgiveness of God – a kind of forgiveness in practice that his hearers could not conceive or understand – maybe that we can’t understand.
I think most of us would react differently – we might wait at the city gates with our arms crossed and a distant demeanor as the son approaches. And once he comes close enough we might ask the question “So, what do you have to say for yourself?” in front of the city elders expecting to put the son on the spot and to convey the level of disobedience he has shown. Or maybe you see him and you go home and wait for the son to walk all the way through the gates and city to the house and confront him at the doorsteps. That seems a lot more like how I would react; maybe it makes sense to you.
But not God the Father – his love and forgiveness goes completely against the ways in which we think and act – he comes to greet us where we are and God wants us to practice this kind of forgiveness with our spouse, partner, and kids. So how? How do we practice extravagant forgiveness?
The following is borrowed material – it is not my own. These suggestions originate with Adam Hamilton and come from his book “Forgiveness.” I want to make sure and give credit where credit is due.
So when it comes to the practice of forgiveness in our most intimate and cherished of relationships we need to practice “I am sorry” and “you are forgiven.” Here is how:
Some of us need to come to our senses and say “I am sorry.” This happens through the 4 stage act of repentance.
Stage one is awareness: a conscious understanding that we have done something to offend our spouse or children; to be aware of the unintentional and intentional things that we do that hurts them.
Stage two is regret or remorse: to truly understand how your partner or kids have been hurt by our actions or words and to feel sorry for violating them.
Stage three is confession: this is a heartfelt acknowledgement of our transgression. It might sound something like this (according to Hamilton): “I think I finally understand how you were affected by what I did and I’m very sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I realize I did. Would you please forgive me?” This is not the right time to point out your partner’s faults or to rationalize. And a mumbled “sorry” will not fit the bill either. Be genuine and heartfelt.
Stage four is change: The New Testament word for repentance is metanoia which means “to change one’s mind and one’s heart, leading to a change in behavior.” True repentance is not simply feeling bad about what you did and asking for forgiveness; it is also seeking to change.
And once our partner has set out on the path of repentance we need to be like the father who runs headlong into forgiveness and reconciliation.
Paul in his letter to the Colossian church community encouraged them to “bear with one another.” In other words, to shoulder one another’s burdens; to stand in solidarity with one another even if that person has hurt or offended you. It is a practice that draws us together instead of divides us. In order to do this it meant that the Colossians had to be “clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” They needed to be people who could have feelings for others, who wanted to bless each other, who respected one another and dealt with each other with gentleness knowing that not everything would be resolved immediately. We need to heed the lesson that Paul gives on how to practice forgiveness that will reconcile, bring healing to our most cherished of relationships.
There is an old adage that says “time heals all wounds.” Some things can be easily forgiven and should be. Some things may take a little time but when addressed appropriately and constructively they can be forgiven and forgotten. But occasionally we find our selves wronged in a way that may be near impossible to forgive but not necessarily improbable. These failings take a depth of grace and endurance that only God can give us.
So I leave you with a thought – I guess our willingness to fight for the most intimate and cherished relationships we have may depend upon how serious we take our vows; the covenant that we have made before God, our family, and our witnesses. I pray that each of us will have the courage to do everything in our power and in the power of the Holy Spirit to practice repentance and forgiveness in our most intimate relationships.
God fought the forces of sin, evil and injustice to forgive us – that is how much God loves each and every one of us! How hard will you fight for the one’s you love the most? In this battle I think the best weapon you can arm yourself with is forgiveness.