Most married people have figured out that being married is not being in a relationship that is constantly fulfilling, exciting, romantic, and fun. A lot of married life is offending each other, frustrating each other, apologizing, and asking for forgiveness. I shared several months ago that I’m not so good at apologizing. It turns out, I still have a lot to learn about the art of forgiveness also. For instance, here is a real text conversation between my husband and I…
Tony: I’ll be working late tonight.
Me: You’re not serious. I have that party I’m co-hosting tonight. I need to be there no later than 6pm.
Tony: Remembering now. No problem. I’ll be home by five.
Tony: I probably should have checked with you instead of informing you.
Me: … deflating…
That text interaction took a total of 2 minutes, but his initial text to me that he’d be working late sent my mind on overload.
I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. He might actually be joking since he knows I have plans tonight. If he’s not joking… how could he just now be telling me? He took the car today. We never talked about it. Now I’ll be stranded at home with the kids and no car? Why didn’t he talk with me about this sooner? I know his job is important. I hate feeling so petty.
… and then I received his response that he’d be home on time.
I wonder if other people get as worked up in such a short time as I can? The problem, if it even was a problem, was fixed immediately. Still, my back and my shoulders had become tense with frustration, I felt unimportant and mad that he hadn’t thought about me. I was so unnerved that there was a part of me that wanted to make it a bigger deal than it really was. He, I’m sure, was over it as soon as it happened. My text letting him know I was “deflating” was my way of telling him that I was not over it, but I was on my way there. I want to be a good forgiver. This case should have been open and shut, but I needed a few more minutes than that. What is that about?
What makes it even harder for me to move beyond these teeny tiny little offenses more quickly is that Tony seems to be really good at it. If I had done the same thing to him, forgotten about something he needed to do, he would have forgiven me instantly. Why does he have to be so good at that? It just highlights how bad I am at it. He is either truly moving on, or he’s mad and he’s just not telling me. He always seems to be first to extend the olive branch.
The expression “to extend an olive branch” means to make an offer of peace or reconciliation. According to WiseGeek, this phrase has Biblical origins, coming from the section of the Old Testament that deals with the flood; the sign that the flood is over is an olive branch brought back to the ark by a dove. Olive trees take years to mature, and war is typically very hard on olives because people cannot take the time to nurture them and plant new trees. Therefore, the offer of an olive branch would suggest that someone is tired of war.
Tony is always tired of war. Sometimes his olive branch looks like a freshly brewed cup of coffee, sometimes a hug and kiss, sometimes just a reach for my hand. He is a good forgiver, and I am trying to learn to be one, too.
What does it mean to be a good forgiver?
Forgiveness at its core is to cancel a debt. The reason we struggle is that we all have this sense when we’ve been offended that we are owed something by the offender. Maybe we are owed an apology. Maybe we are owed something more tangible like a new pair of shoes since he accidentally threw away the pair you just bought, box and all, as he was straightening up the house. (Yes, this really happened.) When we forgive someone, we are telling them and ourselves that they no longer owe us anything at all. The debt is cancelled.
This doesn’t seem like the right thing to do because, well, if we are owed something, shouldn’t we be paid? Wouldn’t that be fair?
The trouble is that when we are hurt or offended, it’s not likely that any sort of payment or apology will really cover the debt we feel we are owed emotionally. The level of frustration can feel so great on the inside that even if we are “compensated,” we still have to choose to forgive before we are relieved of it. When we forgive, we take the responsibility away from someone else to fix how we feel.
A stubborn forgiver.
The reality for me is that I didn’t have any kind of grasp on forgiveness until I became a Christian and decided to find out what the Bible had to say about it. I was raised by a stubborn grudge-holder who taught me things like, “Never let a person see you cry when they’ve hurt you. If you do, they win.” I can appreciate, as a single mom, that she had to figure out some self-preservation methods. Holding grudges kept hurtful people out of her life and, consequently, out of ours. Still, I saw over time how isolating that mentality was. She never forgave my father, so I never knew him. If somebody crossed her even once, it seemed like there was no chance for reconciliation. I didn’t always think that was such a bad thing. That is, until I was confronted with my own stubbornness and unforgiveness.
Deciding to put my faith in Jesus meant, first and foremost, that I was a forgiven person. Forgiven for things I knew I needed to be forgiven for and even for things I was unaware of. Forgiven completely- no debt, no interest payments. If you’ve ever been forgiven for anything big – let off the hook for a car accident that was your fault, not fired even though you were caught stealing money, forgiven by your best friend for sleeping with her boyfriend – then you might have a small sense of the relief I felt. I was keenly aware that I was not owed forgiveness, and the truth that I received it anyway was overwhelming. It still is. However, the truth that followed was not such a relief.
As I grew in my faith, it was explained to me that as a forgiven person, it was now my responsibility to forgive others. Sounds like a simple concept, but I had a really hard time trying to live that out. I had grown accustomed to living in my stubbornness. I began to believe that it was wise and protective of me to remember the times I’d been hurt and offended and not to allow those things to happen again. I had a serious misunderstanding of forgiveness.
Yes, forgiveness is cancelling a debt. Forgiveness is not, however, putting yourself back in a situation to be harmed in the same way. Forgiveness does not mean condoning someone else’s awful behavior. It does not mean that the way that they’ve hurt you is “ok.” If your wife is unfaithful to you, and you choose to forgive her, it does not mean that you then give her your blessing to continue in an affair. You forgive what she has done and now you have work to do to move toward healing and restoring the trust that has been broken in your relationship.
In my case, with the text-message exchange, what did I even need to forgive? That Tony forgot I had someplace to be? That he was making plans and informing me so late in the game? Simple, petty things. Things that are easy to forgive. I did forgive him, it wasn’t that hard. But we hurt, offend, and overlook each other all the time. Forgiveness is not a one time occurrence. If we want to be happily and healthily married, forgiveness needs to be a routine behavior of ours. How does this happen? I have a few suggestions:
If a happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers, as Ruth Bell Graham so famously said, then it’s something we can all put effort into getting better at. Practice forgiving the little things, brace yourself to forgive the bigger things, extend many olive branches, and #staymarried.
P.S. If you liked this post, you may also like I Hate Apologizing and No Yelling… And 9 Other Rules for Fighting Fair. If you think these could benefit someone else’s marriage, please consider sharing.
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