I love it when someone commits an offense against me. I’m not being facetious. This isn’t tongue-in-cheek. This morning I was pedaling my Gary Fisher in the rain when it hit me: interpersonal offenses are opportune moments in a relationship. When someone does something to me that is disrespectful or injurious, it places me in a position to make a connection with the person that would ordinarily take months or years. All I have to do is respond with grace and forbearance.
The primary impediment in human relationships is lack of trust. I believe the vast majority of our conflicts arise from misunderstandings. The general discord that plagues us is more a product of suspicion than deliberate mischief. If we could see into others’ hearts, we would have many more friends, and enjoy better relations with them. But as it stands, true friends are rare, and the relationships we form with them usually take a long time to develop since most people, having been hurt before, tread delicately to protect themselves. But when someone who has been hurt comes back with kindness, there can be no more doubts about that person’s motives or intentions. The goodwill is unquestionably genuine. It quickly clears the way for trust.
Which of us hasn’t grieved over relational obstructions? We live in a cynical age. Everyone knows the frustration of being unable to coax trust out of another person. Often, even when our motives are benign, our efforts are received as ingratiation. Our impassioned appeals to others’ humanity slide off like vapor. The whole world seems to be operating on the assumption that nobility and altruism are motivational fables for kindergarten students. But truth is endangered, not extinct as so many suppose. If the cynic would dismiss his bitterness for a day, he would see examples of it sprinkled all around him.
I once made friends with a parrot by letting him bite me. He didn’t know me, so he wasn’t taking any chances. But after I still hadn’t moved my hand or changed my posture after several passes, the bird stopped biting me. Ten minutes later, he let me pick him up and hold him with nothing but a bit of fussing. He relaxed in my lap for an hour without a twitch.
When we realize that we have hurt another person, most of us expect some kind of protest, and often retaliation of some kind. Even if there is none, we still expect that our offense has created a rift. Forgiveness is unnatural. The law of eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth is a ubiquitous, if unspoken, principle in our world.
Years ago, a friend and co-worker of mine found himself in a prickly position with me when he got me in trouble with our manager for some breach of duty on my part. John had carelessly related the details of the event to another employee, and the incident eventually got back to the manager. After the dust settled, I was presented with a write-up for my actions. Everyone who has worked in a Union house knows that write-ups are serious. You can usually be fired if you get two or three write-ups within a year’s time. Beyond the fact of my own fault in the matter, John’s carelessness had caused me real injury.
After he found out what had happened, John approached me sheepishly to apologize. He had been a Union worker for many years, and he knew perfectly well what he had done. His face was covered with shame and remorse. I’m sure he expected me to light into him or, worse, simply look at him and walk away.
However, I was listening to the Holy Spirit that day. God was telling me that this was my chance to display the character of Christ to this man. I had identified myself as a Christian on several occasions, but professions of faith are easy to dismiss. And I suspect that John had been hurt himself by people who called themselves Christians. I sensed in him a contempt for hypocrisy and pretense, which are so often found in the same context as the name of Christ. Now I had an opportunity to show John what love really looks like. And because of his actions—and the momentary humility it had produced in him—I had his full attention.
“Hey, Doug. Listen, I’m really sorry, man. I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”
I looked up at John. I could see he felt awful. I put my hand out for him to shake.
“John, it’s okay. Really. I know you weren’t trying to burn me. It was an honest mistake. Forget about it.”
John just looked at me for a second to see if I was brushing him off. I smiled and held his gaze to show him I wasn’t angry.
John shook my hand without saying anything else, but I saw a flicker of recognition in his eyes. (We are still friends to this day.) He had encountered something that is quite rare in our world—grace. And it wasn’t me he was meeting that day. It was Jesus, who had prompted me to seize this moment for the eternal value it held. I didn’t realize the significance of what was happening until later. But God did.
Jesus, after all, was a gentleman. He was kind to everyone. He returned insults with calm appeals to truth. When his closest friends fell asleep on Him during his darkest hour in the Garden of Gethsemane, He gave them a mild rebuke and told them, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). Then He took the worst beating that has ever been administered in human history. While it was still going on, He asked God to forgive his executioners. And in the wake of His crucifixion, the depraved beneficiaries of His sacrifice—all of us—continue to mistreat Him. But when we come to him with contrition, He always puts His hand out and says with a wink, “Forget about it, friend. I already took care of it.”