Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wisely said, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle…and have found their way out of the depths…Beautiful people do not just happen“. The path to “beauty“ or Christlikeness requires rhythms of regular forgiveness. Jesus is our example and his presence is necessary for forgiveness. The imperfection of humankind and accumulated hurts over the span of a lifetime necessitates the continual need for forgiveness. Without it the transmission of unhealed hurts is inevitable. The deep work of forgiveness will bear joy and peace in those who have courage to pursue it. As people of God seek to be transformed through struggle, the ongoing spiritual practice of forgiveness must be central to our Christian life.
Jesus: Our Companion & Example
Jesus is both our example for practicing forgiveness and our companion on the journey. From the very beginning God practices forgiveness toward his people with a relational vision of renewal (Genesis 3:16, 6:13, 8:21-22, 12). We do not forgive others by our strength alone. Throughout Scripture it is evident that offering forgiveness and mercy is one way we reflect God’s image to the world. David Montgomery states in his book Forgiveness in the Old Testament, that the “sacrificial system foreshadows the vicarious suffering and atonement of Christ.” In the Gospels Jesus atones for the sins of the world through his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. In Christ’s perfection, he atones for the sins of his children in a single historical event and mysteriously, as he lives within us by the Holy Spirit, absorbs our hurt in real time which continually requires his forgiveness. Keas Keasler states in his lecture, The Art of Forgiveness:“On the cross we see God doing visibly and cosmically what every human being must do to forgive someone.” With this in mind, forgiveness is more than an action of the will—it is an ongoing journey.
In Colossians 3:12-13, Paul describes Jesus’ disciples clothed in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, then instructs us to forgive one another. As disciples of Jesus we are to remain soft-hearted. The ongoing practice of forgiveness is the pathway to these soft-hearted and thick-skinned virtues Paul describes. The path of forgiveness is meant to be walked out in Christ. We cannot be any closer to God than we already are; instead, there is a deepening of our own awareness of intimacy and union in Christ that is our truest reality. Union with Christ has a profound impact on the practice of forgiveness. Christ in us takes the hit and can miraculously create something life-giving. Whether the blow is simple or complex, Jesus within us receives it, transforms it, and resurrects to new life. All that is unnatural must be practiced regularly, forgiveness being perhaps the most unnatural of all.
Your Responsibility to Forgive & the Generational Impact of Unforgiveness
Wounds become scars when we accompany Jesus as a companion in the process of forgiveness. “Any pain or tension that we do not transform we will transmit.” is a quote from Ronald Rolheiser, a Catholic priest, theologian and author. Experience, research, and neuroscience agree. Because no one is exempt from resentment and bitterness, it is essential for believers to engage forgiveness for the present health of relationships. Forgiveness walks at a slow pace, and it may take many laps until one can wholeheartedly forgive and be free.
It is common to be told to forgive based on logic, such as, “Jesus forgave you all your sins, now you can forgive others.” While this statement is true, it can ignore the many complexities of forgiving another person and sound simplistic. The trouble with, and ineffectiveness of engaging forgiveness as a one-time cognitive choice or act of the will, is that it spiritually bypasses what happened, the felt hurt, and the lasting effects. Spiritual bypassing, or avoidance and repression of hurt, is alarmingly found in churches and often masked as spiritual maturity. Spiritual bypassing is a poison perpetrated by Christains who have forgotten that lament is deep in the Church’s historical roots. Avoidance and repression of trauma lead to anger and bitterness that is then fed to children, impacting their spiritual formation and development. Neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel explains, “the predictor of healthy childhood attachment [is] whether the parents have a clear and coherent story about their lives and the traumas they have experienced.” Any wounding or unforgiveness that has not experienced Jesus’ touch will hinder the parent’s ability to create healthy and loving relationships with their children. Because past relational hurt that is unhealed and unforgiven naturally influences present relational dynamics and attachments, there is a weightiness to mastering the art of forgiveness, whether you are a parent or not.
The Process & Fruit of Forgiveness
With Christ as the model and companion in the process of forgiveness, understanding that any hurt not transformed will be transmitted, we need to know how to forgive and what fruit it should produce in our lives. Desmond and Mpho Tutu give us one way forward in The Fourfold Path toward forgiveness: telling the story, naming the hurt, granting forgiveness, and renewing or releasing the relationship. The one seeking to forgive must be specific when telling the story because the details are important—one can not forgive vague offenses. Here it is important to struggle, wrestle with God, and thoroughly lament the effects of the event and experience. Tutu explains the effects of engaging lament, “you discover that your pain is part of the great, eternal tapestry of human loss and heartbreak. You realize…that others have experienced and survived…and that you too can survive and know joy and happiness again.” At this point in the journey it may be helpful to ask Jesus what his heart is toward the one you are needing to forgive. Here you may recognize the common humanity between you and your transgressor, moving toward forgiveness and renewal or release in the relationship.
A Christian on the path toward forgiveness will inadvertently grow in trusting Jesus. Lasting forgiveness is impossible without drawing strength from God’s Spirit within you. In this relational reliance, the birthing of profound peace and joy may be found. Peace because you are free from resentment, and joy because you have engaged and honored your grief, releasing the weight of it. If joy and peace are fruits of the Spirit that are born through the process of forgiveness, then Christians would do well to make a regular practice of it. Not only for the monumental relational fallouts, the incidents that may take years to unravel, but also for the small things that pile up over time and look like resentment, cynicism, or disappointment.
Jesus commands us to love our enemies. An unforgiving heart can not do so. We witness to unbelievers as we pursue forgiveness when hate or appearing indifferent would be more natural. As disciples of Jesus we must be proactive in forgiveness, practicing it regularly because Jesus has not only embodied forgiveness and has forgiven us greatly, but promises to be our companion (Christ in us) on the journey. Rolheiser states, “As we age, we can begin to trim down our spiritual vocabulary, and eventually we can get it down to three words: Forgive, forgive, forgive!“
Keasler, Keas. “The Art of Forgiveness.” Residency. Lecture presented at the Residency, September 29th, 2022.
Johnny Cash has been called a lot of things, not least of all, a walking contradiction. On the one hand he sang regularly about Jesus, performed at evangelistic revivals with Bill Graham, and wrote a novel about the Apostle Paul (yes, I’ve read it). He was a deeply committed Christian, attempting to walk in the light of Jesus. On the other hand, he struggled with drug addiction almost his entire life, as well as some of the other demons common to those who live a life of fame on the road. There was a darkness about him.
For someone who’s greatest hit was about “walking the line,” he was never very good at actually walking it. This is one of the things that draws me to him most.
Johnny Cash was a dark sinner who loved Jesus a whole lot. He knew about personal pain, loss, and deep heartache, yet he never lost hope in a God who loves him and offers forgiveness to him.
I grew up listening to Johnny Cash. My dad had a cassette or two and Johnny would always join us for our roadtrip family vacations. When I was in high school, and Johnny made the most amazing comeback of his career, I quickly became a fan in my own right. (His first album with Rick Rubin, American Recordings, is my favorite.)
Rediscovering the Man In Black
About two years ago I rediscovered the Man in Black. Through a series of difficult circumstances and perhaps my own seasons of a little heartache (and perhaps some darkness, too), I became not just a fan. I’ve become obsessed. I won’t bore you with the details (too late?) but I truly mean what the bumper sticker on my car says: Johnny Cash is a friend of mine.
I’ve acquired and listened to nearly every song he ever recorded (my playlist is 80 hours long with no tracks repeated), read multiple books (and purchased even more), got sucked into multiple YouTube rabbit trails (interviews, concerts, the Johnny Cash Show), and even made a pilgrimage to some of the most important sights and museums related to his life.
I’ve actually started referring to my obsession with Johnny Cash as my midlife crisis. While I do drive my family nuts, it could be worse, right?
But why? Why do I love Johnny so much? That’s like asking me to list all the things I love about my kids — where do I even begin? So I’m going to limit myself to three things that I think all of us need a little more of today. As followers of Jesus, there are three things we can learn from and embrace from Johnny’s life.
Johnny loved people
First, Johnny loved people — all people and especially those who are easiest to forget. He worked for prison reform, spoke out against abuses toward Native Americans, and understood the plight of the working poor. He knew how to connect with just about anyone.
The most enjoyable example of this is to listen to three of his most famous concerts, all recorded within a 14-month period: San Quentin Prison (February 24, 1969), Madison Square Garden (December 5, 1969), and President Nixon’s White House (April 17, 1970). The selection of music is almost the same at each of them — classic hits, murder ballads, gospel tunes — but the concerts could not be more different.
He knew his audience and could speak to each of these people as if he truly saw them, understood them, and cared for them. He could encourage a prisoner, navigate the political tensions in New York, and challenge a controversial president. And he could do it all without condemning, alienating, or patronizing.
Some might say he was just a good performer, maybe even a little bit of a politician himself. I don’t think so. I just think people — real people of any kind — actually mattered to him, and we could learn something from his example.
Johnny could embrace tension
Second, and not unrelated, Johnny could embrace tension. While he was considered the Man in Black, he didn’t see the world in simple black and white with neat and easy little categories of either/or. Yes, he believed in truth, but he also believed that we humans don’t always understand or live out that truth very well. Things tend to be messier than we often want to admit. Just take for example how he navigated what some would consider the politics of his own day. (Interestingly, since his death, both political parties have attempted to claim Johnny as their own.)
Johnny can’t be parsed out so quickly. Johnny loved this country. He LOVED America. He has entire albums dedicated to our history and songs about how grateful we should be to live here. He was about as patriotic as a person could be. If you need evidence of this, just try Ragged Old Flag.
He also sang out about our environmental abuses, treatment of the poor, and inequities within the prison system. His entire 1964 album, Bitter Tears, is dedicated to our mistreatment of Native Amerians. Listen to it — it’s haunting and often considered one of the finest achievements of his early career. He even refused to get pinned down on the Vietnam War, at one point referring to himself as a dove (someone in favor of peace) with claws (like a hawk ready to fight).
He understood that we live in a complex and very broken world, and resisted giving simplistic answers to hurting people. I wish we had more people like him today.
Johnny knew he needed Jesus
Finally, Johnny knew he needed Jesus. Perhaps this is why he loved people and could hold things in tension so well. He knew he was a sinner who couldn’t possibly rescue himself. Many of his final songs (1993 through his death in 2003) are his best work, and many of them are about sin, regret, and a longing for redemption. If you want an example, his cover of the song Hurt as well as the music video (considered one of the greatest music videos ever made) is truly devastating. On the same album, his song The Man Comes Around, about the return of Jesus, is the song he wanted to be remembered for the most.
One of my favorite stories about Cash comes from his friend Bono, lead singer of U2. Bono tells about a time they were all having dinner together and Johnny said the prayer. Bono describes it like this: “We were all holding hands around the table and Johnny said the most beautiful, most poetic grace you’ve ever heard. Then he leaned over to me with this devilish look in his eye and said, ‘But I sure miss the drugs.’ It was that contradiction that I admire about his music as well. It was hard and it was caring, it was about sinful behavior and devotion.” (quoted in Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn, 535-536).
Johnny knew he needed Jesus and longed for the forgiveness only he could give. He had a mountain of sin and regret but he knew he was loved, and that through the cross of Jesus, he could be redeemed and made whole. Perhaps it’s that sense of desperation — no facade, no pretending, no spin — simply clinging to Jesus, that I admire most.
On December 26, 2021, one of my personal heroes passed away. Desmond Tutu was the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, and he died at the age of 90. Tutu led the church through a time of intense suffering, and also led the way in offering reconciliation and forgiveness.
Tutu was a leader of the church in South Africa during the time of apartheid, which means “apart-hood” or “separateness.” Apartheid was essentially a racial caste system with the white South African minority at the top and the black South African majority at the bottom. Land was stolen from black South Africans, cities were segregated into rich and poor based on skin color, and the system was enforced through state-sponsored violence, in particular by a brutal secret police force. The system lasted from the late 1940s until the early 1990s.
When the apartheid system fell and Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, South Africa was faced with the problem of how to deal with their past. One option would be to hunt down all the perpetrators: those who had upheld the system by passing unjust laws and overseeing sham trials, and those who committed violent acts in order to enforce it. This option was rejected because it would likely hinder reconciliation, and potentially continue a never-ending cycle of retribution.
Another option was to simply move on. To proclaim amnesty for the perpetrators and get on with life under a new and better political system. But this option was also unsavory: it would provide no accountability, no justice for the victims, no repairing of what had been broken.
South African leaders settled on a third option. They formed what was called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and Desmond Tutu was tabbed to lead it. The goal of the TRC was to uncover truth and foster reconciliation and forgiveness. All perpetrators of apartheid violence, even those who had committed the most heinous acts, were given two options: make a full confession of your crimes before the Commission and receive amnesty, or be liable to criminal charges if they were eventually uncovered.
There was one more important element for those who chose to confess their crimes before the TRC. The confession would be televised live across the country, and families of the victims would be invited to attend in person. In order to be forgiven in the eyes of the new political regime, the truth had to be publicly proclaimed.
When I think about the unfolding war in Ukraine, about the challenges here in the United States that have to do with increasingly clashing worldviews, or how to move forward from the various injustices that mark our own history, I see the principles behind the TRC as an intriguing model.
This is not to say that the TRC fixed all the problems in South Africa. Or that it would be realistic to set up the same kind of commission in the United States. I’m not offering a solution to the problems that plague our country. But I do want to spark our imagination. For reconciliation to happen, the truth must come out. Reconciliation involves both confession and forgiveness. It involves examining ourselves and confessing the role that we have played. And what’s so interesting about the TRC is the role that the church played.
Desmond Tutu was picked to lead the TRC in part because a proper theology, a right understanding of both God and humans, was needed to pursue the work of reconciliation and forgiveness. Hear him describe the role of theology in the work of the TRC:
“So frequently we in the commission were quite appalled at the depth of depravity to which human beings could sink and we would, most of us, say that those who committed such dastardly deeds were monstrous because the deeds were monstrous. But theology prevents us from doing this. Theology reminded me that, however diabolical the act, it did not turn the perpetrator into a demon. We had to distinguish between the deed and the perpetrator, between the sinner and the sin…. If, however, they were dismissed as being monsters they could not by definition engage in a process that was so deeply personal as that of forgiveness and reconciliation….
I realized how each of us has the capacity for the most awful evil – every one of us. None of us could predict that if we had been subjected to the same influences, the same conditioning, we would not have turned out like these perpetrators. This is not to condone or excuse what they did. It is to be filled more and more with the compassion of God, looking on and weeping that one of His beloved had come to such a sad pass. We have to say to ourselves with deep feeling, not with a cheap pietism, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’
And mercifully and wonderfully, as I listened to the stories of victims I marveled at their magnanimity, that after so much suffering, instead of lusting for revenge, they had this extraordinary willingness to forgive….This is a moral universe, which means that, despite all the evidence that seems to be to the contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression and lies can have the last word. For us who are Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is proof positive that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, that laughter and joy, and compassion and gentleness and truth, all these are so much stronger than their ghastly counterparts.
Those who had strutted about arrogantly in the days of apartheid, dealing out death and injustice… had never imagined in their wildest dreams that their involvement in machinations and abominations hatched out in secret would ever see the light of day…. Now it was all coming out, not as wild speculation or untested allegations. No, it was gushing forth from the mouths of perpetrators themselves… Those ghastly and macabre secrets might have remained hidden except that this is a moral universe and truth will out.
And the victory was for all of us, black and white together – the rainbow people of God.” (Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, 83-87)
The work of reconciliation is costly. It is costly for perpetrators, because it means confessing the truth about what we’ve done, and the harm that we have caused. And it is costly for the victims, because it means revoking our claim on justice and retribution. Oftentimes what is lost can never be replaced.
But we follow a Messiah who bore an inconceivable cost to reconcile us to himself. Who, while hanging on the cross in great physical agony, asked for his Father to forgive those committing the greatest act of injustice of all time (Luke 23:34).
The Apostle Paul tells us that we who trust Jesus are now agents of his reconciliation in the world (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). May we learn from the humility and creativity of Desmond Tutu and our South African brothers and sisters in Christ as we go about that work in our world today.
I love a good payback story. I don’t know what that says about me, but it’s true. And before you start judging me, you judgy judger, you know that you feel a level of satisfaction when you see someone get pulled over just moments after they cut you off in traffic.
But why are we so drawn to payback? I think it’s because payback is so natural and hard wired into us. It’s why Shakespeare penned these famous words in The Merchant of Venice…
“If you prick us do we not bleed? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?”
I think payback feels so natural precisely because forgiveness feels so unnatural. You don’t have to teach a child how to retaliate. You do have to teach a child how to forgive. And that’s because forgiveness feels foolish. But even if that’s how we feel about forgiveness, it’s always the right choice.
The story of Joseph in the book of Genesis is a prime example of the pain and power of forgiveness. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and essentially left him for dead. Joseph grew to power in Egypt and was later reunited with his brothers. But as you can imagine, he wasn’t sure if he could fully forgive and return to a relationship with the very people that wished him dead.
Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them…but they did not recognize him.
As you see in the story, Joseph deals with significant inner turmoil as he wrestles through the decision of whether or not to forgive. Finally, the story culminates with Joseph no longer being able to hold the past against his brothers.
Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him….And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?”
At the end of the day, Joseph’s desire to forgive his brothers won out over his desire to hold their sin against them. Joseph made the right decision, not just because forgiveness is always the right thing to do, but because it spared him from greater pain and heartache. That may sound backwards. Wouldn’t forgiving someone actually be more painful?
The truth of the matter is that in our attempts to hurt the one who has hurt us by refusing to forgive them, we actually end up hurting ourselves. And that’s because unforgiveness in our hearts slowly ferments inside us and turns into the sour wine of bitterness. Eventually it eats away at us on the inside.
Withholding forgiveness is like holding your breath, hoping that the other person will pass out. We think that we are getting even with the person by withholding forgiveness, but in the end we will find that it produces a self-inflicted wound. When we withhold forgiveness from someone, we think we are building one prison cell, but we really end up building two. And we are in one of them.
We imprison ourselves with our refusal to forgive because we allow the bitterness to fester inside of us. We also allow our self righteousness to convince us that “I would never do what they did to me.” The unforgiving person is quick to see others as more heinous and themselves as more virtuous.
Croatian theologian Miraslov Volf offers these stinging words for us.
“Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans and myself from the community of sinners.” -Miraslov Volf (Exclusion and Embrace)
So we’ve seen what happens when we don’t forgive. What happens when we do forgive? Returning to the story of Joseph, when we see his outburst of emotion we almost get the sense that he can’t wait to forgive his brothers. He has to release this emotion that has been built up for the last 22 years!
In this sense, forgiveness is like a great pressure release valve that ends up being a blessing to the forgiver, not just to the forgiven. Just as withholding forgiveness ends up building two prisons, extending forgiveness ends up setting two prisoners free.
So what does it take to forgive?
Behold the greatness of God
Joseph was able to embrace his brothers in forgiveness because he knew that while they intended a great evil against him, God was at work through it all to accomplish a greater good. Joseph believed that God was the one who sovereignly orchestrated this whole story in order to bring about greater good for many people.
…for God sent me before you to preserve life…And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth…So it was not you who sent me here, but God.
A small view of God diminishes our ability to forgive. A big view of God increases our ability to forgive. If you find that the wrong done against you is too great to forgive, then it’s quite possible that God is not great enough in your life.
Trust in the justice of God
When we fail to trust that God will right all wrongs, we feel like we can’t forgive because this person will just get away with it. If there is no judge sitting on the bench of the courtroom of the universe, then forgiveness truly becomes a foolish act of letting people off the hook. Because if God won’t punish evil, then someone has to.
Violence and revenge have their way in our world when we fail to believe that God will set the world to rights. But when we trust that God is just, then we can forgive those who wrong us because we trust that the judge of all the earth will do what is right.
Rest in the forgiveness of God
The best way to know how to forgive is to know how forgiven you are. The reason that you and I struggle to be a forgiving people is because we struggle to believe that we are a forgiven people.
One of my favorite examples is related in Luke 7, when Jesus has an encounter with a woman who quite likely is a prostitute. She arrived at the home where Jesus was dining with many religious leaders, and began to wash Jesus’ feet with perfume. The religious leaders grumbled and complained about this because she was such a great sinner. But then Jesus so beautifully and powerfully flips the script on them and shows them that it is precisely because she knows how great a sinner she is that makes her worthy of love and forgiveness.
“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
There is a direct correlation between our ability to forgive and our understanding of our own forgiveness. The power to forgive comes from the power of being forgiven.
If we claim that the sins committed against us are unforgivable, then we are in that moment revealing how little we think of our own sin and how little we think of God’s forgiveness toward us. But when we understand the depth of God’s forgiveness toward us in Christ, then there will never be a wrong so egregious committed against us that we can’t forgive.
Do you want to be a forgiving person? Then become a forgiven person. Forgiveness feels foolish but it’s always the right choice. Praise be to God that Jesus made the right choice for us.
In every relationship there is one constant. Whether it be friends, coworkers, neighbors, parents, one’s spouse or children, at some point in time, one will fail the other. It may be intentional or unintentional. It may be big or small. But you will fail someone close to you, and someone close to you will fail you.
Right here, in the face of an inevitable failure, is when relationships have the highest likelihood of coming to an end. Often all it takes is a single offense to undo years of intimacy. Friend groups dismantle. Marriages dissolve. Collaborative partnerships come unhinged. Failure happens in every relationship, and all too often it means the relationship is over.
Forgiveness isn’t the goal
Where does one go from that place? I used to think failed relationships could be mended if people merely learned to forgive each other, but I was wrong. Forgiveness alone can’t fix a relationship.
To be clear, forgiveness is necessary. Jesus calls every one of His followers to model a lifestyle of forgiveness. Christians who cannot forgive others should check whether they have experienced forgiveness from God (Matthew 6:14-15). On top of that, we are called to forgive not just here and there, but with such regularity that we lose count (Matthew 18:22). We are to have open hands with offenses and let go of wrongs with diligence. And yet, as difficult as forgiveness may be, it is not enough to repair a relationship.
The problem with making forgiveness the goal of healing strained relationships is that it makes confession the only means. Confession is certainly an essential part of mending relational fallout. Confession is a way for the one who has committed an offense (or is a member of a group or corporation that has committed an offense) to own their failure by “naming ownership of the thing” that brought fissure. Ownership is essential for the offender to name and for the offended to witness.
But when forgiveness is the goal and confession the only means, then relational mending is a one time transaction that can make the offender feel absolution has been achieved while the offended is still emotionally (and possibly physically) wrestling through the pain of the original offense. This sort of forgiveness may very well be the grounds for a sense of freedom from the offense for the offender, but it will not necessarily restore the relationship for both parties.
In a culture of hyper-individualism, relational immaturity and an underlying expectation that everything we want should come with the click of a button, this can be hard to accept.
While both parties may share a common perspective over what created the distance between them, it will not necessarily reestablish their former relationship. In some circumstances such efforts can actually create more relational distance when this dynamic isn’t acknowledged.
As a pastor, I’ve seen this take place with a husband who has cheated on his wife, and having confessed to the affair and apologized, becomes enraged and wonders why she can’t “just treat him normal” from now on. “I said I was sorry, ok?! Why can’t you let it go?!” His failure to acknowledge how his previous sin continues to cause pain — even when she has extended forgiveness — actually may cultivate a sense of insecurity leading her to fear that her husband may commit the same sin again: “Was he just saying sorry so we don’t have to talk about it anymore, or is he really sorry and wants to change?”
As a pastor in our city, I’ve seen the same dynamic in conversations regarding race relations and the history of racial injustice in the United States. When historic injustices that have lingering effects are brought up, a common trope from some is “Why can’t they just move on?! That took place so many years ago!” This kind of response communicates a lack of genuineness in remorse and an unwillingness to listen. Is it any wonder that our city and nation are still so separated?
Forgiveness is necessary, but it neither shuts off the valve of pain nor completes the work of restoration. Confession is necessary, but it is not sufficient.
Resilience needs more
So how can we cultivate relationships that press through failure? What is the path to cultivating resilient relationships?
Every relationship that endures through failure requires an additional step: the important move through confession to repentance. While confession owns one’s guilt over a past action, repentance works toward actions of life for the other. Confession longs to receive absolution. Repentance longs to engage in the long-suffering work of repair. Confession can be perceived as a one and done transaction. Repentance accepts that a cyclical and ongoing journey is necessary.
In some relationships, the most we can hope for in the short term is forgiveness. Much like Paul and John Mark (Acts 15:36-39), we end a relationship with an empty ledger of offenses but choose not to continue on in the relationship. For those relationships we long to see last, we need to go beyond absolution and do the enduring work of restoration. And for that, we need more than confession and forgiveness. We need repentance and repair for both parties.
A well worn path
Examples of this are seen throughout the biblical storyline. It’s etched into the Old Testament law given to Israel to guide them into communal flourishing (e.g. Exodus 22, Isaiah 58). It was practiced by leaders like King David who had a heart like God’s in navigating national injustices (2 Samuel 21). It’s what John the Baptist proclaims to prepare the way for Jesus (Luke 3:1-6). Zacchaeus lives this out in establishing a radical financial repayment plan after which Jesus says, “Salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:1-10).
This was also carried out in the early church. In the early African church, we find the Canon of Hippolytus (4th Century A.D.), a book on church order as believers sought to live out the teaching of the Apostles. There were certain vocations that were not accepted in the early church because of how they maligned or abused neighbors. In some cases baptism was forbidden unless it could be established that they had left such vocations by the testimony of three witnesses.
If it was found that they had returned to a destructive line of work, they were barred from the church community. Injustice was simply not tolerated. It was not a place where you could just live life any which way and still remain in the fellowship. And when were they allowed to return to membership in good standing? It wasn’t after education, confession and forgiveness. Rather “they are to be excluded from the church until they repent with tears, fasting, and alms.” Repentance and repair revealed in everyday life.
In Work and Worship: Reconnecting our Labor and our Liturgy, Matthew Kaemingk and Cory Wilson comment on this early church practice. They write, “…the worker’s road to redemption runs primarily through liturgical practices—not theological education. Through the liturgical practices of tears, fasting, and alms, the worker is ultimately restored to the worshipping community.”
This response may seem outlandish or over the top. Frankly, most of the biblical characters and writings seem absurd to a world that downplays evil and so downplays the long suffering necessity of restoring and cultivating resilient relationships. We want what Bonhoeffer warns against as cheap grace or an easy believism that erroneously justifies doing anything we want to do with the assurance of absolution (Romans 6:1-2).
Rather, Christians are to have a robust appreciation for the complexity of sin and the pervasiveness of evil within relationships and cultures, so we don’t approach God and others transactionally. We don’t come just wanting to get absolution, but actually seek reconciliation through the road of costly repentance. All of this has us humbly crying out for “more grace” (James 4:6).
So what about you? Me? Is it too much to ask of us?
If you want to cultivate resilient relationships, don’t just come with confession looking for absolution. Come with a posture of repentance ready to repair and go down the long road of rebuilding. It takes longer than we often want to give, but what you get are restored relationships, enduring community and genuine intimacy.
And for that we should be willing to give everything. Again. And again.
“It’s not so much what we have in this life that matters. It’s what we do with what we have. The alphabet is fine. But it’s what we do with it that matters most—making words like ‘friend’ and ‘love.’ That’s what really matters.”
– Fred Rogers
It’s been said that “Good friends are hard to find,” but I think it’s truer to confess that “Good friendships are hard to build.”
They take time and work and diligence. They require patience and forgiveness. There are no shortcuts. They often grow in fits and starts. And though many are interested in experiencing the outcome of that kind of labor, few are interested in the effort.
In other words, many people want a friend. Few want to be a friend.
And that’s resulted in an epidemic of loneliness and dissatisfaction. The children’s poet Shel Silverstein speaks about the way we tend to approach friendships. He writes:
“I’ve discovered a way to stay friends forever There’s really nothing to it. I simply tell you what to do And you do it.”
Shel’s right. Too many of us unknowingly embrace a selfish posture towards friendship. His playful poem captures what I’ll call the “my friends exist for me” approach to friendship. Perhaps you’ve seen it before. It rears its ugly head when folks find themselves believing:
My friends exist so that I have something to do on a Friday night.
My friends exist so that I can try new restaurants and see new movies with someone.
My friends exist so that I won’t feel lonely.
My friends exist for me.
This posture towards friendship is highly misguided. It’s plain bad advice. If you desire deeper, more substantive relationships, here are four habits, advocated by the author of Proverbs, that can help you build better friendships. Friendships that aren’t all about you. Friendships that bring life and yield joy. Friendships that will last.
If you want to build friendships that will last, first, you must cultivate self-awareness.
Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.”
What’s going on deep inside us is difficult to analyze or to understand precisely. But those who desire to be good friends take the time to explore their own hearts. They assess their motives and desires, and honestly evaluate what makes them tick. They name old wounds and identify the effects of those wounds. They own up to the good, the bad, and the ugly that shapes their decision-making.
They cultivate self-awareness. And self-awareness is critical to building friendships that can last.
Someone who is self-aware is able to recognize when they’re being unreasonable, when they’re being demanding, and when they’re reacting to a current circumstance out of an old wound. And isn’t that what you want in a friendship?
Those who are self-aware have taken the time to look into their own hearts so that they can respond to and care well for those whom they call “friend.”
Self-awareness can grow in many contexts. Counseling is a helpful tool. So is journaling. Research shows that writing down things we are thankful for and identifying things that frustrate us can help us gain insight into the nooks and crannies of our hearts.
So how do you build friendships that last? First, you cultivate self-awareness.
But becoming a better friend isn’t just about improving the ways we understand ourselves. It’s also about adjusting the postures we adopt when relating to others.
If you want to build friendships that last, you must also commit to radical candor.
What’s radical candor?
Kim Scott, a remarkable business leader in the tech industry, who’s led online sales at AdSense, YouTube, and Doubleclick and Operations at Google, writes, “Radical candor is the ability to challenge directly and show you care personally at the same time.” It’s the commitment to take a risk and speak the truth to a person who matters to you.
Scott’s definition of radical candor reminds me of Proverbs 27:6, which says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.”
They also remind me of Proverbs 27:17: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”
Even though it can be remarkably difficult to tell the truth to those we love, it’s what a good friend does. It’s how we build friendships that last.
Radical candor matters for two reasons:
It’s how we care for our friends.
And it’s how trust grows in our friendships.
A friend says what needs to be said, even if it hurts for a little while, because they desire to keep their friends from greater heartache or harm.
And a friend speaks honestly, risking hurt or misunderstanding, so that their friendships might have opportunities to deepen and grow. Indeed, speaking with radical candor is one of the main ways trust grows between friends. It’s like Oscar Wilde said, “A good friend will always stab you in the front.”
Do you give your closest relationships a chance to grow through your commitment to courageous honesty? Are you committed to radical candor?
For healthy relationships to grow, honest, direct speech is necessary. But so is grace.
If you want to build friendships that last, you must make forgiveness a habit.
Proverbs 17:9 instructs, “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.”
Whoever covers an offense—which is a Hebrew way of saying whoevercommits to forgiveness—seeks love. But those who repeat the matter—those who ruminate on it, bringing it up again and again—cause separation between friends.
It’s been said the only things that are certain are death and taxes, but you can also count on this: Your friends will let you down.They will break your trust. They will hurt and offend you. It’s inevitable.
But the ability to forgive—the ability to cut some slack and offer understanding—that’s what allows friendship to grow over the long haul.
To be clear: I’m not suggesting that we let our friends run all over us or do whatever they please without consequence. Boundaries matter. And there are times that boundaries need to be established and firmly held.
But at the same time, if you want your relationships to flourish, you need to make forgiveness a habit. You must be quick to extend grace and give another chance to those who have offended you.
That’s just part of friendship.
And finally, if you want to build friendships that last, you need to embrace self-sacrifice.
Proverbs 17:17 declares, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.”
A true friend is one who commits to costly love, who is present in good times and bad times. A true friend doesn’t vanish when things get difficult, they dig in.
What’s funny is many recognize that friendship is valuable. But few seem willing to pay the high price that lasting friendship costs. It cannot be denied: Valuable things come at a high price. And lasting friendship is pricey. There are physical, emotional, financial, and time costs associated with building friendships that last.
But they’re worth it.
Because Fred Rogers is right.
Investing in things like friendship and love—that is what really matters.
Indeed, in a filmed interview, Rogers once remarked,
“The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.”
That’s a gift we’re able to share in the context of friendship.
If you want to build those kind of friendships—friendships that bring joy, friendships that withstand hurts and deepen as years pass, friendships that last—you must cultivate self-awareness, commit to radical candor, make forgiveness a habit, and commit to self-sacrifice.