About ten years ago, I was finishing up my morning Bible study, about to get ready for an important meeting, when God asked me to do something that I really really really didn’t want to do. If given the choice between this and a naked root canal in Antarctica, I’d take the NRCIA every time.
God gave me five names, five people that I felt had either wronged me or misunderstood me. He asked me to contact them, let them know how I was feeling, and tell them that I was sorry for harboring those feelings. In essence, he was asking me to forgive them, though no one was apologizing.
Three of the people were estranged from me, so I sent carefully-worded emails before getting out of bed. Two of them never responded, but the third responded reasonably well. The others were administrators at my school, the very people I was meeting with that afternoon.
What I didn’t know was that my superintendent was planning to fire me. I had been unhappy with my job for the previous few years, feeling unsupported and taken advantage of. After an especially frustrating meeting a couple of weeks earlier, I had been sent to my office with instructions to tell my department how I had misunderstood my position and overstepped my bounds. I disagreed, but I had my instructions, so, in a stew of emotion, I sent an email that should have never been sent.
After God had dealt with me that morning, I sat down in the meeting and took a minute to clear my conscience with my supervisors. They were gracious with the awkwardness of the moment, then started in on the hard stuff. Incredibly, my vulnerability allowed us to share our perspectives in a way that cleared some of the misunderstanding, allowing me to keep my job, though with a tighter leash.
This was not just about God allowing me to keep my job. This was about God teaching me about the health of my soul, and ultimately about himself.
A similar thing happened with Laurie early in our marriage. She had a difficult experience with a male leader of a touring music group, the Continentals. Nothing too scandalous, but enough for her to want to leave the tour early. Hoping to resolve the situation, she sent her former leader a carefully-worded letter, but never received an answer.
Then, over a year into our marriage, I was called to substitute for an accompanist on a high school choir tour. When I showed the itinerary to Laurie, she literally had to sit down. One of our tour stops was at a high school where her former tour director was working.
When I played that tour date, I watched this guy conduct his choir and interact with ours, knowing full well that he was the person that had left my wife with such a brain snarl. After the concert I walked up to him and asked if we could talk. He seemed pretty busy, but when I told him who I was, his schedule cleared right up.
In his office he showed me where Laurie’s letter sat open beside his computer. He told me that what he did was wrong, and he regretted it, but didn’t really know how to respond to her. We talked for a while. I forgave him. Then I went back to LA and told Laurie. Amazingly, she absorbed the information, accepted his apology, and moved on with her life. The thorn was taken out.
Is there such a thing as a perfect family, or perfect marriage, or perfect job situation? Maybe. As long as you’re judging by Facebook posts and conversations between strangers.
I don’t believe that a person can just find a soul mate and settle into a marriage that just clicks for the rest of their lives. In my experience, every new union requires individuals to come apart and come back together as something new. If either person tries to hold on to his or her previous identity, seeing the other person as some kind of life enhancer, they will ultimately spoil the union, making themselves miserable in the process.
This same kind of sacrifice is necessary when any individual wants to join any community, whether it be a family or a company or a sports team. No one likes a selfish leader or team member. At the same time, we all want to be treated with respect and recognized as an important part of the whole.
As I mentioned in my last post, I think this instinct for social wholeness is based in some very primal stuff, bound up in our human gears and wires. If man was made in God’s image, and God is a relational entity, it makes sense that we are hard-wired for community.
Why do you think Facebook is so addicting? Why do you think interpersonal conflict affects us at such deep levels? Why do you think God wanted Laurie and I to clear up these unresolved relationships in our souls? Why would a holocaust survivor ever try to forgive their Nazi doctors or prison guards?
I think forgiveness, among other things, is critical for the health of our souls. Unresolved interpersonal conflicts can fester like poison. Just like a car needs oil, a heart needs love and compassion and patience and humility. If you want to be a happy person, don’t go after your rights or promote your individuality. Go the opposite direction. This may seem counterintuitive in our American culture, but in my experience, it brings more joy and contentment than one might expect.
Does this mean we should just roll over every time we are mistreated? Absolutely not. Just because humans are designed for love and unity does not mean that we are good at it, especially in our fallen, fractured state. The kind of unity that resonates with our primal design is not based in fraternities (smart people, attractive people, one color, one creed). It is not based in control, like an oppressive government or a domineering parent. God’s unity is based in a self-giving, self-revealing love with a mantra of “not my will, but yours be done.”
If you want to experience genuine happiness, try setting yourself aside and putting someone else in your place. Should I start quoting verses? Should I start talking about the kinds of books and movies that really resonate with people? Do I really need to bring up Facebook again?
This is just true. It’s a primal reality. So next time you find yourself struggling with your job situation or your marriage or your children, pause and ask yourself why you are upset. If it is about truth or goodness or justice, do whatever you can to find a resolution that promotes what you know is right. But if it is about you, take some time to really listen to the heart of God, and do whatever you can to get out of the way.