The path to grace

Some people are hard to love. Sometimes people do things that hurt us, and they aren’t ever going to be sorry. Sometimes people aren’t responsive at all when we try to reach out to them. Sometimes people do things that make them unworthy of love, or unworthy of respect. What is the right thing for us to do?

As Christ followers the easy answer is forgiveness, love, and grace, but that’s easy to say and hard to do in these situations. The case for love and grace being the right course is clear. God calls us to love as he has loved us, and of course God’s love for us precedes our repentance. “While we were still sinners,” we’re told, “Christ died for us.” He didn’t wait for our repentance to love us enough to sacrifice himself. Grace and forgiveness are not earned, they are given. If we expect payment, it isn’t grace. On top of that, we are to love our enemies, and do good to those who hate us. How do we do that?

Given that grace is given rather than earned, the extent to which the other person deserves forgiveness and love doesn’t help answer the question. If I find that I am struggling with giving grace and my response starts with “But he…” or “But she…” then I am looking for the other person to earn grace. Having the truth on our side doesn’t really help in these situations. In fact, sometimes we stress “truth” so much that its to the detriment of grace. We say things like “speak the truth in love!” Generally when we do that, it isn’t really about truth, or love. It’s just about being right. I think that’s often a symptom that our pride is getting in our way.

I’ve been noticing lately that our pride ensnares us a lot in this area. It seems like a lot of the times that we can’t find the path to forgiveness it has to do with feeling a lack of respect from the other person. Pride is often one of the hardest things to let go of when we need to forgive, especially when the other person isn’t apologetic or even recognizing that they’ve done wrong. When our pride is involved, it gets personal. This pops up when someone doesn’t recognize our rights or authority or areas of expertise, or pulls rank on us. It’s at the heart of our difficulty in forgiving people who take us for granted, or take advantage of us, or act entitled to things they have no right to demand of us.

Jesus said “If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other cheek. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also.” (Luke 6:29 NLT) My difficulty in following this principle isn’t the physical injury to my cheek, or that I can’t bear to part with my shirt. My problem is that when someone slaps me or takes something from me, my pride is wounded. How dare they! I think this is true even of severe transgressions. We talk about attacks being dehumanizing or degrading. When it comes down to it, we often struggle to forgive because of pride as much or more than the other impacts of whatever was done to us.

I’m not saying that we aren’t really injured by attacks that also wound our pride. Remember that I’m talking about giving forgiveness and grace, and that these are not earned by the recipient. We don’t give grace because the slight was small or imagined. We give grace because God poured his grace on us even when we were dead in our sins. The magnitude of our sin against God isn’t diminished because he gives us grace. My sin is still sin. The penalty for my sin is still death. God’s grace didn’t diminish the payment. He just took the payment for my sin on himself. The grace I can give has little to do with the recipient or the wrongdoing that I forgive, and everything to do with me and my relationship to the well from which I can draw that grace.

Even so, isn’t it interesting that quite often the reason I can’t forgive you is because of the sin of pride in my own heart?

As a practical matter, I think we often nurse our wounds in ways that drag the process out. When we nurse our wounded pride, we aren’t really working toward the right resolution. We’re trying to rebuild our injured pride. The better goal, I think, is to give up on our right to our pride. I do not mean that we should say “It is ok for you to do that,” or to surrender our pride to our attacker. Rather, we should surrender our pride to Christ.

Instead, we often find ways to nurture self-righteous bitterness. We remind ourselves of the wrong done to us. We remind ourselves that we are in the right, and deserve better. This is hardest when the facts are on our side. The other person is clearly in the wrong, and they are likely to do it again. Shouldn’t we guard ourselves against that? Shouldn’t we take steps to make it right, to fix it? Shouldn’t we confront the other person’s sin so that maybe they’ll repent and maybe we can fix them?

Confronting sin in the body is an important Biblical principle, and one I think that we often misapply. There are two goals in confronting sin in the body: bringing a sinner to repentance and thereby turning them from death (James 5), and protecting the body of the Church (1 Corinthians 5). These issues have huge theological implications that I won’t try to get into here, but for the sake of this discussion the focus is practical: When you are struggling for grace and forgiveness, very likely your motives are not really the good of your brother or sister who has sinned, or protecting the Body. We often tell ourselves that we are wanting to bring the other person back from the brink of their sin, but in reality when we are the person who has been wronged what we almost always want is to be shown to have been right all along. As a practical matter of the health of the Body, confronting sin should generally be done by the leaders of the local body who are not themselves in the middle of the issue. When we are the person who has been wronged, we need to look to following Christ’s admonitions in Matthew 5 and Luke 6 in our own lives.

Think about this: if the person who has wronged you never repents, never turns from their sin, never even admits that what they have done is wrong, are you going to just hold onto your bitterness and hurt forever? That would mean allowing the other person to hobble your walk to maturity in Christ for the rest of your life. Clearly that’s not the answer. We need to find a path to grace and forgiveness not so much because the other person deserves it or even needs it, but because it is critical to our own spiritual health. That is hard enough for us without the burden of fixing the other person.

It is so hard for us to do, in fact, that we can’t do it on our own. When we are angry or unable to forgive because our pride has been wounded, we need to take that to Christ and ask him to help us. Part of that involves confessing that our pride is involved. When we have been wronged and we cannot find the path to true grace and forgiveness, we have to look to the Holy Spirit to provide grace so that we can bear his fruit.

As we turn to God to help us, there are a few things that we can do that ease that path. If we will remove some hindrances, we need less painful surgery. First, don’t dwell on the wrongs that have been done to you. Don’t bring it up. Especially avoid compounding your pride by gossip. Think about whatever is just and pure and lovely and commendable and praiseworthy instead. Stewed hurt and anger are more concentrated and harder to release. They build up our pride rather than letting it go. Put your focus on your walk with God, rather than the other person’s.

So many of us live our lives in bitterness, anger, hurt, and wounded pride. Allowing God to bring true forgiveness and grace to our hearts often involves confessing to him that we struggle with pride, and asking him to heal us of that as well.

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