by River Jordan
All relationships struggle at some point, but whether they survive or divide depends largely on our ability to forgive.
I’ve burned some relationship bridges in my lifetime. Bridges — plural. Some relationships may indeed be so toxic they must be severed. But, sometimes, those burned bridges are symbols of unforgiveness.
Most of us have a few ruptured relationships we’ve left behind. Recently, I’ve had a former friend on my mind. It’s my fault we’re no longer friends. It’s one thing to lose contact with an old neighbor or to shuffle through old Christmas cards and not be able to find that address of a coworker you passed in the hallway. But to lose contact and fall out of favor with a friend who was a best friend for years is tough. To lose all contact with someone who saw you through some of your toughest years just seems wrong. It seems downright unbiblical.
THE WAY OF BARRICADES
It isn’t always easy to pinpoint what went wrong in any relationship. Breaches occur. Misunderstandings are part of the price we pay for being human. But there are times our misunderstandings roll into something that seems larger than we can fix. Things go so wrong so quickly that we shrug our shoulders and walk away. We put up a barricade and say, “It’s the other person’s fault.” But that isn’t true. There is always more than one side to the story.
Case in point: Many years ago, I was an executive director of a nonprofit organization. The organization was composed of the executive director, a personal assistant, and a volunteer board of directors.
The personal assistant (let’s call her Sally) was precious, intelligent, warm, funny, and hard working. We became friends, occasionally shared dinner, and swapped personal stories. After a huge annual event that took more than a year to plan and execute, I took a vacation to recuperate. While away, I received a phone call from a board member who told me Sally had said something that portrayed me in an unfavorable light. And just like that, I decided to cut her completely out of my life — immediately.
The organization went on to merge with another nonprofit, which meant the elimination of both our positions. I wholeheartedly agreed with the plan. Good riddance to the lot of you, I thought. I was tired. What I perceived as a betrayal made me ready to cut all losses, quickly. Phone calls from Sally were unanswered, messages left for me were not returned.
Ultimately, Sally sent me a letter. The letter contained all the elements of Sally’s personality I had found endearing: honesty, kindness, intelligence, and gentleness. She wrote to ask what she had said or done to offend me. She had truly respected and appreciated our relationship and didn’t want it to end. She apologized for anything she might have done and asked if we could open the doors of communication to repair whatever had happened to cause this breach.
I promptly threw the letter in the trash without a pause for consideration. In retrospect, what I wanted at that moment was emotional revenge. You want some kind of response? Well, you aren’t getting a single word. Not a breath. That will teach you to say anything even remotely negative about me behind my back.
The ugly truth is we don’t always get a second chance to get it right.
During the time I received the letter, I continued to go to church. I continued to take communion. I continued to walk through the motions of being at peace with my sister, my brother, and God, while a cruel, unforgiving streak went unchecked in my soul.
Jesus knew the acute pain of betrayal. In Matthew 26:34, He looked at Peter and said, “Tonight, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” And still He loved Peter. And still He forgave him in advance. Here I was not forgiving someone who asked for it. (And, yes, I know that’s addressed in the Bible too — “And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and comes back to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” [Luke 17:4].)
A MAP FOR THE JOURNEY
To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t thought about Sally for years until I started working on this article. Instead, it was Mary who immediately came to mind — a dear friend who had helped me through so many rough days and unsure moments. Only this time, the roles were reversed. At some point in our relationship, I said or did something that obviously hurt Mary and she went away. But I can’t quite put my finger on that important something. It’s hazy, but I remember using a self-righteous tone during a conversation — a holier-than-thou “you should not” admonition. I don’t know if what I said was the breaking point of our friendship or just the last thing our strained friendship could take.
Recently I tried to find Mary, but even in this age of social media, it’s been to no avail. I would love to extend an olive branch and say I’m sorry. I don’t think we could pick up our relationship where it ended, or even at its zenith, but I’d like to say, “Whatever I did, I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
The ugly truth is we don’t always get a second chance to get it right. What we do get is a chance to look at the severed ties and burned bridges of our past — whether ages old or just yesterday — and make a choice to continue more circumspectly (Matthew 7:1-5). We have a chance to pause and consider our actions, our words, and our relationships. In light of a few of these remembrances, I’ve made a short checklist based on the map of Ephesians 5:1-2 to help me navigate the relationship road and move onward.
We must open our eyes and heart to the power we wield with our words and actions. Both can either nurture or neglect relationships. When we discipline ourselves to speak and act with mercy and grace, our futures can be filled with lasting, healthy relationships that reflect the glory of God.
Ephesians 5:1-2 Checklist
- To forgive those who have wronged me — daily, if necessary.
- To forgive myself for not being as aware, forgiving, or loving as I could have been.
- To give thanks for the good relationships I have in my life right now and to work at making those better with all the fruit of the Spirit.
- To trust God to be full of light, grace, and healing to combat any damage that can ever be done to me — or by me.
- To walk in love, not thinking I am capable of anything beyond the moment or that anything more than that is requested.
- To offer a sincere prayer for the people I’ve wronged, misunderstood, cast out, or left behind.
River Jordan is an author of four novels and a new work of non-fiction, Praying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit. She is also the host of the literary news radio program, Clearstory. For more info, visit realriverjordan.com.