On one side of my extended family, there is an ongoing root of bitterness and unforgiveness that stems from my great grandparent’s time. A root that was passed down to my grandmother, my aunties and uncles, my cousins and their grandchildren. Five generations of continuing problems and who knows how far up the tree it all started. In nearly every one of my extended families, I can name close relatives that haven’t spoken for years because of wrongs done, unforgiveness, finger pointing and as Philip Yancey calls it: 'the extension of ungrace'—or the failure to extend grace towards others.
How can this ongoing perpetuating cycle end?
Let’s look at the issue from the scientific and faith viewpoints by examining the biopsychosocial spiritual parts where each of those components make a whole person. Each one of them interrelates and impacts each of the others, so to bring any changes, all parts must be addressed holistically.
I will look firstly at the physical or biological aspects of our nature. When things aren’t going well relationally, do you physically avoid people who cause you stress due to some past altercations? Physically distancing oneself? Being distant or a lack of proximity, in the short term might be a solution but it is counterproductive as it could cause us mental health issues – we’ve seen this very clearly in isolation during the pandemic. Instead of acting this way, trying to make a move towards those that have hurt us, could in very small ways begin to change the trajectory of the future. To reach out in small ways by text, a call, a zoom, a posted card (yes that system still exits) or a smile to a neighbour as we pass in the street, rather than looking away or remaining absent, could bring lasting improvement in the long run. This small gesture to a loved one (or a stranger), could make their day. In the short-term and in the long term, this could lead to restoration because a move has been made in a positive direction.
Let’s consider the psychological aspect of our personality in relationships. Dr Caroline Leaf suggests that the psychological aspect of our brain starts with our mind and our thoughts. It’s time to start thinking about one’s inner narrative about the person we have distanced ourselves from and start to proactively think more positively about them. The Gottman Institute in the US calls this Positive versus Negative Sentiment Override which is making a decision to change this thinking pattern and we know from the science of neuroplasticity, it is absolutely doable. Science tells us that what we focus on and think about will grow so as we think positive thoughts about that person, it will become increasingly difficult to see anything negative about them. Foster the good thoughts and watch them grow.
Then there’s the social aspect of when we are distanced from people, which affects our mental well-being due to our need to be in community. Having different people around us, to support us and as we support others, we develop a sense of worth and belonging. Without a social aspect in our lives, we can feel depressed and lonely.
So the biopsychosocial aspect of restoring relationships to avoid or change dislocation and fragmentation of broken relationships has a huge impact on our mental health, our well-being and as a result also our physical well-being.
Now let’s approach my favourite part, the spiritual aspect of restoring relationships. This requires you and I to move further along a positive to negative continuum of virtues such as grace, mercy, forgiveness, empathy, love and log removal or truth. These virtues don’t necessarily come easy to most of us but can be enhanced by soul-searching and regular checking in with our Maker. We can slide little by little towards the positive end with eventually lasting change. The most challenging one, I believe, may be log removal because without that one, it’s difficult to extend any sort of grace to others. This is particularly true when we believe someone has wronged us. I read a story about a chain of unforgiveness in a family tree that began in 1898 with an abusive drunken father who sent the mother away, even against the desperate pleas by their 10 children. One of those children never forgave him. That daughter passed on unforgiveness to another three generations even when the father met the Lord and apologised and sought to make restitution with all of the 10 children some years later.
What is required to forgive? Firstly a recognition that we need forgiveness ourselves i.e. seeing the log in our own eyes.
‘Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.’ Matthew 7:5 NKJV
And recognising the price for our sin, paid by our Saviour on the cross for us to be forgiven, which is the beautiful virtue of mercy or withholding punishment when in fact we ourselves are guilty.
There is a lot to say about mercy and grace and I’m no theologian but my take is that we extend mercy in forgiveness and grace, when not taking offence if wronged. They both come out of our unconditional relationship with the Lord that is loving, understanding, compassionate and merciful without retribution. I think these virtues require surrendering control, in love towards others, particularly to those that don’t deserve it, just like God does with us. It’s possible for you and I to do this with mercy, love and forgiveness by the power of the Holy Spirit, doing what we can't do on our own.
If you wait for those in your life you are distanced from to make a move, you may be waiting a long time. Do you really want to go to your grave without restoration? Today you can do something about those fractured relationships by dispensing huge dollops of forgiveness, grace and mercy.
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