The words stung. They were unexpected. My soul had been sliced open as if by a knife. I was shocked, hurt, and angry. I became silent as tears rolled down my cheeks. A gaping, bleeding wound had impaled not only my being but a relationship as well.
Within a few days it will be Valentine’s Day. Hearts. Chocolates. Flowers. The color red. These all dominate this holiday. While the entertainment, restaurant, floral, and chocolate industries highlight romance, Valentine’s Day points to a celebration of a diversity of relationships where there is the presence of love and care. Parents will give cards to children and children to their parents. Grandparents exchange cards with grandchildren. Friends will celebrate friends. Even grade-schoolers will set aside their differences and will trade Valentines with their classmates. And your local Hallmark store supplies cards for each kind of relationship.
Expectations run high on this particular day, no matter the type of relationship we are celebrating. As children in grade-school, we look forward to the warm sentiment and the heart-shaped candies. This anticipation seems to continue as adults. We want to feel the emotional high of love. The goose-bumps. The elation. The positive feelings. The euphoria. The sense of being cherished as well as cherishing others. The bliss.
And we should.
But, you know, expectations in relationships may also take us down another path of feelings. An additional connotation to the color red: Woundedness. Bleeding. These are the consequences of unmet expectations.
Where I expected presence, I received absence. Where I expected understanding, I received indifference. Where I expected open dialogue, I received suppressing statements. Where I expected to be heard, I received angry words. I had a longing, and it was unmet. There is a loss in the relationship. As such, the relationship is on a new trajectory, and I am grieving that loss. That is, the relationship has entered a new normal and will never return to the old normal.
Andrew Peterson captures this when he sings “I Want to Say I’m Sorry” from the album The Burning Edge of Dawn (2015):
Well, I want to say I’m sorry but I don’t know how
But I’m sorry, I’m so sorry now
I said some words to you I wish I never said
I know words can kill ’cause something’s dead . . .
Well, I want to say I’m sorry but it’s not enough
To close the wounds I opened up
So now I’ve got this sorrow and you’ve got that hurt
And we can’t go back to who we were
As the song implies, it is not only a journey of loss/grief but also one of forgiveness, if we choose to take this path. Forgiveness, as Robert Karen comments, is when I let the other into my heart once again (see The Forgiving Self; I am also following Karen’s lead in that I am speaking of forgiveness in the realm of everyday relationships, not the complex wounds of the injustices committed as in the Holocaust, Rwanda, or systemic oppression).
Navigating this journey of grief and forgiveness is tricky. Contrary to some of the messages I have heard, forgiveness is not a snap decision, like succumbing to the impulse to buy a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup at the checkout stand. As in the journey of loss/grief, it is a healing process. One of reflection. One of self-awareness. Ouch.
It means recognizing and naming the expectation and the need that went unmet. It entails embracing the limitations of humanity. However, the embrace is not simply embracing the other’s limitations but requires the acknowledgement that I, too, am finite. It involves recognizing my own fallibility with grace and acceptance without allowing the inner critic to wreak havoc with shame. If I am going to allow the other into my heart once again, it necessitates my allowing me with my own failings into my own heart. In forgiveness, I come face-to-face with my own shortcomings in that in the same way the other has let me down, I let others down. The same expectations that I imposed upon the other that remain unmet, I neglect to meet for others. What I expect I am, I expect you are. Forgiveness, then, challenges me to examine and embrace my own unmet expectations in me. That is to say, when I make space within myself, I create space for you.
As a Christ-follower, I find this evident in Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23-35. This parable follows a question by Peter, “How many times must I forgive my brother who sins against me? As many as seven times?” Peter believes he is being quite generous here, so one can imagine his surprise when Jesus responds, “Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times!” which implies an unlimited number. This seems impossible, so how can this be done? I wonder if the secret lies in seeing our own fallibility.
The parable speaks of a king who wanted to settle his accounts, and he called a servant to him who owed him an exorbitant amount. Because the servant was unable to pay, the king planned to sell his servant and his family to cover the debt. However, the servant begged for the king’s mercy.
The parable says that the king had compassion on the servant. In the Greek text, the word for compassion is placed first in the sentence, indicating its importance, and it speaks of feeling deeply, in the entrails of the body, or one’s gut. It carries with it the meaning of suffering alongside so that we are moved to action.
In order for us as fallen, finite humans to feel compassion, it often involves the use of the imagination, of placing ourselves within the other’s shoes, of seeing the other as a human being like ourselves. It includes sensing similar emotions and identifying similar needs in us. In forgiveness, such compassion signifies we are allowing the other back into our heart again.
The parable, however, does not end there. After the servant was forgiven his debt by the king, he found another servant who owed him money, but considerably less than what he had been forgiven. Evidently, the forgiven servant neglected to consider his own humanity, his own finitude, and his own failings which would have enabled him to suffer alongside another servant. He had an expectation that was unmet but neglected to fully examine how he had not met another’s expectation. Thus, although this second servant begged for mercy, the forgiven servant threw him into prison to pay the debt.
When the king heard of this, he confronted the first servant, saying, “Shouldn’t you have forgiven the debt of a servant like you as I have forgiven you the debt you owed me?” As a result, the forgiven servant was thrown into prison to pay his debt to the king. Then, Jesus closes the parable with this line: “So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart.”
God, who is infallible, has made space within God’s self for us through Jesus Christ. Jesus becomes the wounds made by humanity in the relationship while also embodying God’s forgiveness. It is how God made space for humanity within God’s self. In turn, we receive God’s forgiveness as we become aware of our own failings. When I have the courage to grieve and embrace my own wounds and forgive me for failing to meet up to my own expectations as well as others’ expectations, I am able to open up a space in me for you and your failings.
When I make space within myself, I create space for you.
Lord Jesus, grant me the courage to grow to embrace my own unmet expectations for myself so that I may grow to embrace the unmet expectations of others, thereby allowing them into my heart again in the same way you have created space for me in you.