Janice lost the chance to get a great job when her husband Marvin failed to mail the application she had so laboriously prepared. When Marvin discovered the letter under a pile of second class mail on his desk, the deadline was past. He was devastated at his carelessness. He tried to apologise but it was too late. Janice was furious. When Janice accused her husband of not wanting her to get a job outside the home, Marvin felt defensive. He responded by calling her a ‘picky perfectionist’. Their marriage deteriorated.
As a Christian, what ought her response to have been? One can certainly understand Janice’s keen disappointment. Should she have forgiven Marv? No, forgiveness is needed when sin is involved. What she needed to do was exercise forbearance. Marvin did not sin; he made a careless mistake. (Of course, if he made a habit of being careless, we might classify it as temperamental sin for which he needed forgiveness.)
Forbearance calls for a different response than forgiveness. Sins require forgiveness but inadequacies due to human frailty, even oversights due to carelessness, call for forbearance. In this case, Marvin was not sinfully chauvinistic, just careless. And Janice listened to her imaginings not to Marvin. Relational friction is the inevitable result where we fail to allow leeway for human fallibility, or grant too much credence to imagination.
Lowly and loving
The call to forbearance is clear. ‘Be completely humble and gentle; be patient bearing with one another in love’ (Ephesians 4:2). ‘Bear with one another’ (Colossians 3:13). Humility, gentleness and patience enable us to love people, with their human imperfections, without getting angry and annoyed.
Humility is based on two things. A vision of how far we ourselves fall short of God’s standards, and a realistic assessment of our own foibles. Gentleness leads us to treat others with a measure of the thoughtfulness God lavishes on us. Patience develops as we celebrate God’s longsuffering and recognise how we ourselves strain the patience of others.
Matthew Henry comments that ‘It becomes those who are holy towards God to be lowly and loving towards all men’. He goes on to say, ‘Mutual forbearance [is needed] in consideration of the infirmities and deficiencies under which we all labour… We have all of us something which needs to be borne with, and this is a good reason why we should bear with others in what is disagreeable to us. We need the same good turn from others which we are bound to show them’ (Commentary on the whole Bible, p.764).
If we fail to develop this kind of self-knowledge we may become as critical as Marshall Shelley’s Virginia. ‘Virginia thinks pointing out a problem is solving it. She feels she is doing some great thing for God by spotting a need. She doesn’t understand that meeting one need is more important than spotting fifty’ (Well intentioned dragons). Virginia belongs to the professional critics’ union, composed of those adept at finding problems in any proposal, flaws in any person – but who are blind to their own foibles.
Forbearance not only rescues us from being judgmental but it prepares us to handle human diversity. Often the antagonism that springs up in our churches can be traced to a failure to bear with differences of opinion. One person wants more choruses, while another complains about the dearth of grand old hymns. One faction urges quiet in the sanctuary, the other promotes fellowship through friendly conversation. And money – many want to put a budget surplus into a savings account while others urge that the balance be sent to missionaries. The issues may be important or trivial. Reactions may be heated. But in most cases what is called for is the ability to bear with those who differ.
Relational friction may also be rooted in imaginary grievances. Too often we attribute motives to others based on why we imagine they are acting in a certain way. Instead of confronting the person we feel has treated us shabbily, or cutting them dead, what is needed is for us to ‘cast down imaginations’. After all, only God is omniscient.
A certain woman developed a growing animosity towards a former close friend. Imagined slights poisoned the relationship. One of the few things that brought sunshine into her drab life was an anonymous ‘secret pal’ who remembered her birthdays and anniversaries and, in other thoughtful ways, cheered her up.
Finally, her estranged friend died. In spite of her bitterness, the woman thought that ordinary decency required her to make a neighbourly call on the grieving husband. She offered to help him straighten up the house. While tidying up, she found a letter addressed to herself. Opening it, she discovered to her shock that the ‘secret pal’ who had brought such encouragement into her gloomy life was none other than the target of her animosity! Thoughts of the years of maligning and misjudging this former friend filled her with grief.
Forbearance steers us away from the relational crash that follows an inability to bear with the shortcomings of others. It rescues us from unnecessary grief.