I recently came across an interview with Ruth “Bunny” Graham, daughter of Billy and Ruth Graham. She has lived a challenging life and has struggled to learn forgiveness toward her parents and others in her life, as well as recognizing a need for transparency. I immediately felt a kinship, because these two issues have been a big part of my own spiritual walk, and I am still working on them.
It is helpful to realize that someone like Ms. Graham, who grew up surrounded by deeply Christian parents and their equally spiritual associates, still had to learn faith on an individual basis just like the rest of us. She found that in spite of her parents being Christian icons, the unplanned result of their busyness had been that she felt abandoned and grew up with a poor self-image. Whether or not her feelings were justified, it is what she felt, and needed to be resolved.
None of us has had a perfect childhood guided by perfect parents, and none of us comes away from childhood unscathed. Parents make mistakes because they are working their way through the mistakes made by THEIR parents, and so it goes on and on through each generation. It is the “sins of the father” being worked out. Children respond to life with limited and immature understanding. Family circumstances may make it even harder. Most of us try to do the best we can with our children, but we are working from our own weaknesses and ignorance much of the time. Each of us has her own baggage. If we genuinely want to grow and ask Him for His help, God gradually shows us things about ourselves that need to be corrected. They may be things we would rather not know, but if we are sincere we must choose whether or not to deal with them. He will not force us. Dealing with them usually involves letting go of some element of self and having a willingness to submit to the will of God, no matter where that takes us… again and again and again as each facet of our selfishness and pride is revealed. It is a lifelong process. With each act of repentance and submission, we inch slowly toward wisdom.
With this as background, two of the most difficult problems for me have been forgiveness and my frustration at the lack of transparency in the Church.
I also had a difficult relationship with my mother, and was trapped for many years in the ambivalence of both loving her and being very angry with her. She was a narcissist whose only concern was how things affected or reflected on her. She had no concern for the feelings of others, but constantly attacked verbally and justified it on the basis of “truth-telling”. She relied heavily on guilt-laying and playing the victim. I had to build a life away from her as much as possible without shattering family responsibilities, but couldn’t emotionally isolate her from the rest of my family, and so had to detach somewhat from them, too. I realized sometime in my thirties that I needed to forgive her. I did love her; she was my mother and had cared for me as a child and, in her own way, I am sure she loved me. It was all I knew as love, and for many years didn’t question why I always felt so bad about myself. When I did finally realize it, it took a long time before I could even think about forgiveness.
It has been a struggle to forgive because I have a hard time letting go of the memories of the pain she inflicted. I must constantly remind myself of Paul’s words, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal…” (Philippians 3:13-14 NIV) This is also true of other relationships in my life where forgiveness is required. I think I have forgiven, and then a word is spoken or a memory revived and suddenly all the anger and hurt and frustration come rushing back and I must take myself to the feet of Jesus again asking forgiveness for my inability just to let it go.
We can all say out loud that we find our peace and security in Jesus, but deep, deep down, is that always true? It involves making a conscious choice to include Him. If I do go to Him, I have found that confessing these things to the Lord as often as I feel them is one way to get through them. Somehow He has a way of calling to mind the thoughts that we should be thinking, and bringing our best nature forward. I think of how He not only forgave Peter for his betrayal, but called him to a position of power within the emerging Church. I think of His words as His exhausted body hung on the Cross: “Father, forgive them…” My injustices are nothing to those which He suffered, yet He was able to forgive. That is the goal. He is my example. I cannot be in prayer and say to the Lord, “Yes, I know I should forgive, but You don’t know how bad it was!” He knows.
For those who may be in abusive relationships, I should add here that forgiveness doesn’t mean that you must stay there. As Ms. Graham pointed out in the interview, “You have a spiritual responsibility both to yourself and your children and need to protect them”. She quotes, “You can go to the zoo and enjoy the animals, but you don’t have to get in the cage with them!”
The issue of transparency comes about because all this is not something I can share with most of my Christian friends. We have been taught that we must never be angry. We have been taught that we must never have a negative attitude toward another person. We must always be “happy” and peaceful on the outside, even when our insides are churning with emotion. We are not allowed to admit to any negative emotions, but we still have them because they are a part of being human. There is nowhere for them to go because they can never be expressed. So, what do we do with them? We stuff them down. The end result is almost always depression, and fear that an overload will eventually result in an explosion of some kind. While we can find relief (if we choose) in faithfully confessing these feelings to the Lord, that sidesteps the issue of why the Church has developed such a super-spiritualized culture that normal human emotions are denied and those who express them are judged and criticized.
I am not calling here for all of us to become “woke”, hyper-sensitive victims telling our little tales of woe to anyone who will listen. I am also not saying that we shouldn’t all be working toward these ideal goals; trying to learn Christ. I am saying that we need to have a more realistic idea of what it means to be a Christian. We are all flawed human beings in search of some degree of healing. We let unchecked pride and anger and other emotions cause us to sin. We choose to defy God and want to go our own way. None of us, saved or not, has yet achieved perfection here on earth, and none of us has the right to judge the struggles and difficulties in the lives of our brothers and sisters. We are told to love one another, but that should involve a realistic understanding of human nature. Legalism has imposed unrealistic and unattainable standards for behavior and thought on broken people trying to heal and recover from all manner of hurt. In order for our outside to look in control and perhaps convince ourselves and others of our own spiritual well-being, we hide behind a facade of perfect peace. We, consciously or unconsciously, try to convince everyone that we always have it all together. In trials, we try to convince ourselves and others that we are without fear and fully trusting. This answer may not always be the whole truth, and appears phony to unbelievers who can see past our perfect facade into the reality of who we are. T hey interpret it as self-delusion or even hypocrisy, and it sabotages our testimony of the love of God.
This lack of transparency takes many forms and affects most of us. My hope is that by sharing my thoughts, I can be an encouragement to those who have seen and felt it, but thought you were alone. By sharing our mutual struggles to grow in the Lord, whatever our specific problem, we can help one another. This is a better option than trying to intimidate others with our masks of complete competence and the implication that we have nothing left to learn. The impact of that mask on a struggling soul only causes false guilt because we can’t come up to the standard we think we see. This forces us to hide our struggles and join those pretending that they “are just fine, thanks”. We need to come back to the reality of being sinners saved by grace. The only thing required is a willingness to try to see ourselves with the eyes of the Lord, and this can be a humbling experience. May God give us all the grace we need.