Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Benefit of Realistic Expectations

I'm reviewing the video of a recent Pursuit of Pleasure marriage conference I taught. I'm trying to better my presentation, to ensure I'm being articulate and effective. I came across the section on "Forgiveness: Guardian of Marital Bliss." I related a thought that my wife doesn't expect a lot from me, she knows my frailties and weaknesses. That's what I want to look at today.

In the chapter on forgiveness in The Pursuit of Pleasure in the Pleasure of Another I make this point: "There is no quicker killjoy than unloving attitudes and actions toward one another. Yet, in a world where sin still thrives in the hearts of even the most godly men and women, we will indeed hurt one another. . . . The secret to a happy marriage cannot be to cease from sinning against our spouse. Oh, that will help somewhat and we should make it our goal to sin less and less. However, we cannot put off a happy marriage until we all get our acts together. We'll never get there. The secret to a happy marriage is how fast and how fully both spouses are willing to forgive on another."

Deep inside we know this is true, but it is difficult to live out in the middle of being (and feeling the effects of being) wronged. I have counseled individuals and couples who have had a difficult time forgiving someone. It is so clear in the Bible that forgiveness is commanded. We even pray that God would "forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Mat. 6:12). Paul tells us that as Christ forgave us, so we must forgive one another (see Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:12).

One reason, and the one usually cited for harboring an unforgiving spirit, is pride. We assume that someone who withholds forgiveness is just being high and mighty, or trying to get the upper hand. We may assume the person thinks he's better than the one who wronged him. He may see himself as too elevated to be infringed upon. We might expect sentences like this: "I can't believe you did that to me. Who do you think you are? Nobody treats me like this! I can never forgive you for what you've done." We can see the pride of one who takes himself way too seriously in those statements.

But I think there's another motivation to withhold forgiveness that gets a free pass precisely because it looks so humble. There are those who withhold forgiveness because they feel like such an utter victim, so irreparably jaded, that they are numb to the possibility of recovery. Consider this fictional example.

Mary considered herself to be in a happy marriage. She'd been together with Mike since high school, and they'd been married for fifteen years. Mike was a good provider, and loved his wife very much. Mary felt fulfilled and comfortable working as a homemaker. They communicated well together, and rarely argued. They had three young kids together. Mary felt like her marriage was a match made in heaven. All the changed the day Mary discovered that Mike had been keeping a secret from her for several years. Mike had been looking at explicit material on the internet. Now Mary feels like the rug of her life has been pulled out from beneath her. When Mike confessed, he might as well have hit Mary in the gut, because his words stole her breath, and sent her head spinning.

Mike asked Mary for forgiveness. At first, Mary wondered how such a feat could be possible. She told Mike she didn't know if she could. She began to wonder what was wrong with her to make him desire to look at other women. Bitter thoughts and speculations seemed to take control of her mind, making it difficult to function. Tasks around the house that she used to find fulfilling became drudgery. Eventually, she found it hard to find motivation to even cook dinner.

They went to their pastor, who counseled Mike about his sinful desire for pleasure, and set him up with an accountability structure. Mike seemed very sorry and repentant. Still, Mary has found it difficult to forgive Mike, even though she knows that's what God wants her to do. She just can't get past the wrong. Mike was so much better than that. He was a deacon. He was a little league coach. He led the family in devotions to God. How could he do this to everyone?

In the above tale, Mary found it difficult to forgive Mike. At first glance, pride does not seem to be the cause of her bitterness. Mary's bitterness stems from an unrealistic expectation. Mary was happy with the life that she and Mike had built together. She was comfortable and secure being Mike's wife. Other couples may struggle. But other couples weren't as deliberate about godliness as Mike and Mary. In Mary's mind, Mike could do no wrong. Sin was beneath Mike. Well, maybe he committed the occasional loss of temper, or ate an extra piece of cake. But Mike could never be ensnared in such vile sin. He put their picture-perfect marriage in jeopardy.

This scenario is one reason why we must not hope in our spouse! Our spouse cannot hold the weight of our expectations. Only God never fails us. Our spouse will fail. If we view our well-being at stake with every decision of our spouse, we're setting ourselves up for trouble. We must have a healthy heavenly-mindedness that enables us to sail right through the storms of life. We have to see our spouses for who they are, not for who we long for them to be. They are human, frail, weak, sinful, passionate, loving, strong, proud, lustful, devoted. They are a conglomeration of characteristics that can overflow in much good, or great evil. Even God knows that man is but dust. It is so much easier to forgive when our expectations are realistic (low).

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