The problem with Tanya is the dreadful habit she has of forgiving people. In any given week, Tanya can forgive several friends for their thoughtlessness, tardiness or hurtful comments, a dozen motorists for their incompetence on the road, a shop assistant for squashing her bread, her son’s teacher for his lack of empathy and her sister for forgetting a family birthday. But it is her husband, James, who is forced to bear the brunt of Tanya’s forgiveness. Being a mere man there’s much to forgive and Tanya forgives it all. Painstakingly. Relentlessly. The poor man endured as patiently as he could for many years but one day it all became too much. He walked out and didn’t come home for a week. She forgave him for that, too.

At face value, forgiveness may not seem such a vice. Indeed, in its true form, it is a beautiful thing. For an offended party to not hold that offence against the other, but to quietly bear the hurt and cost of it themselves, letting go of anger, self righteousness and ill feeling – that is an exquisite wonder. But true forgiveness is rare, and Tanya’s imitation bore almost no resemblance to the real thing.

“I forgive,” Tanya told me, “because I have to. But with a husband like James, I deserve a medal. He’ll say he’s wiped the bench but there’ll still be crumbs on it! He says he’ll do the shopping but then he’ll gets the wrong brand of corn and forget the milk! He tunes out when I’m speaking to him. And he shows no initiative at work! None at all! Last week there was a management job going with much higher pay, but he wouldn’t even apply for it! If I didn’t forgive him for these things, well, I don’t know what would happen!”

“Maybe you should try it and see,” I said. “Don’t forgive him for a week and see what difference it makes.”

“I couldn’t do that!” she said. “That would put me in the wrong. Give him the.…”

“Upper hand?” I said, and raised an eyebrow.

It seems to me that in our marriages and other relationships, we can do far too much “forgiving”. If you are a Christian, you might be shocked to hear this. Surely forgiveness is central to our way of life! Surely we must forgive others because God has forgiven us! Surely to neglect forgiveness would be un-Christlike!

To these objections, I say yes, of course. But to not forgive in certain cases (many cases, I would argue) does not necessarily imply un-forgiveness. There is another virtue in the Christian catalogue, an under-valued, under-used virtue, that can smooth over hurts and frustrations and render us happier and more godly spouses, friends, family members and colleagues. The virtue is that of forbearance. In many situations (like Tanya’s) where we think forgiveness is necessary, what might actually be called for is forbearance.

Ephesians 4:2 –

“Be completely humble and gentle;” Paul writes. “Be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Ephesians 4:2.

Forbearance is what is needed when we are confronted with the frailties of another human being: their annoying mannerisms, their forgetfulness, their inability to say the right thing in a certain situation, their incompetence at tasks we feel they ought to be able to manage, their frustrating messiness, the way that they do not live up to my standards. In these situations, we need to stop forgiving and start forbearing.

For many of the frustrations that we experience with our spouses, friends and colleagues are not directly caused by sin on their part. Often we think that they can do better, or ought to be able to do better if they tried, but forbearance remembers that they, like us, are human. Weakness is built into the core of our being. 

We do not classify many of our own frailties as sins requiring forgiveness and we do our neighbours a disservice if we are more brutal with them than we are with ourselves. In the practice of forbearance we overlook minor annoyances whenever we can. We train ourselves to take them in our stride with patience, graciousness and good humour, recognising when it is our own exacting standards that are the problem, improving our communication with one another, working out creative solutions and setting up better systems so that life can run more smoothly.

There are actions and inactions which are clearly sins requiring forgiveness. In these cases we should prayerfully bring the issue to the attention of the other, and, reflecting on God’s forgiveness of us, forgive them, freeing them from their debt and permanently letting go of any grievance. But there are other times where offence or inconvenience is inadvertently caused. In these cases we can give our friends the benefit of the doubt, bearing with them in their frailty, and patiently and graciously letting it go.

Picture: "Forgiveness!" Craig Sunter (flickr.com)