by Dr. Juli Slattery
We spend a lot of time as Christ-followers talking about forgiving one another. After all, Jesus taught the importance of forgiveness, saying that our Heavenly Father will not forgive us if we fail to forgive each other. That’s pretty heavy!
While forgiveness is a key part of the Christian life, I think that extending grace is perhaps even more necessary in our relationships with one another. So what’s the difference between extending grace, and forgiveness?
We forgive someone when they willfully hurt us. For example, in the middle of a conflict, your husband says some cruel things to you. In anger and frustration, he used cutting and critical words meant to wound you. That requires forgiveness.
I think there are relatively few things for which we struggle to forgive each other. Granted, they are usually “biggies.” You may be able to think of three to five things people have done that are difficult for you to forgive: Your husband’s betrayal, your father’s verbal abuse, a co-worker who slandered you… these are difficult things to truly forgive. There are many great Christian books and sermons that walk us through the process of forgiving these types of offenses.
Grace, on the other hand, is daily accepting a person’s limitations and flaws. While I may only have trouble forgiving a handful of times in my life, the greater challenge is learning to daily extend grace. Every single day, people do things that hurt, irritate, or frustrate me—not because they are malicious; simply because they are human.
Merely get behind the wheel and you will find the need to extend grace within ten minutes of driving! Someone will cut you off, go too slow, or swerve into your lane because she’s texting. In much the same way, in daily relationships we continually need to extend grace. The people we love will at times be preoccupied, insensitive, forgetful, grumpy and self-centered.
Much of the conflict we experience in marriage or close friendship comes not from willfully hurting each other, but from the clumsiness and carelessness of being flawed human beings.
What does it look like to be a gracious person? I think the best description of grace is the chapter that describes love, I Corinthians 13. Love is patient, kind, does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It isn’t self-seeking, isn’t easily angered and keeps no record of wrong.
Practically, grace trusts the heart of the other person even if their actions can be frustrating and insensitive. If I take a moment to think about yesterday, if I look for it, I can think of several ways that my husband and/or children frustrated or disappointed me. They were working on a project in the basement when dinner was ready. I called but they didn’t come, so we ate cold burgers. I gave my sons chores they didn’t complete the way I expected them to. My family regularly gives me reasons to be irritated, yet I can think of just as many things I did to disappoint or aggravate them. Grace means that we cut each other “slack” rather than allowing frustration to build with each failed expectation.
Sometimes, relationships require extra grace. People may have emotional, physical and situational difficulties that can make them even more challenging to get along with. If your spouse is under a lot of stress, he needs more grace than usual. If your coworker is going through a divorce, she needs you to give her grace. Grace is particularly important to extend to non-Christians. My husband and I often remind each other, “That person doesn’t know the Lord. Why should we expect them to act like Jesus?”
We cannot have good relationships with children, spouses, parents, siblings, coworkers, or neighbors without the determination to be gracious people. I believe more relationships fail due to a lack of grace rather than for a lack of forgiveness.
If you struggle to extend grace to others, take a moment to think about how refreshing it is when someone has given you grace. Have you ever gotten the day or time wrong for a meeting? Have you forgotten a friend’s birthday or lost a valuable item that belonged to someone else? Have you backed up in a parking lot and hit a car you absolutely didn’t see when you checked your mirrors? I’ve done all of those things and many more that have unintentionally hurt people I love. What a relief to be extended grace rather than anger and bitterness.
Jesus told His disciples that the proof of His Lordship in their lives would be how they loved each other. If someone looked at your relationships, would they find the grace of Jesus easily extended?
You may also be interested in these additional resources: I Don't Trust Myself, Learning to Say I Was Wrong, How We Love Each Other; and Java with Juli episodes #165: How to Talk About ANYTHING with Your Spouse (exclusive to members), #253: Making the Gospel Beautiful Through Relationships, #192: Engaging in Restorative Relationships