When my kids were growing up, one of my most pressing duties was to protect them. I was in charge of their physical safety as well as protection of their spiritual, emotional, and intellectual well-being.
To be clear, though, I wasn’t a preserve-their-precious-self-esteem-at-all-costs mom. I took flak for allowing them to take part in activities in which failure was a very real possibility. And, I was realistic. I could accept that they weren’t the strongest, most resilient, fiercest, smartest, and most polite kids ever. I wouldn’t get angry if you thought otherwise.
Guarding Honor Meant Holding Grudges
But if you called my kid lazy or insincere or unambitious, you crossed a line. My kids’ honor and my honor by proxy was not something to be questioned or with which to be trifled.
As a result of
others’ indiscretion and my sense of honor, I developed a few many grudges. As they grew and as I matured as a Christian, I became more willing to accept that another person’s judgment of my children and wrongheadedness, real or perceived, didn’t mean that my honor was being violated or that I was being disrespected, dismissed, or dissed. I was much more apt to find the good and forgive the bad in others.
I really felt like I was beginning to understand this passage:
But I tell you, that everyone who is angry with his brother will be in danger of the judgment; and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ will be in danger of the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Gehenna. If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” – Matthew 5:22-24 (World English Bible)
I began to realize the importance of reconciliation with my brothers and sisters, and my need to receive and extend grace. I came to understand that Jesus is more interested in the state of my heart toward my fellow believers than claims of righteousness (not really) gained by attending a church service and offering a gift.
But those old grudges? They persisted.
Cultural Beliefs Were Mixed (Wrongly) with Faith Beliefs
Later in life, after my children passed through the tween and teenage years to young adulthood, my oldest son challenged me on my lack of forgiveness. When I scoffed at other people from other nations who committed “honor” crimes within a supposed context of cultural tradition, he pointed out that my grip on preserving my “honor” was just as bad from a biblical point of view.
He argued that my sense of honor stemmed also from my cultural roots, specifically my Scots-Irish heritage, not an impartial perspective. Though I’m not prone to violence and some tendencies often attributed to this group, I have embraced the “culture of honor” as described in part in “The Scots-Irish Vote” published in The Atlantic by Cameron Joseph and best-selling book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. That is, I held on to grudges. And these grudges prevented reconciliation in my heart.
In my culture, one must preserve honor in order to protect oneself from destruction. Fighting against this cultural mandate takes resolve and practice. In his book, Vance describes overcoming this instinct after a metaphysical assault, being cut off in traffic while driving with his wife Usha as a passenger.
I honked, the guy flipped me off, and when we stopped at a red light (with this guy in front of me), I unbuckled my seat belt and opened the car door. I planned to demand an apology (and fight the guy if necessary), but my common sense prevailed and I shut the door before I got out of the car. Usha was delighted that I’d changed my mind before she yelled at me to stop acting like a lunatic (which has happened in the past), and she told me that she was proud of me for resisting my natural instinct. The other driver’s sin was to insult my honor, and it was on that honor that nearly every element of my happiness depended as a child.
To be clear, my childhood was nothing like the author of Hillbilly Elegy. But the concept of preserving one’s honor as a cultural law is one that became part of my belief system.
Did I consider myself wrong to hold grudges? Not really. I was willing to forgive the repentant. But those who refused to understand my point of view, never. My son reminded me that Jesus offered forgiveness well before my own repentance and I should act accordingly. That is, I could and should forgive those who didn’t seem sorry, who weren’t sorry. He reminded me of these scripture passages:
We love him, because he first loved us. If a man says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who doesn’t love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” – 1 John 4:18-20 (World English Bible)
For while we were yet weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man. Yet perhaps for a righteous person someone would even dare to die. But God commends his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we will be saved from God’s wrath through him. For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we will be saved by his life.” – Romans 5:6-10 (World English Bible)
As my son persisted in his reasoning, I came to see his point. I recognized that I held my cultural beliefs tighter than my Christian ones. I realized how I could start believing and following Jesus’s words when I read them through the lens of grace.
Jesus Calls Us to Forgiveness Beyond Cultural Norms
I recalled Jesus’s introduction to the parable of the unforgiving servant, responding to a question from Peter about the number of times we should forgive others. Jesus said we should forgive not just seven times (gracious plenty) as Peter suggested but seventy times seven (which is close to infinity).
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Until seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I don’t tell you until seven times, but, until seventy times seven. Therefore the Kingdom of Heaven is like a certain king, who wanted to reconcile accounts with his servants.” – Matthew 18:21-23 (World English Bible)
I may have grasped the meaning of this exchange between Peter and Jesus better if it went like this instead:
- What happens if someone calls my child lazy, undisciplined, or unwanted? How much can my brother dishonor me, and I forgive him? And how far can my sister push past the line I’ve set, and I forgive her? Can she question my integrity, my honesty, my knowledge of the facts?
- Forgive your brother not just once or twice but as many times as you’ve been dishonored. As for your sister, forgive her after she’s not only crossed the friends-only and family-only lines but also pushed past the no-she-didn’t line.
Returning to the admonition to be reconciled to my brothers and sisters, I learned that it was way more difficult to recognize that I held grudges, that I’ve done things that require forgiveness, that I expect others to give me grace and overlook my transgressions than to get myself ready to go to church, show up, smile and pretend I love everyone.
I understood that going forward, I could be gracious. But then I realized I needed to go back and forgive all those who I felt challenged my honor. I’ve got an excellent memory so my list was long. It took some doing but several weeks in, I had managed to recall most of my grudges and forgive those folks. Occasionally, something happens that jogs my memory and I’m prompted to forgive yet another person from my past.
So, what have I learned through this experience?
First, cultural beliefs and traditions aren’t sacred; and they can be in opposition to faith precepts. Second, forgiveness feels like a dirty slate has been wiped clean, both in the giving and receiving; the grime doesn’t seem so obvious until it’s removed. Most importantly, Jesus values reconciliation — so much that he died for me so that I could be reconciled to God and through our relationship, my brothers and sisters.
What about you? Have you ever identified cultural beliefs that put you at odds with your Christian beliefs? Share your story in the comments.