A racially tinged comment about my wife — a lesson in forgiveness

I was at a holiday party talking with a friend when I overheard a woman behind me say the name of my wife in a conversation. I naturally started listening in and then realized that the woman, a friendly acquaintance, was talking about Raquel’s ethnicity.

“I’ll tell you what,” said the woman snidely with a laugh, “she looks like a Mexican if you ask me!” (Raquel is Puerto Rican).

I knew the woman took pride in being politically incorrect, but she was now ignorantly using her words to treat the word “Mexican” as an insult. I turned around and said, “Are you sure Raquel looks Mexican? How about our kids? What do they look like to you?”

The woman seemed startled and bizarrely responded: “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were standing there.”

After the party, I told Raquel about it and we did our best to shrug it off, but it kept bothering me. Part of the reason was that we kept running into the woman in social gatherings every once in a while.

I began to notice her dismissiveness toward Raquel. She would either ignore Raquel or chat with her in an aloof and uninterested way. When that happened, the “Mexican” comment from the party emerged from my memory all over again and I felt the anger compounding inside. Jesus’ commands on forgiveness gradually began requiring more of me than I wanted to give.

Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven'” (Matthew 18:21–22).

My frenemy hasn’t sinned against Raquel and me 490 times, but one time was enough. When you add the occasional, low-grade dismissiveness the woman continued to show towards Raquel, it might as well have been 490 times.

This offense was so personal, such an affront to my gentle, kindhearted wife who has taught me so much about the love of Jesus. And because this particular offense has been so much harder to get over, it has taught me so much more about forgiveness than other offenses. Here are a few of the lessons that have come from it.

Unrepentant sin damages relationships and that’s not something I can fix. If there’s someone who has done damage to a relationship and won’t acknowledge what they’ve done, it will limit the degree to which I can be in relationship with them. That’s not unforgiveness — it’s common sense. Jesus told us to “turn the other cheek” if someone slaps us; but He didn’t say that we should go looking to get slapped by abusive people. The safest and smartest thing to do with a “slapper” is to keep a safe distance from them unless the Holy Spirit calls us to a relationship with the person. Even then, we don’t have to tolerate abuse from them.

I need to keep the door open to redemption. It’s possible that an offender will eventually see their wrong, confess it, and ask for forgiveness. We’ve got to keep our hearts tender towards them in the event that they do; otherwise, there will be no room for godly restoration. On my best days, I do that by praying for my offenders and believe that God can bring about a change in them that I can’t. If they let Him do that one day, maybe we can be in relationship as trust is rebuilt. In the meantime, I’m going to believe for their restoration from a distance.

I need to be gracious with myself. It’s possible to forgive someone for something and have to revisit the forgiveness of the offense later. The thing is, people sometimes reoffend in ways that are just like the first time (they sin against us “70 times 7”). We can’t help but remember what they’ve done before and have to forgive them for it all over again. That doesn’t necessarily mean we didn’t forgive them the first time (unless we’ve actually been clinging to bitterness). We’re just dealing with the fact that the offense is part of a pattern of behavior that requires renewed extensions of grace.

Above all, we have to remember how much God has forgiven us — to remember that He gave up His Son so that we could be in relationship with Him. Reckoning with that truth requires humility — facing who we are (including the unflattering parts of ourselves) and being willing to give others the graciousness we need. When we extend that kind of love, we will be able to fearlessly ask God to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12) and be OK if we can’t be in relationship with those people in the meantime.

Check out my book, “Confessions of a Happily Married Man,” which tells the story of how God has worked in the ordinary (and extraordinary) of my marriage — and how you can see the ways He’s working in yours too.