I find that I’m often quite gracious with strangers, but find myself quickly annoyed at times when someone close to me expects grace from me– particularly Christians. It is heroic to make sacrifices for strangers who don’t deserve it. When you do outwardly impressive acts of selflessness towards those outside your circle of family and close friends, there is a degree of public acclaim to be had. And its a lot easier to do a random one-off act of kindness, with no strings or future expectations attached. But sometimes when we are wronged by someone close, when grace is asked of us by someone we depend on closely, we can feel especially annoyed and frustrated with them.
Being human, and having a tendency to see our point of view and interests above those of others, we put those close to us in a double-bind which makes it our tendency to act with love towards them even less than those we are distant from sometimes. On the one hand, we expect them to put up with more of our shortcomings. On the other hand, we expect them to give more to us than an acquaintance or stranger. So: we expect to get more, and give less in these relationships sometimes. Of course this is unfair. Of course this unjust. But of course the grace which overlooks this injustice is exactly the sort of love we sometimes expect of those we are closest to.
It is interesting to me that tennants who I am more generous towards sometimes tend to be the ones who then end up being most likely to take that for granted, and to ask for even more exceptions and concessions. This is why it can be risky (some would say unwise) to make exceptions or provide special grace to tennants. And of course, some people will use however much rope you give them to just get more tangled up in their tangled noose and still come out hanging themselves. But it is just as dangerous, if not more so, to give special grace to those close to us. As the saying goes, ‘never lend money to friends or family’.
We see this in our churches as well, when it comes to helping the needy. Churches get quite excited about sending help and aid to Haiti, Africa, or wherever else far away they can find a need. But it gets more dicey when you have an actual needy person come to your church, and potentially need ongoing help, and a ride, and your time, and a real commitment of yourself beyond a monthly or semi-annual financial contribution. That kind of grace is more costly to us, because it is so close, and commits us to a real ongoing responsibility and commitment to someone who may (probably) take you for granted.
But I have been thinking lately that Jesus certainly has called us to a dangerous life of living especially for the sake of those who are most likely to take you for granted. We humans are a needy bunch, and a stingy bunch. We need grace and mercy on a regular basis. I need mercy and grace constantly. And then I usually turn around and note with severity how I have been shorted and wronged by the very people I expect to bear my own shortcomings. I wish I would expect the best of those closest to me, and do my best for them. But instead I expect a lot from them, while doing less for them than I would someone I am not close to, precisely because I think they should be more able to absorb my deficiencies than the stranger or acquaintance.
Good fences make good neighbors– because we need boundaries. There is no doubt we do. And growing up in rural Nebraska, I know full well that there is a tendency to not get too close to your neighbors, in part because you have to live down the road from them for most of your life, more likely than not. The same can happen with family and friends– where we avoid potentially vulnerable or difficult issues, and so avoid deep relationship– in part because of our fear of somehow screwing up the relationship– because these are people we are ‘stuck with’ for life! 🙂
So the challenge then, of being a faithful Christian– someone who is full of faith, expects the best, hopes all things, believes all things (despite being let down)– is not just to do this heroically for those we are not especially close to. That has its own reward. The challenge instead, is to do this on a day-in-day-out basis with those who we are closest to– to allow ourselves to be taken for granted at times, overlooked at times, to love unconditionally those with whom we know yet more and more will be expected and accepted from them. Of course sometimes this will come quite naturally, because these are, after all, our dear friends and family that we do love. But in the moments when those charms of family and friends are lost on us, we need to remember that this is our calling– this is what God has us here for– to be the ones who make up the difference, fill in the gap, and provide the mercy and grace that we needy humans need from each other. If we don’t provide this to our family and friends, we may have outward heroic appearances, but in the reality of our hearts which few can see, we will know that we are stingy bean counters, keeping account of wrongs and deficiencies with those who most need love and hope from us.
But we also need to stay alert to our own tendency to take others for granted. During this season of Thanksgiving and Advent, as we approach the celebration of the birth of Christ, its a good time to reflect on the ways we are blessed, and to make sure that those who bless us know that they are a blessing!
I need mercy. And I need grace to provide that mercy to those in my tight circle even more than to do one-time acts of random grace to strangers and walk-bys.
May God have mercy on us all.