A Lesson on Agape: Forgiveness, Grace and Loving Difficult Family Members through Difficult Times.
I once heard a pastor say that “in life, people can either be a blessin’ or a lesson.” And while my initial reaction to this statement was laughter, I soon found myself viewing relationships in a different light. No, we can’t pray people away, though on some days we might momentarily envision them poofing off to the other side of the earth. What we’re called to do when God places challenging people or family members in our lives is learn to show them love them unconditionally. This practice—taught by Jesus—is known as “agape” love.
It might seem against our instinct to react to a trouble-maker with love. But that’s exactly what Jesus’ type of love calls for when he said, “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen,” as written in 1 John 4:20 (NIV).
In fact, throughout the New Testament, Jesus repeatedly strives to drive home the message that to know God is to exemplify love in our own relationships. In John 13:34-35 (NIV), Jesus clearly tells His disciples that loving one another is a command: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Jesus modeled this challenging type of love for people throughout his ministry and taught this to his followers, insisting that we act with love to people, even our enemies. God showed this love through the ultimate sacrificial action: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” In this verse from John 3:16 (NIV), we come to understand that agape love is the action of giving and loving, despite our feelings.
Agape love consists of several divine ingredients that we are asked to model in our own relationships: endless forgiveness, compassion, unconditional love, tolerance, patience, optimism and selflessness, to name a few. It’s the type of love that asks for nothing in return and expects nothing back, and can thrive on its own because it is fed by God’s love.
Does agape love come easily or naturally for humans? I don’t think so. This divine love comes from God and we are to spend our lives trying to attain and then maintain this loving state of action. We most closely understand what God’s love is like when we experience love for our own children, whom we would literally give our lives for and love unconditionally. But, it’s much harder to feel unconditional love towards a spouse who continually ignores needs and acts hurtfully, or to feel loyal affection for in-laws who act manipulatively or criticize your every move. It’s a challenge to feel loving camaraderie towards a sibling who is constantly looking to bicker or compete, and to feel love for parent who has presses boundaries or acts in their own self interest. In instances like these, the practice of agape can become one of life’s biggest challenges, especially when the mistreatment happens over and over again with no glimmer of hope that the other person plans to change. Yet, we’re required as Christians to love everyone.
So how do we model agape love as normal human beings? We act with love. It is an action that helps us to behave in a loving, graceful manner that is pleasing to God despite what is being done to us or around us by others. Agape love sacrifices your own desires to seek justice for wrongdoings and your desires to prove other people wrong or to change them. It replaces these desires with loving action, despite how you might feel at the moment. This type of love is what prevents us from acting out in retaliation or with anger and holds us to a different standard—God’s standard—so that when we are peeved by the actions or behaviors of people around us, we practice forgiveness, grace, patience and compassion despite our fleshly desires.
It took me a long time, and I mean a looooooooooong time to get this one right, and I’m sure God has plans to show me that this “agape love” still hasn’t quite been perfected in me. For years, I wrestled with God in an emotionally charged battle. I refused to let go of the hurt that a close family member caused in my life, afraid that if I truly gave it to God and forgave the trespasses, I’d be handing over control to the very person who had hurt and rejected me. In an effort to protect myself, I clung mightily to self-righteousness and pleaded with God for justice and to be rescued from the situations that caused me so much pain. I felt entitled to the weariness and bitterness I felt, especially since this family member declared in front of everyone that she couldn’t stand me. God was very faithful and did rescue me time and time again, keeping me from situations that would be too hard to bear, but He didn’t remove the situation completely and I knew He would not let me cut this person off. God always gives more chances (**note: this article does not address abusive relationships). I asked him the same question time and time again: “Why?” Why was God allowing me to go through the same scenario, over and over again, with this person who had no plans to change and found pleasure in venting her frustration towards me, if God knew it was causing me so much pain? Why did He expect me to love her when she straight-up told me she didn’t even like me?
Then one day, I got it. I understood that not only were the other people in this family cycle supposed to be learning how to treat people nicely and respectfully, but I was supposed to be learning a lesson too. God was trying to work something out in each one of us who were stuck in this serious relational rut. The pain from this relationship trickled down into all of the other family relationships.
God wanted me to learn to forgive the offenses that had been done to me and learn what it meant to practice agape love, despite the tremendous pain and rejection I experienced from her hateful actions and comments. He also wanted me to learn how to establish boundaries for myself so that others would have clear guidelines for what worked and did not work for me in relationships.* In Romans 12:17-18 NIV, we are told the following: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Carefully consider what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible on your part, live at peace with everyone.”
Agape is what prevents permanent family rifts, breakups in marriage, toxic relationships between in-laws from wreaking havoc on an entire family, and helps siblings forgive each other and stick together. It’s what keeps a church family together despite conflicting interests and it is the glue that helps brothers and sisters in Christ show love to one another.
One day, during my prayers, I felt God tell me that it was time to drop all of the hurt and pain I’d been carrying with me and that it was time to forgive, even though He understood how much I’d been hurt. I don’t believe that God felt it was right for me to be treated badly by this family member, but He wasn’t going to allow me to use that as a justification for being an unforgiving, ungraceful person myself. He was only concerned with how I reacted and acted in response to the difficult situation and person, and whether I showed the same type of grace and love that God has shown to me throughout life.
Feeling called to forgive and figure out what agape love meant, I studied love and forgiveness from the Biblical sense. However, I still searched for loopholes that would allow me to somehow cling to the hurt that I felt entitled to own. Well, I found no loopholes. We are commanded to forgive and love. Jesus states this clearly when Peter asked Him, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, no just seven times, but seventy-seven times!”
Why should we forgive the difficult people in our lives and show them love in return?
First, we will be judged by whether we forgive. We aren’t perfect ourselves. We constantly wrong God. And if God forgives us, how can we hold something against another?
Second, as you learn to forgive you learn more about the grace that God offers to you on a daily basis. Grace is an action derived from agape love. Grace allows a person to be flawed, yet loved freely. God offers grace to all of His precious children and so we are asked to show grace to our children, family members, neighbors and church members too. Grace is one of the most important aspects of parenting and a very important quality to model to children as you raise them in a loving, respectful household.
Third, holding on to resentment only harms yourself. It creates a bitter vine that begins to grow within you and cover your heart like a weed. This bitterness prevents you from fully realizing God’s nature and entering into an honest relationship with Him. Bitterness and anger make the heart—your temple of God—a place where the Holy Spirit would rather not reside. The Holy Spirit deserves a clean, loving space within you to dwell.
Fourth, forgiveness empowers you. Forgiveness does not justify the wrongs that the other person has done to you or make you weak. Forgiveness empowers you to be strong, graceful and loving in times that you might not otherwise want to be. Forgiveness frees your own heart from clinging to pain and anger and keeps you from staying in the victim mentality. Rather, it allows you to be resilient and strong, and this inspiring realization will help you to firmly, not aggressively, set loving boundaries where boundaries need to be established.
How do we learn about the actions that flow forth from agape love, specifically the acts of forgiveness, grace, compassion and peaceful reactions the midsts of hurt and frustration? Prayer. We take our difficult people and challenging situations and we hand them straight up to our Heavenly Father. We bring our tears, hurt, anger, frustration, jealousy, sense of entitlement to justice and fear to our Father and we lay them down in His lap and ask Him what His will is in the situation. He listens to us and cries for us and with us many times. He understands our hearts better than we do, and He wants the best for all of us involved in the difficult situation. We pray for ourselves, we pray for the other person’s well-being and we pray over the relationship. And through prayer we eventually begin to see how God wants us to deal with the situation and that no matter what, we are to act lovingly because we represent God’s kingdom. God will show you the way if you seek it, and He will always choose peace and love, where possible. He will also seek justice in His own time and way, if He feels it necessary to rebuke. It’s not up to us.
A funny thing happened as I began to learn how to forgive and overcome the hurt. I became happier and more loving to everyone around me. I found a way to act with love toward the family member who had caused me pain and I found ways to offer olive branches, unconcerned with whether she’d pick up on the peace offerings or return the love. I no longer needed her love to feel good because I knew I was pleasing God and getting all the love I needed from Him. Mind you, this development didn’t happen over night. For me, it took seven years of praying, struggling with myself and clinging to what I thought justice should look like before I learned how to show agape love for a family member who showed me nothing back. Everyone is different and comes to terms with agape love in their own time.
Today, I know that it doesn’t matter what she says or does, I’m only to worry about my actions, I will pursue peace if at all possible. Feeling resilient and confident in God’s love, makes it easier for me to gather for holidays and family events without feeling a sense of dread or desire to run and hide. It’s also helped other family members who are close to me to heal as well, knowing that I’m not longer hurting and am only concerned with doing right by God.
The point is, your family members will be difficult at times—your spouse, your children, your relatives, your in-laws. At one time or another, they’ll cause you frustration, deep hurt, severe disappointment and you may even feel betrayed or abandoned by them.** But in the end, God calls His followers to truly follow in His ways when He asks us to love one another as ourselves.
So on those days when your patience is running low and you’re running on high-frustration octane, remember what Jesus does. He offers grace, loving discipline, reconciliation and massive prayers to the family and its members who are hurting. He loves on those who are suffering and wants them to get better. He requires loving actions even when your needs are being unmet by loved ones, reminding us that He alone can provide for all our needs. He asks you to drop your laundry list of offensives and hand it over to God so that He can work on that person while you work on exhibiting forgiveness, grace and the agape-type love that all relationships require at one time or another.
This agape love is the glue that holds all families together. It is how God holds the world together. It is what makes a long-lasting marriage successful. It’s how children thrive. It is what is needed in those times that your flesh wants to hold on to the pain and wants to resist forgiving, and instead pushes you to keep on loving and working it out in your relationships.
Teach agape love to your children so that they may thrive in their relationships with their spouse and children one day. The lesson of agape love is one of the most important lessons in the Bible. God is love, and for us to thrive and be healthy, we must strive to know this love and show it in our relationships too. It’s you who is called to act with love at all times.
“Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8, ESV)
*Important note on boundaries:
Agape love does not mean that you volunteer to become a doormat or allow a person to abuse you. Boundaries are at the heart of every functional, healthy relationship. Learning how to establish healthy boundaries is a loving, necessary practice that is important to model and teach your children so that they can create healthy relationships throughout life. For more on creating and instilling boundaries in your relationships, I highly recommend reading Boundaries, by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.
** Also, this article does not provide advice for abusive situations. If you or your children are in an abusive relationship and your emotional or physical health is in danger, your safety comes first. Your life and safety are of utmost importance to God and protecting the weak and vulnerable is a calling from God. Get professional help if you or your children are in a dangerous situation.