An older friend of mine told me a story once about having cheated on his wife with a secretary at his workplace. He’d committed this sin more than 30 years ago. Eventually, he’d broken off the relationship and broken free from the behavior, but he never told his wife. For over three decades, then, he lived with the guilt and shame of this secret.
Finally, one night as he and his wife of over 40 years were preparing for bed, he realized he couldn’t hold the secret in any longer. He hoped that so much time had passed that it would seem a lesser offense than if it had happened “yesterday.” But he also knew that such a revelation would be extremely painful to his wife, no matter how long ago it had been. He wasn’t sure how she was going to react. But he had to tell her. So he did.
She slowly turned and looked at him. And then she said something that completely took him by surprise. She said, “You idiot. You didn’t think I knew about that?”
He froze. She knew? All along, she knew? Flustered, he searched for words. He suddenly felt even more guilty, even more ashamed. She’d known about his sin all these decades. Finally, he worked up the courage to say, “Will you forgive me?”
She looked at him and said, “You idiot. Do you think if I hadn’t forgiven you that I’d be in this bed with you right now?”
My friend had been walking for 30 years in a forgiveness he didn’t even know he had. And this woman had been patiently enduring his secrecy for 30 years. Surely, she had borne the pain of this betrayal for a long time. What she did is not necessarily prescriptive for everyone. But still she exhibited an extraordinary patience in daily forgiving her husband even the sin he wouldn’t confess.
Consider the patience of Christ who, as His wrists strained against the nails hammered through them, looked down through blood and tears to say about His tormentors, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
This was the most urgent moment of all. Heaven and hell hung in the balance. And even through blinding agony, Jesus asked the Father to give His murderers just a little more time.
Love is patient.
How patient? Consider those closest friends of Jesus. These 12 men received the best seminary education and discipleship program a Christian could get. They walked up close and personal with the Lord of the universe for three straight years. They were daily witnesses to His grace and wisdom. And at the end of the journey, they still didn’t quite get it. Peter heard all of Jesus’ words about how the Kingdom of God comes and what must take place, and still he was lopping off an ear to protect Jesus one minute and denying Him the next.
The other disciples are not much better at loving Jesus. But at no point does Jesus say to them, “You know what? I thought you were better than this. I’ve had it with you.”
In his Works of Love, Søren Kierkegaard writes,
Christ’s love for Peter was so boundless that in loving Peter He accomplished loving the person one sees. He did not say, “Peter must change first and become another man before I can love him again.” No, just the opposite, He said, “Peter is Peter, and I love him; love, if anything, will help him to become another man.”
What the philosopher illustrates here could be summarized this way: the grace that loves us as we are can also empower us to be what we ought. The Bible speaks of God’s grace that way. Grace is the gift of Christ Himself through His sinless life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection. This gift covers our sins – pardons them, then forgets them. But the same grace that justifies us also sanctifies us. It is the grace of God that, beyond our conversion, gradually conforms us to the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18; Titus 2:11–12). Kierkegaard is saying that Christ’s love in the Gospel of grace met the sinful Peter where he was but also carried him further along the road to becoming his true self.
My friend Ray Ortlund uses this formula to describe the same concept in a church setting: Gospel + Safety + Time. What he means is, people in church communities need regular exposure to the message of grace in order to grow spiritually. But if our church communities are not safe places for sinners – not safe places for sin but for sinners – to confess, to be honest, to be themselves, we can quench the work of grace in their lives. Indeed, to place expectations, explicit or implicit, upon people that they must play a religious role, pretend to be totally put together, or otherwise constantly “measure up,” we unsay with our community what we claim to believe about grace. So people need regular exposure to the Gospel, the safety to actually know and be known by others, and then they just need time. They need the space to not have it all figured out instantly. Discipleship cannot be microwaved. Everybody we meet, whether in our church or in our neighborhood or in our living room, needs our patience. That’s what love looks like. You can’t rush it.
How does this relate to loving one’s enemy? Well, one reason we even have enemies is self-centered impatience, whether ours or theirs. Someone hasn’t granted the other the space to be human or the grace to be forgiven. We want our enemy to change. How do we manage that? Jesus did not say to berate them. He did not say to cajole them. He did not say to manipulate them. What did he say?
Jared C. Wilson is the author of “Love Me Anyway: How God’s Perfect Love Fills Our Deepest Longing,” from Baker Books. Excerpt used by permission.