I had several close childhood friendships that began in first grade and lasted into my college years. Every long friendship has its ups and downs, but one of these was particularly challenging. Our first grade teacher often confused “Anna” and I because we looked similar with our long dark hair and olive skin. We had a lot of fun, going to Brownies meetings, celebrating birthdays, getting muddy during soccer games, and having New Year’s Eve sleepovers where we stayed up late playing Mario on the Nintendo.
But this friend had a cruel streak. During one of my sleepovers at her house, she wiped her spit all over a toy I was just about to play with. In middle school she stopped talking to me for more than a year because one day I chose to have lunch with another friend. In high school, she put gum in her toddler sister’s hair and lied to her mom about it when she tried to explain what had happened.
Anna became the high school friend who would tell me mean things other people said about me, who would never bring me along to a party, but would tag along with my group of friends if she didn’t have anyone else to hang out with. I stayed her friend despite her meanness, and perhaps in part because of it. I knew she did not have many close friends; no one wanted to be treated so poorly. As a new Christian, I felt it was my duty to forgive and forgive again in order to show God’s love. I was a Christian doormat in my effort to be a life witness to that friend.
Still, I knew Anna was not a person I could trust. I was willing to practice kindness towards her and spend time with her, but over the years I put up more and more internal walls between myself and her. She stayed in touch with me through college, but when it came time to plan my wedding I didn’t include her in the wedding party. I know this hurt her feelings, although she wouldn’t let me see that.
That decision showed the limitations of my forgiveness. I could forgive, and I could be kind, and I could spend time with her if she needed. But as a repeated witness and victim of her mean streak, our friendship could not be restored to what it would have been had my trust not been broken time and again.
She ended up not coming to my wedding, and not returning my phone calls afterward. That was the end of our fifteen year friendship. I’ve wondered at times if I made the right choice not to have her in the wedding party. Would there have been any harm in including another person? Or does her decision not to come to my wedding or talk to me afterward prove that I made the right decision?
Maybe the wrong choice was actually in allowing the friendship to continue as long as it did without standing up for myself.
In the book of Romans, Paul writes, “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” Romans 12: 17-18.
Yet, there is a difference between living at peace with everyone and allowing people to treat you cruelly and take advantage of your kindness. A friendship is something that should be mutually enjoyed and beneficial to both parties. My friendship with Anna had morphed into something that was not actually a friendship; it was more akin to me subversively attempting to mentor her or be her free therapist.
This was not fair to me, but it was also not fair to her. By allowing our friendship to continue for so many years without confronting her negative behavior, I was being an enabler. For my part, our friendship was serving the purpose of making me feel like a Super Nice Person and a Good Christian.
After all was said and done, was it worth the many years I attempted to be a life witness to Anna, the times I brought her to church, the times she treated me as the ugly and forgotten Cinderella
The last time I’d seen her was a month or so before my wedding. She was visiting me at my parents’ house in Eugene. Anna said she wished she went to church because there were so many beautiful churches in downtown Portland near her apartment. That year she had gotten a cross tattoo on her ankle. We talked about my wedding plans, her job at Stumptown, about my upcoming college graduation. She said she wanted to start reading the Bible and asked if I had an extra one she could keep. I looked around and found an old one I was no longer using, with a hardback lilac cover that featured butterflies. She gave me a hug and was on her way.
Years later I bumped into her at the grocery store, when my eldest child was still tiny. I hugged her and introduced her to my toddler, then chatted briefly before taking off. She seemed bewildered — by what exactly?
My friendliness? My motherhood? My glossing over of the past?
Yes, it was all of that. All of that, and so much more.
Forgiveness and relationships go hand in hand, and both are often more complicated than expected. No friendship can be sustained in the long run unless both friends are willing to forgive each other their mistakes. And yet sometimes we are not forgiving in order to restore the friendship — sometimes the friendship unfortunately cannot be restored. In these cases, we forgive in order to bring healing to ourselves.
This post was written for the CitySalt Church blog. For more on this topic visit http://www.citysalt.org/blog/.