An Excerpt from
Tools for Improving Relationships
by Beverly Caruso
Marie was a timid young woman, not yet twenty, who often came to our church’s youth center. All through high school, Marie and her sister were not allowed to play sports or even attend sports activities. Their parents demanded that they come directly home from school. As far as we could tell, the youth center was the only place they were allowed to go that was not under their parents’ watchful protection.
When Marie’s parents moved to another state, the girls were given a choice: move with them, or take an apartment together. It was a first breath of freedom–and one they were not at all prepared to handle. The girls opted for the apartment, but the sister moved away shortly thereafter. Totally on her own for the first time, unprepared and never having faced the world alone, Marie was a disaster waiting to happen.
And disaster was what I suspected the day Marie asked to talk to me “alone.” Now she was seated before me, fretfully working her hands in her lap. Her long blonde hair hung down, nearly veiling her face as she stared at the floor. Then she looked up, tears streaming down to her chin.
“I’m pregnant, Mrs. Caruso,” she blurted. “And I can’t turn to my parents for help. When I told them, my father tried to kill the guy. Now I’m on my own. I don’t know what to do.”
I tried to think of something to say–something comforting. What kept me tongue-tied, in part, was a vivid memory that played in my head. While Marie sat waiting for me to speak, my mind jumped back several years to another young woman in the same situation.
That young woman had grown up in our church, had babysat for our three children. When I learned she was pregnant out of wedlock, I was disappointed, judgmental. My biggest concern was that her younger sisters not think that we, the leaders of the church, condoned what she’d done.
Several months into her pregnancy, that young woman miscarried. I assumed she was relieved and visited her in the hospital. Her eyes looked a little glazed, which I took for embarrassment. I said something to her like, “Remember that what you do from now on will have a real influence on your sisters.”
Only later did I learn that what I’d mistaken for embarrassment was really grief over her loss. Suddenly I was the one who felt like a fool. Nervously, I waited for her to gain strength and return to church where I could ask forgiveness for my words and cold reaction to her.
She never did return. In fact, I only saw her once, but that was in public and she was with friends. I had totally blown the chance to ask her forgiveness. We lost track of her family shortly after that.
Marie’s sniffles brought me back to the present. She was still working her hands. This time, I had to handle the situation differently–but how?
We prayed together asking God to give us both guidance. Then I asked her to come back and see me in a couple of days. I knew I had a lot more praying to do.
That night I lay awake long after the lights were turned out. Pete and I had discussed the situation, of course. Yet I knew that, because of my past failure, the next move was up to me. Pete had prayed that God would speak to my heart, and said he would be with me all the way in whatever I was led to do.
I prayed, “I don’t want to blow it again, Lord. Forgive me for my self righteous attitude. Help me to love Marie as you do. Help me be a channel of your love and forgiveness to her.”
Still in an attitude of prayer, I wondered how I could be a channel of His love, what I could do beyond offering words of comfort. God had given me so much love. What could I give to Marie?
A home! The words bolted into my head out of the air. No. Not into my head. Into my heart.
There were conflicting thoughts in my head as I lay there: What will the other young people in the church think? What will their parents think? Will it seem that we’re condoning sin?
And what about our own children? Debbie’s thirteen. What kind of impression will this make on her? How can I expose our children by having an unmarried, pregnant teenager come to live under our own roof? We’ve been so careful, such a good, straight Christian family…
That last thought stuck in my brain–so careful… such a good Christian family. What was I saying?
The next morning, I checked my impressions with Pete. What did he think about allowing Marie to move into our guestroom until after the baby was born? He didn’t hesitate a moment. We contacted her that day. Shortly, she moved in with us.
At this point, I need to break off the narrative to point out some of the things we learned about forgiveness as a family and as a church from the experience.
A lot was revealed in my prayer. I’d asked God to forgive me of my self-righteousness, not fully aware just how deep that attitude was ingrained.
The first lesson we learned had to do with uncovering a sinful self-concern. In my case, it was a concern about our reputation as leaders in the church and a concern for what the “good” kids would think.
On one occasion, when the Pharisees belittled Jesus for associating with sinners, He replied, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,'” Matthew 9:12-13.
It became clear to us all, in the months that our church family responded to Marie’s needs, that we are most often concerned about the needs of the “healthy,” while we are unconcerned or are afraid to involve ourselves with the needs of the “sick.” Let’s face it, we all want smooth, comfortable, trouble-free lives.
I’m not saying that we should open our home to every troubled person who comes along. But I am saying that we must recognize self-righteousness when it clogs our heart. And that we must open our heart to what God’s Spirit would have us to do if we want our life to conform to His living Word.
This leads to the second major lesson we learned about true forgiveness.
In the same passage in Matthew 9:9-13, we find that the Pharisees were right about Jesus—He did associate with Publicans and sinners. He ate in their homes, laughed with them and listened to their troubles.
Many of us, on the other hand, place a big distance—emotionally and sometimes literally—between ourselves and a person who is in need of forgiveness. This distance communicates the attitude, “You have to come up here on the level I’m on. Then you can be forgiven.” I have no doubt that’s what I communicated to the young woman about whose influence on her younger sisters I was so worried.
This is not the kind of attitude God showed us. In Romans 5:8 we read, “God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In a real sense, God accepted the task of bearing the eternal penalty of our sin, and He continues to accept the task of walking through the result of our sin, right at our side.
This, then, is the kind of acceptance we must be willing to demonstrate if we are to offer forgiveness fully—a willingness to accept, in part, the burden of the one who is in the wrong. What does this mean, practically speaking?
Each of us has certain areas in which we’re weak, certain ways that we always seem to “blow it.” It may be gossip that hurts and slanders, it may be sexual temptation, a problem with alcohol, tobacco, drugs, or it may be an uncontrollable temper. How much easier it is to overcome those sins and drives when we have the support of other Christians who accept us while we are on the road to “cleaning up our act.” By demonstrating the kind of acceptance we learned, we can can show the face of Christ to a weak brother or sister who is beset by sin and longing for freedom and healing.
To finish Marie’s story, our church learned how to help shoulder the burden of her pregnancy with her. Women were helpful in their counsel about her health. Marie continued to find fellowship among her peers as she continued to participate in youth activities, including a short drama the group put on.
As to my fears about the influence on my children, those anxieties could not have be more unfounded. Many evenings, the children would pass by the living room where Marie and I spent many hours talking. Sometimes the kids would see Marie sobbing in my arms. Now that they’re older, they tell us they never for a moment thought it would be “okay” to end up in Marie’s position, regardless of the love that was shown.
On the night of Marie’s labor I was at her side. After the birth of her baby, Pete and I and many others stood by her as she went through with the crucial decision she’d made about the child’s future. She had chosen to give up her baby for adoption, a very difficult and emotional decision for her to make.
Today, Marie is a happily married wife and mother. Through her prayers and forgiving attitude, both of her parents have become Christians.
Excerpted from Loving Confrontation, Bethany House Publishers, 1988, Bev’s first published book. Now out of print.
© Beverly Caruso