I have a picture on my desk of my daughter Megan when she was three years old. Her back is to the camera, and she’s wearing a bright pink-and-green outfit with a giant pink bow in her hair. Practically neon, Megan was not to be missed even a mile away.

We were playing hide-and-seek at the time, and when it was her turn to hide, Megan had simply run to the edge of the yard and stood right there in the open, very still, facing a bush. No doubt she thought she was hidden. She couldn’t see anyone, so certainly no one could see her. Of course, the picture shows how incredibly obvious she was. She stood out like brightly colored Christmas lights on a dark night.

I love that picture because it reminds me of how I must look to God when I try to hide from him. We all know when we sin, when we blow it, when we have disobeyed God. And like Megan in that picture, we must look ridiculous to God, pretending to hide when, in fact, our guilt is flashing like a neon sign.

But what is clear to God may not be obvious to other people. Those who are close to us may not be able to detect the baggage we carry around. Likewise, we may not be able to see the guilt burdens of the people around us.

Have you ever had a conflict with someone but couldn’t really put your finger on how it all started? It likely was related to past guilt and old regrets—tender places your relationship has tread on. It’s like living in a room with asbestos insulation. You may not notice any symptoms right away, but over time the poison seeps in and makes everyone sick.

We all try to cover up our guilty feelings in different ways. Some try to disguise guilt by keeping up a facade of smiles. Some try to suppress it, deny it, or ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. But however we try to cover it up, the guilt is still there, leaking through the walls.

Many don’t even realize that they’re carrying around a burden of guilt yet experience its devastating effects nonetheless. It comes out in anxiety, anger, and depression. It even results in illness. In fact, it’s been said that more than half the people in our hospitals today could go home if they got rid of their guilt.

Because of Christ, there is a way to be free of the weight of guilt that poisons all our relationships. The Bible tells us, “He forgave all our sins. He canceled the record that contained the charges against us. He took it and destroyed it by nailing it to Christ’s cross” (Colossians 2:13–14, NLT).

These days the words mercy and grace get thrown about as if they’re interchangeable. The truth is, they’re not the same thing.

A few years back I received a traffic ticket for speeding (which I, unfortunately, deserved). The officer who stopped me handed me the ticket and said in a Texas drawl, “Now you’ll need to report to Judge Justice.” Really? The judge’s last name actually was Justice? I looked down and saw the address for Judge Justice neatly printed on the court paper. And without thinking, I said, “Oh, Officer, I don’t want justice. I want mercy.”

Mercy is when you are spared the penalty you so clearly deserve, as would have been the case if my speeding ticket had been waived (it wasn’t). Grace, on the other hand, is when you get something you don’t deserve at all, like being given a gift that you didn’t earn or have any right to expect.

The apostle Paul explains in Ephesians 2:8–9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” We’ve been given the free gift of grace. It’s God’s response to all my wrongs when I admit them to him.

Mercy and grace. God gives us both in our relationship with him, and that’s how we know both are needed in our relationships with the people we love.

Let’s leave behind the question of who in your key relationships is carrying around any baggage of past guilt and old regret. It could be the other person; perhaps it’s you. Likely it’s both of you. In either case it doesn’t matter. You’re both chained to it.

Over time we all tend to invent ways to deal with the awkwardness of damaged relationships, in much the same way we’d adapt to limping around with an injured foot. After a while you don’t even notice you’re limping. It’s just the way you walk. Maybe you fall back into old patterns every time you interact with your parents, are repeatedly deceptive in conversations with your business partner, or regularly resist being forthright with your spouse. You may have used those things in the past as a crutch, and you may even know they’re damaging, but you continue to use them out of habit.

The way they used to train baby elephants in the circus was to tie a chain to one of their legs and anchor the other end of the chain to the ground with a peg. The baby elephant would pull and pull against the chain, trying to break free, until he realized his efforts were futile. Finally he’d give up. The interesting thing is that the elephant would never again try to break free from the chain.

Even when he was full-grown, weighed two tons, and could have easily snapped the chain and ripped the stake from the ground, he wouldn’t even try. The elephant remembered, No, this is useless.I’ll always have these chains because I’m not strong enough to break them.

To some extent we handle our relationships the same way. Just like the elephant, we continue to operate in the relational ruts of our past. The great news is that your relationships can be radically different from how they’ve been to this point. By extending grace to the imperfect people in our lives (and by allowing others to extend grace to us), we have the ability to overcome the “baggage of before.”

Transformation begins with acknowledging that we personally need God’s grace. It’s important to start here, because we can’t give what we haven’t received. We’re then set free to see our relationships with new eyes and recognize the huge potential for change.

The next step is to identify the particular chains or old patterns that affect each of your key relationships. Sometimes we’re so close to our problems that we can’t see clearly enough to think rationally. If that’s you, I encourage you to invite someone you trust to meet you for coffee and ask them to be a mirror to you, to help you see where you could make healthy changes in the ways you relate to the people you love.

After you isolate the cause, it’s time to break the chains. Try to condense into just a sentence or two what you want your relationship to look like. For instance, “I want to bring total honesty, integrity, and transparency to my marriage.” Focusing on what you want things to be like is a lot more effective than fixating on what’s wrong. Set your goal, and give everything you’ve got to fulfilling it.

Keep in mind that as much as we’d like to, we can’t control how the other person will respond. They might continue to relate to you the way they always have or feel threatened by the new you. Don’t worry. That’s normal. Very possibly, as you change your patterns and let go of your baggage, they’ll be motivated to do the same. Change in one person is often a catalyst for change in the other. Just continue to be consistent in your words and actions, and chances are, pretty soon the people around you will begin to act differently too.

And if they don’t?

That’s what grace is for.

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