It began many years after it started.
I am not a bitter man. I don’t hold grudges. I don’t seek revenge.
I was meeting with our associate pastor on a routine matter. She is 25 years younger than me and in the first year of her first full time pastoral role after seminary. What was meant to be a 20 minute conversation turned into two hours of gut wrenching epiphanies. In retrospect, there were issues with a common thread that slowly boiled beneath the surface of my conscious.
I have a forgiveness problem. Possibly, I am not unique. But, certainly it is my problem. Oh, I am adept at generously forgiving people who ask for it. I am able to easily ask for forgiveness when I think I have wronged somebody. I have even developed an appropriate phrase when I unintentionally hurt somebody and am made aware of it. “I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to hurt you.” Even, when I play basketball, I am one (probably the only one on the court) who apologizes for fouling or being a little too aggressive on a play.
MY FORGIVENESS PROBLEM
Here is my problem. If someone has hurt me and doesn’t acknowledge it (sometimes unaware of it), then I write them off. I become indifferent. I don’t forgive. And, my anger and resentment of them simply boils beneath the surface of my conscious mind. At least, that’s what I tell myself. In reality, I spend way too much time thinking about how they have hurt me.
So, it began with my associate pastor listening to me complain about the hurt someone had caused me. She challenged me to reconcile with that person. At that point a wave of sickness nearly did me in. I started sweating uncontrollably. Reconciliation had never crossed my mind. I was content to be indifferent towards the person. In those moments after her challenge I considered what that might look like. I imagined my conversation with this person. One of two choices would be made. The person would most likely NOT take responsibility for their actions and blame it on others. This was the pattern of this person in the past and one that would fuel my anger and add to my hurt. Or, this person would apologize.
That’s when it occurred to me. I wasn’t sure if I could accept the apology. This person had hurt my wife and others in my circle of friends. I’m not sure if a simple apology would be enough for me. What would be enough, then? I concluded that nothing would be enough. The only solution was of the sci-fi variety – go back in time and correct history. I realized that I had no hope of reconciliation if I couldn’t first forgive.
So, then I began to analyze how I was dealing with this person. If I wasn’t able to forgive this person, how was I able to interact with this person? After all, I saw this person often and had maintained a good façade in spite of my hurt. I was friendly and responsive. Frankly, I didn’t want to be angry. I just was.
I determined that I had become indifferent. In every conversation I looked for a quick exit hoping I wouldn’t be hurt again by some off handed comment or idea.
Then, I began to think about other people who I had become indifferent towards. The list was longer than I had hoped and always led back to being hurt by them in some way. I recalled broken relationships in college and since then. I wasn’t able to forgive any of them either. My habit of not choosing to forgive started many years ago.
As with any good 12 step program, I had to acknowledge I had a problem. My inability to forgive people who negligently or purposefully hurt me without acknowledging my hurt was only hurting me. I needed to forge a different path.
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
I meet with some close friends periodically. These are friends I trust more than anyone else. They have my best interests at heart and have told me some tough things over the years. I shared my experience with my associate pastor. One of my friends told me that God won’t forgive me until I forgave. He was correct. Look it up in Matthew 6:14-15 and Mark 11:25. Or try on the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35. That sounded rather harsh and more like “conditional love.”
My friend went on to tell me that being able to forgive was one of the most pivotal points of his spiritual journey and began quoting other scripture that motivated him towards forgiveness. See Colossians 3:13, Ephesians 4:31-32, Luke 6:37, Matthew 18:21-22 and Matthew 6:12 (which is the part of the Lord’s Prayer I recite every Sunday – hmm). I knew his life and the instances he was talking about. His story of forgiveness was much more monumental than all of mine combined. I was beginning to get more traction on the idea of forgiving, yet still unsure of how to apply it my life.
A couple of weeks later I was responsible for the devotion at a meeting I was leading. I chose the topic of forgiveness and shared my struggle in general terms. The insight and vulnerability that was shared began to encourage me. I still didn’t have any handles, though. I just knew I needed to do it.
Several weeks passed. As I was preparing for a trip I knew I would have a lot of time to read. In my office I have several shelves of books, most of which I have read. On one shelf sit all the books that were gifts to me and remain unread. I place the books that look most interesting on the right. I usually start there when I am out of reading material. I glanced at the shelf hoping something would grab my attention. On the far left of the shelf stood a book larger than the others. It was titled “Forgiveness…the Ultimate Miracle.”
That’s what I needed – A Miracle! I needed a miracle to change a lifetime of bad habits.
STEPS TOWARDS FORGIVENESS
I read the book. It was exactly what I needed. I followed the 10 step approach using a spreadsheet. I listed the people who have hurt me that I have not forgiven. There are nine. I listed how they have hurt me and what I want as a result.
This step was more difficult than I anticipated. I was used to telling stories that vilified them. So, I had quite a few instances that threw them into a negative light – most of which had nothing to do with me. I realized the hurt was pretty specific (and real). The added stories I had been using only justified the extent of my pain. They were not important to the hurt I was feeling.
The other thing I realized is that none of these people committed criminal acts against me. They all hurt my ego. When I listed what I wanted, it involved things like respect, honesty, and sincerity. In most instances, I felt like I had a shot at reconciliation. In other words, when I looked at my hurt on paper, it was easy to decide to get over it and move on.
I had a few other hurdles to jump. The book had 123 pages of information on how to do this well. I won’t repeat all of the nuggets of wisdom. But, I want to address the issues where I was most concerned.
Should I forgive these people in person? This was my biggest concern. I can come off pretty self-righteous in the best of circumstances. Offering forgiveness out-of-the-blue could be misconstrued as self-serving and a condemnation of their actions as opposed to a gracious act of moving forward. And, what if the person to whom I was apologizing didn’t know the hurt that was caused. This may complicate the relationship rather than smoothing it out. So, I plan to determine this on a case-by-case basis. The key for me is to be sincere in my forgiveness whether it is in person or not.
And, what about reconciliation? Reconciliation is a two-way process. Both parties need to be seeking it. I am actually surprised how open I am to it after going through this process. I feel there is a good shot at reconciliation with all but two or three on my list.
I plan to pray for each individual on a regular basis, verbalizing my forgiveness for them. I’m not sure how long I will do this. But, I think I will be finished when I cease to be indifferent towards them.
I am ready for my faith to once again align with my behavior. I am craving a feeling of joy and optimism. Above all, I am tired of reliving these stories of hurt. They have only damaged me, not just once but over and over again.
While I still believe in God’s unconditional love for us, I am fully aware that my behavior prevents me from fully experiencing God’s love. I have control over how I react to the hurt I have experienced. I choose not to be indifferent, but to forgive and love.
My wife, who is an educator, shared this quote from another educator, Najwa Zebian,
“Forgive them. Not because they asked for your forgiveness. Or because they deserve it. Or because the pain they caused you is not worth it. But because you cannot truly move on without forgiving. It shows your level of maturity and your ability to understand that life is not always fair. And that someone’s behavior speaks of them, not you. Your forgiveness speaks of you, not them.”
Steve Schneeberger is the Executive Director of the Youth Ministry Institute. He is also adjunct faculty for Florida Southern College. Beginning in 1985, Steve began a vocation as a youth minister serving churches in Kansas and Florida. He is a 1981 graduate of Shawnee Mission West High School in Overland Park, Kansas, has a business degree from Baker University (1985) and a law degree from the University of Kansas (1988). He is married to Carol, an elementary school teacher and former counselor. They have three children. Steve consults, coaches and teaches Program Design 101, Teaching 101, Budgeting, Helping Youth Over Developmental Hurdles, and Expecting Great Behavior for the Youth Ministry Institute. His teaching duties at Florida Southern includes Teaching and Learning Theories for Youth Ministry, Leadership and Administration for Youth Ministry and Bible and Theology in the Youth Ministry Setting.