Several years ago, I was counseling a woman who had severe depression marked by suicidal tendencies. After a month of counseling, most of the depression had lifted. But every time we made progress, she would return to issues regarding her sister. She could not let go of the pain her sister had caused.
She refused to talk about it. She would get choked up, and the knot in the center of her brow tightened. Finally, after we had exhausted every avenue of getting past this hurt, I told her I didn’t think there was anything else I could do to help her.
I could see her struggle internally – and then she decided to tell me.
“She told everyone in the family I was always going to be fat!” As she said this, her skin became flushed, she knotted her hands together in the middle of her chest and she bent over in pain. This hurt so badly it even caused somatic symptoms. It had happened 27 years before, when the girls were teenagers.
John Bevere, in his book “The Bait of Satan” calls this “personal offense”. He believes that personal offense is the root cause of almost every relationship problem on the planet. I have taught on this truth in seminars and no one ever disagrees with it. Unfortunately, the solution most people recommend is to “gut it out” and “just forgive them.” I really wish it were that simple.
But it isn’t. You cannot just will away the hurt others have caused you.
But I have found we can dig up the root reasons for why personal offense burrows into our soul and eats away at our peace of mind. Here are eight exercises (and one final healthy response) I recommend to my counseling clients when they struggle to let go of past pain and move forward into forgiveness.
1. Think of a time when you did something similar to the thing you are offended by. Part of the ache we experience comes from a sense of injustice. It is not fair that others lie to us, gossip about us, take advantage of our trust. It is fascinating though, if I ask people to think about a time recently when they did something similar to the way they have been mistreated … people often feel the internal knots start to loosen.
Most of us commit offenses on a semi-regular basis, but we often don’t see the troublesome nature of our actions. It is only when it is done to us that we get upset. As we go through the exercise of thinking how we have done the same thing, it gives us a measure of empathy for those who have sinned against us.
2. Ask God to show you how He sees the situation. Several years ago, a friend of mine made a list of things I needed to improve upon. It was not a pleasant list; many of the items called into question my intelligence and choice-making. I was deeply hurt by the list. After marinating in my inner irritation for several days, I asked God to show me how He saw the situation.
First, God pointed out how some of the list items were actually true. Second, he showed me how my friend had been feeling cut off from me and didn’t know how to express his own hurt. This gave me enough solace so I could forgive him and set up a meeting. During our time together, I expressed my regret at how I had cut him off recently. Then I proceeded to tell him how some of the items on the list were very true. I also ended by helping him see how he had gone beyond the truth in some items as well. We re-established our relationship at the end of that meeting. (By the way, I have his permission to share this story).
3. Ask yourself who the person who offended you reminds you of. If the same person keeps offending you, and especially if your reactions to these offenses seem more intense than they ought to be, ask yourself if this person reminds you of someone else you were hurt by in the past. Often, we have trouble letting go of a personal hurt because the person reminds us of a person or situation we have not forgiven years before.
4. Put yourself in their shoes and ask how they would want others to react to the situation. If we can begin to see how it probably looked from the point of view of the person who hurt us, we may perceive the incident differently. Perhaps what we interpreted as a criticism was just a simple question. Or maybe the attack was motivated by fear for our safety. Even if the offense was truly offensive, we may discern how it was motivated by something we had done. Seeing things from the other person’s perspective softens the blow.
5. Keep short accounts. Wherever possible (and it’s always possible) try to let go of the hurt before the end of that day. Each day you coddle an offense, the larger it grows. Think of it as a debt. The longer you take to pay off a debt, the more you will have to pay and the more onerous the burden.
6. If feasible, talk to the person who offended you. Don’t just assume they know what they did or how you reacted to it. I can’t even begin to count how many times couples have said to each other in counseling, “You know what you did”. The reality: they often don’t.
7. React in the Opposite Spirit. One of the great teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) is this concept of giving people back the opposite of what they give you. If a person speaks hurtful words, speak a blessing. If they take something from you, give them even more. If they force you to do something you don’t want to do, help them in love. This will completely leverage your own soul and feed it while they witness you are not affected by their hurtful behavior.
Early in my walk with God, a man cheated me at a local business. The details are unimportant. I made plans to go to the local Better Business Bureau with the hope of causing him some kind of grief. My roommate in college offered to pray with me about it. As we prayed, I had a sense I was supposed to go into his shop and ask if I could pray a blessing over it (even though we both knew he had broken something of mine). When I went down there and asked him if I could pray, he mumbled that I could do whatever I wanted. So I prayed God’s blessing on his business. I left that place a free man.
8. Forgive and Release. When you have done some of the exercises above, then meditate on this question: Do I feel free now to forgive them? If you don’t, do some more exercises. But keep testing the water of your soul until the release comes.
9. Set boundaries that are safe and healthy. If a person keeps on hurting you, and if there is something you can do to prevent that hurt from happening, do so. The best medicine, after all, is preventative medicine. I have a friend whose husband had cheated on her four times. At one point, as she concluded he was going to keep doing this, she asked him to move out and get his own apartment. She told him not to tell her about any of his extra-marital relationships. In the end, she fought through her personal offense and decided not to divorce him. She often had him over for family dinners with her and the children.
So why did she ask him to move out? He had truly broken the marriage bonds between them and she didn’t want to keep hating him. If he stayed in the house while continuing to trample their marriage vows, the pain would not end. She truly forgave him, but she put a boundary so she didn’t have to keep looking at his offense.
The woman I mentioned at the beginning of the article did several of the exercises written here. What finally helped was going to God and asking how He saw her sister. God showed this woman that the sister was jealous because the mother favored the older sister. She got revenge by criticizing her sister in public. My client realized she had carried all this pain for years and had no idea what her mother’s favoritism must have done to her sister. Within a year, they had reconciled and now have a healthy adult relationship.
This works wonders if you’ll allow it.