Learning to Forgive by Learning How to Be Offended

Knight.I remember a time when I didn’t carry grudges. I had the uncanny ability to absorb the most outrageous offenses with barely a flinch and then return unconditional love without resentment. In fact, my armor-like invulnerability to pain and my remarkable freedom from bitterness became a curious source of pride. I could forgive-and-forget with almost supernatural ease. But then something changed all of that. A bizarre combination of circumstances I had never faced before. First, an offense so great, so destructive, I actually wondered if a person might die from grief. Second, an apology. Not your run-of-the-mill, mealy-mouthed “I’m sorry.” But a request for forgiveness laced with such deep, empathetic sorrow, I thought my offender might die with me. Still, I struggled to forgive.

Sorrow weighed heavily on my heart while resentment coiled around my chest like a python. To survive, I had to learn why I couldn’t simply shrug off this transgression like I had so many before. This forced me to learn about the true nature of forgiveness, and I soon discovered that I had never actually forgiven anyone of anything before. Instead, as I examined my past, I discovered a number of clever coping mechanisms in my relationship repertoire. Here are a few examples:

 

Dismissal: “Me? I’m not hurt by this. I’m a lot tougher than I look. Stuff happens and you just have to keep on living.”

Minimizing: “Oh, I shouldn’t make a mountain out of a mole hill. The offense really is an insignificant issue; I just need to adjust my perspective to see it for what it is: nothing.”

 

Rationalizing: “I can totally see why she behaved they way she did. Her background didn’t teach her any different and the circumstances almost demanded this response.”

 

Excusing: “I cannot condemn him for what he did because if I were in his situation, I would have done exactly the same. I would be a hypocrite to hold something against another person when I am no better myself.”

Transference: “It’s my fault, really. If I hadn’t done _______________, he wouldn’t have been in the position to respond the way he did. So, I only have myself to blame.”

If you examine these carefully, you’ll notice they have something in common. Each coping mechanism transfers guilt from the offender’s account to mine. In each case, I was able to let the other person off his or her moral hook by denigrating myself and then bearing my offender’s sin as my own. For years, I bounced back from devastating relational blows without confronting the offender—or even so much as a conversation—and I avoided all strife in my relationships. Unfortunately, I paid a terrible price. One can absorb abuse and heap self-loathing upon himself for just so long before something breaks.

As I said, this one particular offense changed everything. I couldn’t minimize the sin; the injury was the kind of life-altering event that changes people forever. I couldn’t rationalize the sin; my offender chose to hurt me knowing the damage it would cause. I couldn’t transfer the sin; I did nothing to deserve or provoke the transgression. Moreover, I could not excuse the sin. While I have certainly failed morally in my lifetime, nothing in me can identify with this particular sin. So, I languished for a long time, unable to bear the sorrow and powerless to cast off my burden. Eventually, pain forced me to learn a new skill: genuine forgiveness.

My first and greatest lesson on forgiveness proved to be the most difficult. To forgive a sin, one must first face it. In other words, I had to learn how to be offended.

Forgiveness doesn’t dismiss, minimize, rationalize, excuse, or transfer a transgression. Forgiveness begins with complete acceptance of truth—life as it is—including the destruction of sin with all its hateful hideousness. No matter how much I tried to see things differently, the truth overwhelmed my delusions and reduced them to dust. Furthermore, my offender unwittingly kept me from my old habits by offering perhaps the first genuine apology I had ever received. The following appeal isn’t word-for-word, but it’s accurate enough:

Mark, I sinned by [detailed admission of wrongdoing], and I have no excuses. It wasn’t an accident; I chose to please myself, even though I knew it would devastate you. And I confess that, at the time, I didn’t care how much you would be hurt by my actions.

I am asking for your forgiveness. I have no right to expect it and I will completely understand if you refuse. But I love you, and I want our relationship to be restored.

Will you forgive me?”

 

My offender stood vulnerable before me, ready to accept my rejection, yet hoping for mercy. I knew the time had come to lay aside my emotional armor. My disciplined talent for denial had done its job. So, for the first time in my life, I allowed a loved one’s sin to pierce my heart. And I cannot fully describe the agony I felt as I discovered firsthand the truth of Neil Anderson’s words: “Forgiveness is agreeing to live with the consequences of another person’s sin.  Forgiveness is costly; we pay the price of the evil we forgive.”[1] The pain brought me to my knees. And it brought healing—to me, to my offender, and to our relationship.

Now, many years later, I cannot shrug off offenses with ease. I struggle to forgive and I find that resentment clings to me with surprising stubbornness. But that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Sin hurts. Forgiveness requires supernatural courage. Grudges don’t fall away easily. Yet, for all my new difficulties and complications, at least I know I’m living authentically. I no longer wear the slapdash grin of a man in denial. I relate honestly with others, and their wounds hurt me because I have opened myself to the possibility of love. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But first, I had to learn how to be offended.

 


[1] Neil T. Anderson, The Bondage Breaker (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 1990), 194–197.

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