How to forgive and reconcile after being hurt or hurtful
OSV News – Forgiveness is a thread that runs throughout the story of our faith. In the Garden of Eden, we see the frailty of human relationships, both with God and one another. Throughout our history, we also see God’s mercy and love, his desire to restore us to relationship with himself and others. In the Old Testament, God proclaims a Year of Jubilee to his people – a time when all debts will be forgiven. And it’s not just a one-time occurrence: God calls for this celebration to be repeated every seven years. He knows his people will need forgiveness again and again.
Forgiveness was also central to Jesus Christ’s teaching. He talked and ate with people known to be sinners. He forgave the woman accused of adultery (and saved her from being stoned to death by the angry crowd). Even after all but one of his disciples abandoned him at his crucifixion, Jesus’ first word as he appears to them is “peace.”
In a world made imperfect by original sin, human beings make mistakes. We are created to love God and one another, but we often fall short. We act in ways that are impulsive, selfish or inconsiderate. And our wrong choices have consequences, not only for ourselves, but also for others. Unfortunately, our human failings often hurt the ones we love the most, resulting in broken marriages, “former best friends,” severed parent-child relationships, and other family members who no longer speak to one another. These situations often cause great and lasting pain to everyone involved.
When this happens, some basic steps toward reconciliation can be helpful. The following are some recommendations, both for those who have been hurt and for those experiencing the pain and loss of a strained relationship because they have been hurtful themselves.
1. Express the hurt. We can’t heal what we won’t feel. If we are working with our hands and get a cut, we don’t simply ignore it and hope it goes away. Instead, we wash it off, put some antibacterial ointment on it, and bandage the wound. Our emotional wounds need the same care. Ignoring them can allow them to fester and grow worse over time. We need to talk about our hurt in order to heal the relationship. Some infractions may be so small that we can brush them aside and forget about them. But anything that is important enough to remember is important enough to talk about. Otherwise, we may later be dealing with a long list of grudges instead of just one issue.
2. Practice empathy. Every person has his or her own way of looking at the world. Our perspective can affect our feelings about particular actions and the realization of how those actions affect others.
It’s important that we try to imagine ourselves in the other person’s shoes and determine why he or she might have acted in a hurtful way. Loved ones often don’t set out to be hurtful, but rather hurtful actions arise in a particular circumstance. What made this person feel like it was okay to say or do this? If we don’t know, we may need to ask.
3. Make a decision to work toward reconciliation. Deciding that you wish to work toward reconciliation is not the same as saying that things have been resolved. Rather, it is saying that you wish to repair the relationship if possible, and you don’t wish to remain “cut off” from the other person.
4. Offer forgiveness. Recognize that saying “I forgive you” does not mean all is forgotten. Rather, it says you want to let go of your anger and may be willing to work toward trust again.
When we have been hurtful, we can take important steps toward reconciliation. First, we should think through the situation carefully, and try to imagine what it must have been like for the other person. We need to hear the other person out and allow ourselves to fully appreciate the consequences of our actions, even if it’s painful
Next, realize that seeking reconciliation means being vulnerable and admitting you were wrong, even if you feel the other person didn’t handle it well either. Many long-standing feuds begin when one person is hurtful to another, the hurt person reacting in an angry way, and so on. Some conflicts have a way of perpetuating themselves to the point that both parties forget how they began! The solution is in each party taking responsibility for his or her own actions. Someone has to begin this process. Often this leads to a willingness on the part of the other person to examine his or her own actions as well.
Tell the other person what you now understand about how they felt, and make a commitment to avoid being hurtful in the future. He or she needs to hear that while you might not have understood the effect your actions would have, you now know the hurt you've caused, and you don’t want to cause this hurt again.
Finally, realize that forgiveness is a choice, but trust is not. While the other person may forgive you, it may take some time for trust to be reestablished. Be patient with this process. At times, the person who was hurt may be reminded of what happened when similar circumstances arise. Reassure the other person at these times that you intend to follow through on your commitment.
Christ’s life is the ultimate testament to the transformative power of forgiveness. He knows it is in our nature to hurt one another, and, in doing so, distance ourselves from him. He offers the sacrament of Reconciliation to pour forgiveness into our lives, endlessly sustaining us in our efforts to forgive others.
Forgiveness does not always mean trusting that particular person again, or entering into similar situations with him or her. But forgiveness does mean allowing God to help us free ourselves of the anger, resentment and sorrow that can be destructive to us if we continue to carry them. Letting go of this burden helps us enjoy our futures and approach new relationships with peace and openness.
Dr. Joseph White is a clinical psychologist who writes on catechesis, ministry and other topics, and whose books include “Listening for God in Everyday Life” (Our Sunday Visitor, 2020).