Remember, Forgiveness Begins with Pain

This article is by Brad Hambrick and published by BCC


Where do effective conversations begin? Often, we forget that good dialogue begins where someone is rather than where they should be. When we rush the journey because we are excited about the destination, we do not serve our friend well. Forgiveness may be one of the subjects where Christians are most prone to rush one another.

When a friend talks about needing to forgive someone, what do we know about them? We know they’re hurting. Whatever journey God has for them will start with understanding their pain. Take a moment and read what God said to Moses when he was going to lead Israel out of Egypt.

“Then the Lord said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings (Ex. 3:7, emphasis added).’”

God is repetitious—seeing, hearing, knowing—to emphasize the importance of being known in cultivating trust. If we don’t take the time to understand, our friend will feel more like a problem to be solved than a person to be heard. This undermines trust a second time; first, by the offense needing forgiveness, and second, by our rushing to the remedy. No one wants an orthodontist who promises to align their teeth in six weeks. The process would be too painful, even if the outcome is “right.”

Notice the connection between understanding and trust-building that is portrayed in Hebrews 4:15-16:

“For we do not have a high priest [Jesus] who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

It is because Jesus deeply understands our life challenges (temptations and weaknesses) that we are compelled to draw near to Him with confidence. This is what it looks like to be an “ambassador for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17). We embody this priestly role of identifying with the pain of our friend in order to cultivate the courage to take the steps ahead. Jesus built relational capital to develop trust and motivation. Our conversations about forgiveness should do the same. This happens through compassionate questions and patient listening.[1]

If you are the person needing to forgive and yearn for someone to hear you this way, you can give someone you trust a copy of this article and ask, “Would you be this kind of friend for me?” Every journey is easier with a companion.

Every situation is different, so some of the questions below will be less relevant to some circumstances. But they are questions that could help you get to know where someone is starting their journey. If the answers to any of these questions are obvious, don’t ask them for asking’s sake; just acknowledge the reality that these things add to the pain.

  • What happened? Allow your friend to tell their story as it comes to their mind.
  • What cultivated the trust that made this offense more hurtful? Broken trust serves as a microphone to pain. Sometimes pain is as much a function of the trust violated (think, gunpowder) as it is the offense (think, fire). If we only assess the size and heat of the fire, we miss the point.
  • What is missing from your life as a result of the offense that is adding to the pain? The consequences of an offense can be as disruptive as the primary offense itself. If we don’t know the dominos of the offense, our friend is likely to feel like we “just don’t get it.”
  • What other relationships have been compromised because of the strain? Our relationships tend to be like threads in a spider web. Changing one distorts the shape of the others.
  • What emotions do you cycle through as you deal with this offense? Often anger gets all the attention when forgiveness is relevant. Don’t neglect hearing fear, grief, confusion, and pertinent other emotions.
  • What steps have you taken to make things better, and how did that go? What steps are you considering? Understanding what your friend thinks is next helps you get to know where they are starting their journey. As you listen, get to know the why behind the what.
  • Who else do you have supporting you, and how understood do you feel? The less understood your friend feels by others, the more weight they will put on your relationship. You should be aware of this dynamic.
  • What question do you wish I’d ask? This is an open-ended question to help make sure you’re not missing something important.

Initially, the focus is on getting to know the person and their experience. This engagement builds trust and provides clarity about what other conversations may be helpful.

Notice that we didn’t first ask, “What log do you need to remove from your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3-5). Is this an important question? Absolutely. Is it a first question? Usually not. Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount was twofold: First, when taking steps toward reconciliation, we need to model the ownership of our failings that we want the other person to respond with. Second, we have more control over our own actions than another person’s actions—hence the difference in size between the log and speck.[2]

Notice what Jesus was not saying. Jesus was not saying, “Your actions are more important than the actions of the person who offended you,” or, “You are ready to take steps towards reconciliation,” or, “The other person is ready for you to take steps towards reconciliation.”[3] When we jump promptly from our friend’s anger to Matthew 7, we inadvertently put these words in Jesus’ mouth.

When we listen well and build trust, we will arrive at Matthew 7 when it is a “word fitly spoken” (Prov. 25:11). Like the punchline of a good joke, applicable counsel becomes less effective when it’s given too soon.[4] This first reflection on forgiveness has been a lesson on helping us avoid this mistake. If you are the person needing to forgive, it can help you understand why premature advice from well-intended friends (even advice you agreed with) was hard to receive.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Think of a time when you needed to forgive. How would having a friend who heard you in the ways this article describes help you take the steps ahead?
  2. Can you think of times when you were willing to do what needed to be done next (whether forgiveness or another response), but feeling rushed to do so created a sense of resistance within you? How did feeling rushed and misunderstood become a setback for you?

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