Making Amends: Forgiveness When Reconciliation Is Possible

   

WRITTEN BY: AARON TRUONG

Maybe you’ve realized that there is someone in your life you need to forgive (a friend, family member, teammate, boss, etc.) and you’ve come to the conclusion that carrying unforgiveness is hurting you more than it’s helping.  What now? 

In some situations, it may actually be possible and beneficial to seek reconciliation with the person who offended or hurt you.  It can be incredibly healing when you’re able to share your feelings and work things out, as long as doing so isn’t harmful to yourself or others.  However, if the person who hurt you is abusive, narcissistic, or unsafe, seeking to make amends may lead to more injury, which would complicate the forgiveness process, so you may want to consider forgiving from afar rather than reconciling with the person for now.  On the other hand, if the person hurt you unintentionally and is actually a sympathetic and understanding adult, it may be possible to reconcile your relationship by talking with them about how you’re feeling.  But how do you talk about it in a way that reduces the probability of defensiveness so that they will actually understand and possibly even repent?  Here are some ideas that have helped me learn to communicate my feelings more effectively with people in my life.


1. Confess

With the exception of abuse, when we have conflicts with others, we’re usually not purely innocent victims; we contributed to the conflict somehow.  For example, maybe our spouse wronged us but the way we reacted to them may have only made things worse.  When seeking to make amends with people whom we have anger or outstanding conflicts with, I find that it’s often helpful to begin by acknowledging my own contribution to the conflict.  This takes a lot of humility because my instinct is to focus on what the other person did and what they need to change.  However, Jesus calls us to look first at our own sin before criticizing or judging others for theirs.  Doing so doesn’t negate the wrong that they’ve committed; it models humility and taking ownership of our mistakes.  Who knows, it may even make it more likely that the other person will be willing to acknowledge their mistakes too!  To confess, acknowledge what you did, how it may have made the other person feel, and why it was wrong.  

2. Use Whole Messages

When communicating about emotionally sensitive experiences or conflicts, I find that using “Whole Messages” tends to minimize the likelihood of miscommunication and increase the chances that the other person will be able to understand your heart.  A simple acronym that may help you to remember this whole message framework is DEAR – Describe, Express, Assert, and Reinforce.  I’ll explain what these mean and then give an example of how it all fits together.

DESCRIBE – First, you want to describe, in objective terms, what happened or what was done to lead you to feel hurt or offended.  Imagine if you were to recall the situation for a newspaper report – you’re just reporting the facts, like what was done, what was said, etc.  For example, if you have a friend who repeatedly shows up late for lunch appointments, you might begin by saying, “Hey, do you mind if talk with you about something that’s been on my mind?  When you showed up 15 minutes late for our last few appointments…”  Notice that it’s specific and there are no value statements, no judgments, no opinions about the person’s intentions or character.  It’s just the facts of what happened.  

EXPRESS – Next, you can express how you felt as a result of what happened.  When you express your feelings, however, you’ll want to use an “I feel” statement in which you say “I felt/feel” + an emotion word (hurt, dismissed, ignored, sad, etc.).  This serves to reduce defensiveness in the other person.  You’re just expressing the emotional response that you had.  You’re not blaming the other person or saying they made you feel that way.  You’re just sharing what you felt.  

Then you’ll want to connect your expression of your feelings with your thoughts.  This is where you can express why you felt the way you did.  For example, to continue with the previous example, “I found myself feeling irritated because it seems like you’re not really respecting my time.”  

Here’s a simplified framework that might help you to remember for expressing your emotions:

“I feel/felt (emotion word) because (reason/what you thought).”

ASSERT – Sometimes, when you share how you felt about something, people may be wondering, “So what do you want me to do about it?”  The next part of the whole message involves assertively communicating what it was that you would like the person to do or change in the future.  Perhaps you’d like the person to acknowledge that they’ve done or you’d like an apology.  In our current example, it might sound something like, “I would really appreciate it if in the future, you meet me on time so we can make the most of our lunch times.”  You can’t control another person’s actions, so there’s no guarantee that the other person will do what you desire.  However, you still want to be clear about what it is that you desire.  

REINFORCE – In the final step, you’re reinforcing the benefits of your request and reinforcing the relationship in general.  You’re communicating your positive intent for the relationship or positive regard for the person.  For example, you might say something like, “I really value our time together and I want to make it count.  Thanks for understanding.”  

So when you put it all together, the message communicates what happened, how you felt and why, what you’d like to change, and your shared goals in resolving the conflict.  How you talk about your conflict or situation will sound different but if you include these elements, it more likely that you’ll be more clearly understood by the person you’re seeking to make amends with.

Here’s the complete statement from our hypothetical situation:

“Hey, do you mind if talk with you about something that’s been on my mind?  When you showed up 15 minutes late for our last few appointments, I found myself feeling irritated because it seems like you’re not really respecting my time.  I would really appreciate it if in the future, you arrive at the agreed upon time.  I really value our time together and I want to make it count.  Thanks for understanding.”  


Putting it Together

You may be thinking, “Okay, that sounds great but I don’t really know if that would work for a real conflict with someone in my life.”  That’s fine.  This is just a simple framework to consider as you’re putting your thoughts together before approaching a tough issue.  With practice, it doesn’t have to seem formulaic or formal.  You can mix the elements in as you express yourself in your own words.  

Here’s an example from a real situation in which my dad and I had a serious argument and harsh words were exchanged from both sides (shared with permission).  I was leaving town for a business trip the next day, so I wanted to at least let my dad know how I was feeling so I wrote him the following email:

Hi Dad,
I just wanted to send you an email to address the conflict that we had the other day before I head off for my trip to Hawaii.  It would have been nice to get to sit down and talk in person, but the last few days have been pretty busy. 
I wanted to begin by acknowledging that the way that I treated you the last few days was not right (confession).  Even though I was really hurt and offended when you said that I'm not a loving person, responding by refusing to help you with the ladder when you needed it only served to prove you right.  I know that that was wrong for me to do and it was pretty childish to act that way.  
When you said that I'm “unloving” because I refused to talk to _______ for you (describe), I felt really hurt because I think you made an unfair judgment of me as a person (express).  I know I'm not naturally the most dependent or affectionate person, but I've been trying over the years to be more loving towards you and mom. I didn’t think it was a fair assessment of who I am as a person. There are times when I’m trying to draw better personal boundaries in order to keep myself emotionally healthy, which is why I wouldn’t do what you were asking me to.  
I want you to know that I forgive you and understand that I haven't always been the best son to you.  I've had times when I've been stressed about other things, or tired and have been short tempered or cold towards you (confession).  I could see why you would think that I'm not always the most loving person in the world.  However, I hope you'll see that there are also times when I do show you that I care about you and that my relationship with you matters to me.  Otherwise, I wouldn't be writing you this email to repair our relationship after our conflict.  
I hope you'll forgive me for the childish way I reacted after you called me unloving.  I wish I would have been more mature and forgiving.  I also hope you'll forgive me for the times in the past when I haven't been as loving and warm towards you as you may have wanted or needed.  I hope you'll see that I am trying and that you'll understand my reasons for not wanting to get involved in your conflicts with other family members.  I hope also that you'll respect my boundaries and not try to involve me in the future in any attempts to "mediate" or "talk to them" for you (assert).  
I love you and am so grateful for all that you've done for me and how hard you try to be a loving and godly father.  You've provided me with a place to live, wonderful opportunities to go to school, and you've sacrificed a lot for us to have the life we have.  You've also put up with a lot of crap from me and I'm grateful for your forgiveness and patience with me all of these years.  I know that you never intend harm, but always want what's best for me.  You're a very selfless and caring person who would bend over backwards to help other people (reinforce).   I respect that you have a different perspective on things. However, despite our differences, I'm grateful that we can have honest and open conversations about things and that you're always willing to look honestly at yourself and work on things.  I love you and I hope that we'll be able to reconcile and continue building our relationship as adults.  
With love, Aaron

I hope this framework is as helpful for you as it has been for me.  Hopefully, it’ll help you more effectively communicate and approach the unresolved conflicts you may have in your life and make amends.  

In the next article, we’ll look at forgiving someone from afar when amends are not possible or may be unsafe/harmful.

5 Myths About Forgiveness That Keep Us Bitter

WRITTEN BY: AARON TRUONG

We’ve all been hurt before.  It’s an inevitable part of living in a broken world with broken people. Maybe our spouse disappointed us, our friend rejected us, our boss underappreciates us, or our family members mistreated us.  Whatever the particular situation, when these injuries occur, it’s natural to feel frustrated, angry, and even vengeful.  Our minds replay the offense over and over.  We think about what we could have said or what we wish we had done.  We judge the person who hurt us, wishing we could get them back so they could understand our pain.  Even though we know we ought to forgive, it’s often the last thing we want to do.  To make matters worse, our culture has skewed our understanding of forgiveness, making it seem much more like an oppressive obligation rather than a transformational opportunity.  Here are five common misconceptions that keep us trapped in an emotionally draining state of unforgiveness.

1. Forgiveness is Unnecessary

When I bring up the topic of forgiveness with people, I commonly get the response, “Why should I?  They’re the ones that did something wrong!”  It seems unjust that the “victim” is the one who has to do the work of forgiving, right?  However, even more unfair are the physical, emotional, and spiritual costs of living with unforgiveness in addition to the pain of the initial offense.  

There’s a growing body of research that describes the many negative effects of chronic anger and resentment. For instance, one study found that people who only forgive conditionally (when offenders are sorry for what they’ve done) are likely to die sooner than people who practice unconditional forgiveness (Toussaint, Owen, & Cheadle, 2011).  Another study found that unforgiveness tends to produce higher activation of your fight-or-flight system, which negatively affects one’s sleep quality (Lawler et al., 2005), memory (Toussaint et al., 2014), and immune response (Harrison, 2011).  In fact, holding onto a grudge has been shown to put people at higher risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and chronic fatigue (Lawler et al., 2003).  

Harboring resentment and unforgiveness in our hearts also takes a toll on our spiritual lives.  Jesus taught his disciples, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mk. 11:25).  Have you ever noticed that it feels really difficult to feel connected and intimate with God when there’s anger in your heart?  The Apostle John wrote that it’s impossible for someone to love God and hate another person because people are made in God’s image and likeness (1 Jn. 4:20).  Therefore, holding onto unforgiveness robs people of being able to experience the fullness of God’s love and deep intimacy with him.  

2. Forgiveness is Approval

Growing up, whenever someone did something to hurt my feelings, I remember my teacher/parent pulling us aside and walking us through a forced interaction in which the offender is instructed to mutter an apology, to which I am to reply, “It’s okay.”  It didn’t really matter whether either of us meant what we said, as long as we made it sound genuine enough to end the conversation and move on.  

Forgiveness is not as simple and easy as my teachers made it seem.  It’s common to think: But what if it’s not okay? What if I don’t think the other person really understands what they’ve done wrong?  What if the other person doesn’t see how their actions have affected me?  If I forgive the person, they are going to think that I approve of what they’ve done!

The good news is that forgiveness is not approval.  The word that the New Testament uses for forgiveness is the word, aphiemi, which means to “release” or “set free”.  This means that when you forgive, you are really releasing the other person from your right to judge them and hurt them back. Far from saying, “It’s okay,” what you’re really saying is, “What they did was wrong and it has really hurt me.  However, instead of holding onto my right to punish them, I will allow God to judge them justly.”

While it is true that when you forgive you are setting the other person free, it’s ironic that the person you’re really setting free is yourself.  Unforgiveness is like an emotional boulder that you carry around, waiting for the opportunity to hurl it at the person you resent.  However, while you’re dragging that weight around, it’s really only draining you of your own vitality and joy.  So when you “release” someone, you’re really releasing yourself from the bondage of bitterness.  

3. Forgiveness is Forgetting

“Forgive and forget,” people often say, as though forgiving means that we just need to “forget about it.”  However, forgiveness is not selective amnesia.  Many people try to “forget about it” or “get past it” by minimizing, avoiding, or numbing their pain.  These attempts may come in many forms, including using substances to relax, pretending that everything’s just fine, or keeping yourself busy with work or entertainment.  Pretending the injury didn’t happen would be like having a physical wound and just trying to move on without slowing down and addressing it – it only leads to more damage and pain in the long run.

The truth is that recalling the hurt is an essential step to healing it.  You can’t forgive someone for something that you’re not acknowledging.  Therefore, in order to forgive, you shouldn’t try to forget.  Rather, you should actually take time to remember what happened and reflect on that experience so that God can use it to transform your heart.  Ask yourself questions like:

  • What, specifically, did the person do that bothered/hurt me?

  • What did their actions or words mean to me?  What thoughts did it trigger for me?  Are there other possible ways to think about what happened?

  • How did I feel as a result?  When naming the feeling, try to identify the softer emotions (ie. hurt, afraid, ashamed, etc.) underneath the harder emotions (ie. anger, frustration, etc.).

Then, when you are ready to take a really big step in the forgiveness process, ask the Holy Spirit to help you cultivate compassion for your offender.  A principle in recovery that helps us see people with greater compassion is “hurt people hurt people”.  This means that, if someone acted in a hurtful way towards you, they probably have some deficit or pain in their own lives because healthy, whole, happy people usually aren’t intentionally hurtful.  For example, I once resented a person for some shaming and critical comments he made towards me.  However, when I thought more about his story, I realized that he was deeply wounded in childhood, which probably makes him feel ashamed and self-critical.  He was living with a lot of his own pain.  It’s no wonder he reacted towards me the way he did!  It doesn’t excuse what he did, but it helps me see him with greater compassion and empathy.  This is what Jesus called us to do when he taught us to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44).

4. Forgiveness is Reconciliation

Another fear people often experience when considering forgiveness is having to be in relationship with the offender again.  They are afraid that if they forgive someone, then it means that they have to be friends again and go back to how things were before.  This is a common misunderstanding that confuses forgiveness with reconciliation.  

Sometimes, the person who has hurt us is actually an unsafe person who really should not be trusted.  Trusting someone who is untrustworthy would only make you open to further abuse or injury, which would be foolish for you and enabling (and unloving) for the offender.  Forgiving someone does not mean that you have to automatically trust them again.  Trust is something that must be earned back.  

Remember, forgiveness is an altruistic choice to release the offender from your right to seek revenge and judge them.  However, reconciliation, or restoration of relationship, only happens when the offender truly repents for what they’ve done and can be trusted again.  More simply, you could say the formula for reconciliation looks like this:

Forgiveness (from the offended) + Repentance (from the offender) = Reconciliation

This is true of how God relates with us as well.  From the moment we hurt God by sinfully forsaking him, God offered his forgiveness to us.  God, because of his loving character, gave us his forgiveness.  However, God’s forgiveness didn’t restore our relationship with him until we were ready to truly repent, and turn from our sinful ways.  As soon as God’s forgiveness was met with our repentance, our relationship was restored and reconciled.  In other words, in order for reconciliation to happen, you need both forgiveness and repentance.

Therefore, if the offender who hurt you is not ready to acknowledge their wrongs and change, the relationship cannot return to how it once was.  You can still do your part, and forgive, thus reaping all the spiritual and psychological benefits of it, but you may want to exercise some boundaries to guard your heart and provide consequences for the offender’s unsafe behavior until he/she is ready to repent.

5. Forgiveness is Instant

Many people think that forgiveness is a one-time event or decision.  Maybe they have a moment of inspiration and choose to forgive someone.  Then later on, they notice that feelings of bitterness seem to resurface and wonder if they ever truly forgave.  The reality is that forgiveness is a process; it’s a practice that we must continually hold onto.  In Mark 11:25, Jesus taught his disciples about forgiveness, saying, “When you are praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”  In Greek, the word forgive is a present-active command, which means that it’s describing a continuous or habitual action.  Therefore, when Jesus gave the command to forgive, he is really saying something more like “keep on continually forgiving.”  He seemed to understand that the choice to forgive is something that needs to be exercised repeatedly and continuously in order for it to truly set us free.  

It’s going to be a process, so be patient with yourself, and allow God to use the process to make you a more forgiving and joyful person.

 

In the coming weeks, I’ll be addressing some Practical Tips on How to Forgive in Daily Life.  If you’d like more info or updates, sign up for our monthly prayer and newsletter so we can keep you in the loop.

Cru15: National Staff Conference

Check out this video (click on image above) from one of the main sessions at Cru15: Diversity Roundtable Discussion. The beginning of this video features staff holding signs with racist statements that were said to some fellow ethnic minority staff. Aaron and I had the privilege of being in such a powerful and eye opening video, especially amongst the ethnic diversity conversation that was being held at Cru's national staff conference.

We highly recommend visiting cru15.cru.org/archive for more session videos from our staff conference.