Imagine a young man new to the workforce, twenty-five years old, his sole desire to be just like the senior leader at the place where he works. The younger idolizes the older, and for good reason. The leader is a powerful speaker, he has a magnetic personality, and it seems no problem is too big for him to solve. He represents everything the young man hopes to grow into: competence, confidence, success, even as the newbie isn’t quite like that just yet. His skills are untested. He is incredibly insecure. And on many occasions, despite his best intentions, his efforts fall terribly short.

On the heels of one such misfire, the boss—the senior leader so revered—comes up to the one already wrestling with insecurity and with cheeks flush with rage says, “You are such an idiot! What a stupid thing to do! You idiot.”

He says his piece and then storms off, satisfied that he has set the young man straight. Except that his words don’t set him straight at all. Instead, they make his path crooked—crooked for years to come.

Learning to Let it Go

For way too long following encounters like this one, a real danger lurks. Those of us who have been stung allow bitterness a seat at the table of our lives, feeling completely justified in our hatred toward those … difficult … ones. Maybe we did make a mistake. Maybe we did deserve a rebuke. But to be shouted at, verbally abused, named an idiot? Nobody deserves all of that. And so we fume. Every time we see the offender, we scowl. Every time we hear his name, we cringe. Every time we think back on what they said, we dig our heels further into our position: we were right, they were wrong, and we will not rest until they pay for what they have done.

The one problem with this thinking, of course, is that our offenders generally have no intention of “paying” for anything. While we stew over the situation, they simply moved on. We are the only ones we are punishing. Something has to give.

One such wounded soul allowed this dynamic to perpetuate itself for years, until the evening came when he should have been enjoying the beauty of the sunset he was staring at, even as he found himself having yet another shouting match with his offender in his head. He imagined in his mind’s eye the aggressor standing toe to toe with him, berating him and demeaning him, and then he imagined firing back with a few choice words of his own. He had engaged in these futile conversations a thousand times before, each one satisfying something deep within him—the quest for justice, maybe, or else just a nod to his petty pride. But for some reason, on this night, during this mental shouting match, he saw things clearly for once. “What are you doing?” he asked himself. “This is insane. The encounter happened forever ago, the guy lives thousands of miles away now, you’re mature enough to know better than to let him live rent-free in your head. And yet look at you! You’re letting someone you don’t even like control your every thought.”

He felt like a bona fide fool.

He exhaled his frustration, let his head fall into his hands, and made a straightforward request of God. “Father, you say to bless those who curse me, but honestly, I don’t know where to start. Help me learn how to bless this guy instead of wishing for his demise.”

He began to pray that prayer from time to time, and across a period of months, an interesting thing began to unfold, which is that God actually did what he had asked. God helped him to look past the pain and see the person with fresh perspective. To be sure, he could have done without the amperage and name-calling, but did the man’s behavior that day really warrant sustained outrage?

Around the same time that he was softening toward the ways of God, the pastor of the church where he now worked was teaching on the subject of forgiveness. He stood there at the end of his talk and said, “If you have ever been hurt by someone’s words or actions, and for whatever reason that person never sought you out to make things right, then please look up here at me. Look at my eyes, and listen to my words. On that person’s behalf, I want to tell you I am sorry. I am so sorry for the wrongs that were done, for the pain they caused, for the wounds you have borne. Please, forgive me. Please, forgive them. Forgive the one who wronged you.”

He sat in his seat during that church service, his eyes trained on that pastor, his heart at last set free. “You have been forgiven so that you can forgive,” he sensed God whispering to him. “What this pastor is saying is true. You can choose to let this thing go.”

The Person, Not the Problem

For so many of us, this is how real change happens. Something important clicks into place when we are reminded that because God looked at our sinfulness, our self-centeredness, our rebellion, our pride, and offered us forgiveness and grace anyway, we can do the same for those he chooses to put in our path.

We can look past the situation at hand—the disagreement, the out-of-line comment, the outright disparagement, the vomiting out of rage—and see a beating heart there, in need of understanding, of tenderness, of love. We can focus on the person, not the problem, and in so doing help usher in peace.