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.
Consider two scenarios that show (and also do not show) what this looks like. The first centers on a dad who has a struggling daughter, a “prodigal,” he says of her. This young woman defied her father’s authority, she caused her parents to suffer both emotionally and financially in some pretty significant ways, she failed chronically to keep her commitments, and she disregarded her dad’s input and care. “It hurts,” the dad admits, “but I am choosing the path of love. When I think about her, I bless her. I affirm her. I actually wish her well.” The dad actually wishes his daughter would answer his calls or texts so that he “could ask for her forgiveness.”
“Forgiveness for what?” you might be wondering, thinking that it is the daughter, not the dad, who should be making such a request. Ah, but the dad has thought this through.
“I’ve always talked with my kids about the importance of walking by faith,” he says, “and yet I let this whole deal suffocate me with fear. I want my daughter to forgive me for that. That’s not who I want to be.”
This was a man who grasped what it was to look beyond the problem to see a real, living person standing there. Yes, he was probably due an apology. But instead of fixating on that “someday” turn of events, he took control over what was his to own.
Jesus, of course, was the master of this approach, as evidenced by his treatment of those he met. Think about his encounter with the woman caught in the act of adultery, for example. By all accounts, the woman really was engaged in adulterous behavior, a crime that in those days was punishable by death. It wasn’t just hearsay; she actually was at fault. And yet instead of homing in on that issue, picking up a few stones, and helping the naysayers bring about the woman’s sudden death, Jesus focused on her heart. Focus on the person, not the problem, remember? Yes, Jesus held strong opinions about broken sexuality, about marital impropriety, about sin. But when it came time to confront this woman, his big “gotcha” line was simply, “Go. Go, and sin and no more.” Jesus sought redemption instead of seeking retribution. He looked past the hard issue to the humanity. He kept the main thing the only thing.
There’s a second scenario to consider, this one centered on someone a little better-known. On the day after President Trump’s inauguration, in what would later be dubbed the “Women’s March,” more than 3.5 million people—many of them women and children—took to the streets in major cities all across the globe in protest of the president’s postures; his promised policy changes; and, it seemed, his very presence in the Oval Office.
Several high-profile women stepped up to a street-level platform to rally their troops with passionate pleas for women to “wake up,” and “fight for justice,” and, “prevail,” during which the pop icon Madonna approached the microphones and said, “Welcome to the revolution of love!”
Of course, this sounded like a laudable greeting, a noble vision, a faultless opening line, until Madonna then spewed some inflammatory vitriol that cannot be repeated here, aimed at those who took issue with the march.
To add insult to injury, a few seconds after that, Madonna mentioned in all seriousness that she had “often thought about blowing up the White House.”
Now, certainly, we must defend Madonna’s—and our own—right to hold whatever opinions she and we wish to keep close. But to espouse love while at the same time spewing obscenities will never bring about the unity we say we desire.
Before we become sanctimonious and smug about our approach to today’s troubling concerns, many Christ followers are no better, especially on social media. The world is watching for a new way and most often, we resort to the familiar way, of condescension, shame, accusations and anger.
Truly, the way of Jesus is the only way our gaps will get bridged.
The Case for Going High
We have two options before us, as it relates to dealing with the difficult people we keep encountering in this life. We can either continue harboring hatred for “them,” the ones who refuse to agree with our version of reality and thus make our lives a miserable mess. Or we can take a different route, the path marked by hard-won peace.
“When they go low, we go high,” has been a phrase used by many pastors and leaders—former First Lady Michelle Obama among them—which is a brilliant summary of this approach. We don’t have to give bitterness a seat at our table. We can let Jesus sit down instead.
We can ask forgiveness for holding onto bitterness. We can ask forgiveness for disparaging the one who harmed us. We can ask forgiveness for refusing to extend grace. We can ask forgiveness for engaging in those mental conversations in which we wage—and win—outright war.
We can ask forgiveness for being petty, for being sensitive, for being small. We can say the words that need to be said, owning our part, at least, of the wrong. “I am sorry. I know better. I failed to prioritize peace.”
We can do this again and again and again, just as Matthew 18 suggests that we should. “Seventy times seven,” Jesus offers by way of a starting point—in other words, “Quit focusing on a numeric goal. Make forgiveness the prevailing posture of your heart.”
What a goal, right? Yes, it sounds lofty. Yes, it is easier to stay planted in the decision to not take the path marked by peace. “You don’t know what they’ve done!” we want to shout. “The things they’ve said! The pain they’ve caused! The destruction that’s been done!”
It’s understandable. That pain? It is really real. But there’s something realer still, according to the Scriptures: the selfless choice to forgive. “Forgive. Let go of the bitterness. Drop the fuming rage. Stop with those mental conversations. For your part, choose to forgive.”
Even if the other person is more at fault than I am? Yes.
Even if the other person hasn’t even asked to be forgiven? Yes.
Even if I did nothing wrong? Yes. (And by the way, if you clung to those curses for even a moment, your claim is half-baked at best.)
Even if, even if, even if … ?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Come before God with words of forgiveness on your lips. Release the other person from your rage. Repent of your own wrongdoing. And ask God to help you bless the one who has hurt you, as you live out the days ahead. No matter the weight of the issue, God whispers the same thing to you that I once heard: “You can let this thing go—you can. You can choose to let it go.”