A few years ago I had a falling out with someone. We weren't good friends, but we had worked together on some ministry projects. She led most of the projects and I enjoyed working with her. But then I led a project, and she was unhappy with the results. When she told me just how unhappy she was, I was shocked. We shared harsh words. And we've never related in the same way since.
I replayed the situation over and over in my mind. At first anger would well up within me. Then disgust. Then I started to doubt the good interactions we'd had and the advice she'd given me from time to time. I was so upset that I began questioning every interaction we'd ever had. And while I didn't have any real ties to this woman outside these ministry contexts, I couldn't shake the shock of knowing it had all gone so wrong, so fast.
When my anger subsided—much later—I tried to grow from the situation. As I prayed about it, I felt God encouraging me to learn what I could, even if I never fully understood what had happened and why. I talked with others who had served with us, apologizing for how the conflict had affected them and asking for their honest feedback so I could improve. I also talked about the situation with a close friend, knowing she'd tell me the truth, no matter how difficult it was to say. These conversations helped me learn things that I could have done better in the situation and I took those lessons to heart. I worked on forgiving the woman, thanked God for my honest friends and ministry partners, and tried to move on.
And it worked … for a while.
A few months later, a year after our falling out, I saw the woman at a church event. We had our usual cordial greetings, then moved on to talk with other people. I thanked God that day for how he'd grown me through this situation. I was grateful that I no longer felt anger when I saw her. In fact, I was genuinely happy to see her.
A week later, though, everything changed when I received a hurtful letter from her. Even though I'd been learning as a result of our falling out, it appeared she'd only grown angrier. I couldn't believe that the year had been so drastically different for the two of us.
Despite all the work God had done in my life that year, immediately that letter produced fresh anger in me. In fact, it was even worse the second time around! She attacked me personally in the letter, and my mind kept returning to the hurtful things she'd written. Rather than forgiveness, I began thinking negative thoughts: Maybe she isn't worthy of forgiveness. Maybe it's not worth my effort. Worse, though, I became angry with God: Why did I do all that work just to have to do it again? I began to avoid spending time with God because I knew what he'd tell me to do: Forgive her … again.
The Long Road of Forgiveness
One day as I drove home from work, I blurted out what I really wanted to say to God: "How can she say she loves you and claim that she follows you when she writes things like that?" About one second later, I realized how silly that was. I claimed to love him, I claimed to follow him, and yet I still messed up all the time! Even now I was unwilling to forgive this woman—even though God clearly commands us to do so (Colossians 3:13).
I broke down crying in the car. (I can't imagine what the other drivers must have been thinking!) I told God how hurt I was, how painful this fresh wound was, and I committed to forgiving her—but I confessed I could only do it with God's help.
I started to spend my drive home each day working with God on forgiving her. One day as I drove along the road I felt myself resisting, and I realized that what I really wanted was revenge—I wanted to write a letter just as nasty as the one she'd written. I had to surrender that desire, knowing it wasn't the best way.
Another day I confessed that I wanted God to show me what was wrong with her; I wanted to be able to place blame. Instead, God reminded me of a time when I'd been hurtful to a group of my friends. As I reflected on the situation, I realized I'd been acting out of a deep hurt at the time. And then God challenged me: How much hurt do you think this woman has experienced for her to act in this way?
I was dumbfounded. I'd been so focused on how I'd been hurt and how "crazy" she'd been, that I never considered what past experiences might have contributed to her actions. In that moment, I suddenly felt compassion for her. Although I didn't know her well enough to know her past hurts, I did understand how my own past hurts made me do crazy things sometimes. The compassion didn't erase my hurt—it didn't make her letter okay. But it did give me a new perspective.
Forgive (Even When You Can't Forget)
Since then, I've been praying for God to heal her and I've also been praying for my continued healing. I know he's more than able. Though I haven't had any further interactions with her, I hope that when I do I'll be able to enter into it full of compassion.
The hurt still wells up inside me from time to time. It may be sparked when a memory pops into mind, a difficult situation reminds me of what happened, or I run into a mutual acquaintance. Sometimes the hurt comes back when I least expect it. True forgiveness is difficult! It's ongoing work that makes you look long and hard at yourself, and it's certainly not comfortable. But I'm learning to trust God's ways over my own—slowly but surely.
Amy Jackson is associate editor of Christianity Today's SmallGroups.com.