Maryanne’s aging parents are still independent but they need more support than ever. Her Dad has a complicated health history including diabetes and a recent recurrence of cancer. Maryanne has four siblings who all live within an hour’s drive to their parents; however, Maryanne is the child who seems to always take her parents to the doctor and who is in contact daily with her parents.
Maryanne’s husband maintains her parent’s lawn and frequently does their home maintenance. Maryanne cooks three meals a week for her folks and stops by to check on them almost every day. She is also managing her own household and works full time. Not to mention, Maryanne has recently had a lot of added responsibilities with her daughter’s extracurricular school activities.
Recently, she asked her siblings if they could take over some of the duties of supporting their parents during a particularly hectic month. None of her siblings stepped up to the plate and each had excuses that did not seem valid. Once again, Maryanne was stretched thin with responsibilities and work that left her exhausted and angry.
Reasons We’re Angry
During the course of any given day many of us get ticked off at least once. Something or more likely someone becomes a source of anger or frustration. There are a number of reasons why we get angry with people, but let me suggest a few of the most common:
Hurt. When our heart gets wounded. Most of us know what it feels like to be left out, overlooked, undervalued, or put-down.
Injustice. We all have a sense of right and wrong and of what constitutes fair treatment. When wrong is committed against us or someone we love; when people don’t do what they say they are going to do; when others don’t pull their weight; at those times a sense of fair-play is violated. Betrayal, especially by someone we had trusted, is an especially difficult form of injustice to resolve.
Fear. When there is a perceived threat to something that gives us a sense of identity or security.
Frustration. Everyone has a God-given need for significance and to leave a positive mark on the world. We want to see our work make a difference. Sometimes roadblocks to moving toward our goals, are people.
Can We Just Let it Go?
So these are some of the reasons why we get ticked off. The next question is: What do we do about it?
Do we intend to stay ticked off indefinitely? Well, actually an awful lot of us do indeed stay ticked off —sometimes for weeks and even years. We just can’t seem to let things go. We have the capacity to stew on offenses and sometimes develop deep pockets of resentment or lack of forgiveness that research shows actually hurts our health over time.
In my current work, I’ve actually seen how hate can actually hurt health!
Those who do not forgive show an increase in sympathetic nervous system responses and release more stress hormones over a longer period. In other words, if I don’t forgive someone who has hurt me, the one who will suffer the most is me. So it is important for our friend Maryanne’s own health and well-being to be able to find forgiveness toward her siblings who have let her down.
According to Seawell et al. in Psychology and Health, “As a negative response to interpersonal offense that commonly involves a grudge, resentment and revenge, lack of forgiveness has been consistently related to poorer health in published research.”
Soon after Nelson Mandela was freed from prison he was asked about how he felt after all those years spent unjustly behind bars. He said this, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
So if it is liberating and beneficial to forgive, why might Maryanne resist something that is good for her? This might be hard for all of us to admit, but harboring an offense can actually feel good.
Self-Righteousness: The Shadow Side of Human Nature
One of the shadow sides of human nature is self-righteousness. If we are really honest, sometimes we enjoy feeling that we are better than someone else. If Maryanne forgives her siblings, she may sacrifice her sense of being “right.” Self-righteousness is a belief in one’s own moral superiority. The impasse that prevents resolution and change in most human conflicts and prejudices is rooted in refusal to release an inflated sense of moral superiority.
When we hold onto a grudge it feels like we are in control, although in the long run we end up being the ones controlled by the very offense that has hurt us. Another reason Maryanne might resist forgiving her siblings is the false notion that forgiveness means that she has to let them off the hook. Forgiveness does not mean that hurt and injustices are allowed to continue. But forgiveness does mean that even in the face of painful hurts and injustices, self-righteousness will need to be released in order to forgive. Self-righteousness feels like it will protect us because it does after all put us on “higher ground.” Giving up “high ground” is an act of humility and submission to the nurture and protection of God without ever inviting continual hurt or injustices by another.
No Denial and Yet No Repayment
A person who forgives does not need to deny that injustice or wrongdoing occurred. In an article called Forgive to Live researchers state, “Importantly, forgiveness is not condoning, excusing, denying, minimizing, or forgetting the wrong. It can occur without reconciliation, which requires the participation of both parties, if the person who caused the hurt is absent, deceased, or remains unsafe.” (Toussaint et al. Forgive to Live)
“Forgiveness can be defined as a freely made choice to give up revenge, resentment, or harsh judgments toward a person who caused a hurt, and to strive to respond with generosity, compassion, and kindness toward that person.” (Toussaint et al. Forgive to Live)
Family therapist, Ruthanne Batstone, describes forgiveness as; “A willingness to absorb or pay the emotional debt for the offense and not seek revenge or payment in return.”
Therefore, forgiveness is a one-sided emotional transaction. The debt of the person who has offended is cancelled which results in peace of mind and heart for the one who forgives.
So if Maryanne forgives her siblings it is not a denial of the pain of their offenses. The offense is acknowledged with a sacrificial and costly willingness to absorb the debt without demanding repayment.
Finding Power to Forgive
How will someone in Maryanne’s situation find the power to forgive? A great place to start is to remember how completely we have been forgiven. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” is a powerful line from Jesus prayer from the Sermon on the Mount. One way to forgive is to remember our own humanity and frailty. All of us who are loved well are also known well and that means we are not loved because we are perfect, but rather “warts and all”. If we meditate long enough on being loved by God and others, it will create the space in our hearts to do likewise and to “forgive those who have trespassed against us.”
For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. 1Thes 1:4
This good news is the antidote to those personal grudges birthed in the soil of self-righteousness. The offenses Maryanne feels are real. Her time-energy-emotions have all been “trespassed” on by her siblings. Her flesh will naturally want to hold on to the grudge and seek retribution– especially in her heart. Maryanne needs a power beyond herself in order to forgive. And thankfully she has the power of God dwelling within her through the Holy Spirit.
Maryanne is made complete, righteous, clean, and totally loved by the work of Christ on her behalf. The Holy Spirit has nudged her to the holy place of discomfort with her state of anger. She has begun to pray regularly for the power to forgive and the wisdom to respond with both strength and tenderness, especially when she feels like she is being used. Forgiveness has been an ongoing process but her ruminating thoughts about the injustices have slowed down.
Is it Time to Confront or Overlook?
Scriptural wisdom gives two possible responses to an offense by another. Sometimes you go to the person and talk about the offense, especially if it is needed to keep the relationship free of resentment and for the sake of loving the offender well.
- “If a brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.” (Mt. 18:15)
- “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; It is to his glory to overlook an offense.” (Prov. 19:11)
Sometimes you overlook the offense if you are able to absorb the debt without resentment and it is more of a minor offense. Part of living in any relationship, any community is “patience, bearing with each other in love” (Eph. 4:2). Recalling the Lord’s mercy and sacrifice has prompted Maryanne to become more intentional about confession of her own sin. She is better able to admit to God some of the darker pleasures she experiences when feeling superior to her siblings. Maryanne is also receiving God’s grace to forgive her siblings. She finds herself approaching them these days with a cleaner heart that is not so dependent on their response to her.
Sometimes Maryanne brings up offenses when they happen–and sometimes she lets them go. We often need wisdom and discernment to know whether we let an offense go or talk to the person about it.
When trying to decide, the guiding principle is love. We are recipients of a love that has covered “a multitude of sins.” So we can let go of our need to be right, resentment, and unhealthy grudges. And we can become more peaceful and honest with both God and others.
This post is based on an article by the author that was originally published by Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
Photo by Andrew Cowan.