Thursday, August 6, 2009

Overlooking the offense

This is a topic that has cropped up over the years numerous times. Here's the scenario: somebody does you wrong (or does your loved-one wrong). You are hurt -- you FEEL hurt. The hurt turns into bitterness, bitterness against that person. Eventually, after rehearsing the damage in your mind repeatedly, you become angry. The anger grows because the situation is unresolved. You haven't been vindicated; you've been victimized. Slowly you realize that these strong feelings in you are not good, not healthy. They're hurting your soul, but still you stubbornly hang onto them. Even after the person who's hurt you has moved on, forgotten the issue, it's still big to you. It's ever present.

The initial offense has turned into a festering cancer of the soul. The damage you're doing to yourself is much greater than the original hurt that the other person did.

The first time this happened to me, I wasn't aware of the awful thing I was doing. I was SO hurt, so angry, so affronted -- I gave full rein to the anger, and bitterness grew. By the time I realized that I was sinning, it was way past the early stages, and it took contrite repentance and much time to rid myself of the evil I'd allowed inside me. I had to confess my own sin.

And I promised myself that, next time, I wouldn't do it. I would NEVER do it again.

It wasn't long before God gave me another large opportunity. And a third, and a fourth.

Each time, the offending party was a fellow-Christian, involved in Christian ministry with us. So I never had the "out" of saying, "Well, he's a pagan, so what should I expect?" No, these were brothers in Christ who should know better, who should be caring for us as we were caring for them.

But my first lesson was well-learned, and I did not succumb to bitterness or anger again. How did I do this?

A book by Lou Priolo (and a dear friend's study with me on this book) helped tremendously. The book is called "The Heart of Anger," and is actually about how to handle angry children. But when I read one short passage, just as I was facing my second opportunity for bitterness, I was struck and convicted. Priolo's description of the fateful progression from "feeling hurt" to stubbornly clutching hatred like an addict gripping his bottle, rung crystal clear. I recognized myself. And I ate up his advice.

How can we respond to being offended? Well, Priolo says that we should evaluate the situation and make absolutely sure that we HAVE been offended. Is there any other explanation for our feelings? Are we over-sensitive? Was the action deliberate? Was the person having a "bad day"? Am I SURE that this was a true, big, purposeful harm?

If the answer is yes, then I have two options. I can forgive, or I can overlook the offense. Now, I'd heard of forgiving. I'd never understood it well, but I'd tried to offer forgiveness to others as God had given it to me. But to experience real forgiveness for someone takes interaction. Talk together, explain how they've hurt you, see if they accept that you might feel damaged by their actions, find out if they'll at least apologize.

[The 4 situations I mentioned above were BIG situations though, ones in which it would be difficult for the other party to admit fault because they would then have had to reverse actions that they did NOT want to reverse. "Talking it out" works for small/medium sized things. It may not work well for big-life events.]

What if the "forgiveness" option doesn't work? What if there's not opportunity to discuss or address it? What if there's no repentance on their part, and any engagement only increases the conflict? What if the offense is so large that forgiveness just won't come yet?

Is there another path to take, to avoid the anger and bitterness?

Priolo gave me another option. He calls it "overlooking the offense." This term comes from Proverbs 19:11: "Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense." So scripture talks about this option. It's a good thing. It is an act that brings glory (beauty), and it indicates good sense and wisdom in the person who is overlooking. Peter also talks about how love covers a multitude of sins - this is (according to Priolo) the same thing. It's the act of overlooking, of covering over, of willingly cloaking an ugly thing. It is NOT denying that it exists, or saying it wasn't hurtful or wrong. It's not redefining sin as something else. It looks the offense in the face and says, "I'm going to remove your teeth. I'm gonna acknowledge that you've hurt me, but I've decided that I'm moving on and deciding, spiritually, not to "press charges." Does that make sense?

This was such a freeing thing to me! A new option! And it was marvelously successful in dealing with subsequent harms in Christian ministry. I would nod at the offenses as they came down the pike, and say, "Yes, you're there again. I see that. I trust God to take care of me and mitigate the effects of what you've done. I won't allow my heart to be corrupted by hate again. I'm overlooking this. It's an act of kindness to one who does not deserve it. I can pity the one who has offended and hurt me, but I won't tolerate anger in myself."

It worked, again and again. It takes dogged vigilance, rather like taking your medication on a daily basis whenever symptoms arise. The anger would try to rear its ugly head. My mind would attempt to rehearse the events of the offense. I would tell it "no!" And over time, it has been like a miracle of the soul.

I know this has been a long description; I'm sorry if it's boring to some, but this has been a revolutionary concept in my life, and perhaps it will help someone out there as well.

2 comments:

  1. feel your pain, sister. never want to walk that bitter road again! and thanks for the lesson...doesn't the apostle paul say something about it being good for him to repeat things?

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  2. Thank you, MK, for this exploration. I recently felt the soul-deadening effects of a lack of forgiveness, and enlightenment came from a number of directions, not least of which was the Gospel for yesterday, telling of the unforgiving servant, and the homily which reminded us that humility is always better than being right, because humility is a virtue and being right is not.
    Thanks also for the book recommendation.

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