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How Can You Forgive Difficult People?

How Can You Forgive Difficult People?

The chasm that separates “us” from “them” yawns wider day by day, even as the bridge that longs to connect the two looms tall, largely unwalked. 

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a young man new to the workforce, my sole desire was to be just like the senior leader at the place where I worked. I idolized the guy, and for good reason. He was a powerful speaker, he had a magnetic personality, and it seemed no problem was too big for him to solve. He represented everything I hoped I would grow into: competence, confidence, success. But at the time, I wasn’t quite those things. My skills were untested. I was incredibly insecure. And on many occasions, despite my best intentions, my efforts just fell short.

On the heels of one such misfire, my boss—the senior leader I revered—came up to me and with cheeks flushed with rage said, “Brady, you are such an idiot! What a stupid thing to do! You idiot.”

He said his piece and then stormed off, satisfied that he had set me straight. Except that his words didn’t set me straight at all. Instead, they made my path crooked—crooked for years to come.

Learning to Let It Go

For way too long following that encounter with my boss, I allowed bitterness a seat at the table of my life, feeling completely justified in my hatred toward that…difficult…man. Yes, I had indeed made a big mistake. But to be shouted at, verbally abused, named an idiot? I hardly deserved all of that. And so I fumed. Every time I saw the man, I scowled. Every time I heard his name, I cringed. Every time I thought back on what he had said to me, I dug my heels further into my position: I was right, he was wrong, and I would not rest until he paid for what he had done.

The one problem with my thinking, of course, was that the man had no intention of “paying” for anything. While I stewed over the situation, he simply moved on. I was the only one I was punishing. Something had to give.

Years went by, and then one evening, when I should have been enjoying the beauty of the sunset I was staring at, I found myself having yet another shouting match with this man in my head. I imagined in my mind’s eye him standing toe to toe with me telling me I was an idiot, and then I imagined me firing back with a few choice words of my own. I had engaged in these futile conversations a thousand times before, each one satisfying something deep within me—the quest for justice, maybe, or else just a nod to my petty pride. But for some reason, on this night, during this mental shouting match, I saw things clearly for once. “Brady, what are you doing?” I asked myself. “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.”

I felt…idiotic. All over again.

I exhaled my frustration, let my head fall into my 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.”

I started praying 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 I asked. He helped me look past the pain and see the person—my former boss—with fresh perspective. To be sure, I could have done without that amperage and name-calling, but did the man’s behavior that day really warrant my sustained outrage?

Around the same time that I was softening toward the ways of God, the pastor of the church where I 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.”

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

The Person, Not the Problem

That church service happened many years ago, but still today I can see the experience for the revelation that it was. Something important clicked into place for me when I was reminded that because God looked at my sinfulness, my self-centeredness, my rebellion, my pride, and offered me forgiveness and grace anyway, I could do the same for every person he put in my path. I could 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. I could focus on the person, not the problem, and in so doing help usher in peace.

Let me give you another scenario that shows what I mean. The story centers on a dad I met a few months ago, who told me of his struggling daughter, a “prodigal,” he said of her. This young woman had defied her father’s authority, she had caused her parents to suffer both emotionally and financially in some pretty significant ways, she had failed chronically to keep her commitments, and she had disregarded her dad’s input and care. “It hurts, Brady,” he said to me, “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 went on to tell me how he wished his daughter would answer his calls or texts so that he “could ask for her forgiveness.”

“Forgiveness for what?” I asked him, thinking that it was the daughter, not him, who should be making such a request. The dad had thought this through.

“I’ve always talked with my kids about the importance of walking by faith,” he said, “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.

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

The way I see it, 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 leaders and pastors, which in my view 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? I know it sounds lofty—I do. I know you feel totally justified in not taking this path of forgiveness and peace. “You don’t know what they’ve done, Brady!” I can imagine you shouting. “The things they’ve said! The destruction that’s been done! The pain they’ve caused!”

I get it. I really do. More importantly, God gets it. He really does. And based on how I read the Scriptures, his advice remains unchanged: 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.”

This article originally appeared here.