When I was in fifth grade, a new girl came to my school – and everything changed. All of a sudden, my ENTIRE group of friends had ditched me. She thought I was weird, and convinced them to choose: me, or her. She won, and I was devastated. They would fill up the lunch table so I couldn’t sit with them. They’d make fun of me behind my back (literally. I could hear them when my back was turned). They would laugh at nothing as I passed and talk loudly about how many sleepovers they were having with this new girl, how many movies they went to see with her, all the times they went over to her house to hang out. The last straw was when I went to sign up for the basketball team – only to find out that she had taken the last spot on the team. There were a limited number of players that could sign up. She’d gotten to it right before me.
For two years, I literally hated this girl. She made fun of me. She was mean to me. And I didn’t even know her! Before I even knew who she was, she kicked me out of my own friend group. I never saw it coming. And I couldn’t seem to let go of the animosity I carried for her.
Then, low and behold, seventh grade rolled around – and I got an assigned seat next to this girl, my inner monologue’s Arch Nemesis. I was furious. I fumed about it to my parents for days. The girl who seemingly ruined my school life? Yeah, I was stuck next to her.
But then, something changed. I don’t remember why I mentioned this, but in passing I told her that I liked to climb trees. And shockingly, she said she liked to, too. She then told me that before her dad left, she and her family used to go up to a cabin every summer, and she and her sister would climb a huge pine tree in the backyard where they could see miles away.
The story hit me. Yeah, the fact that we had something in common was starting to bridge the gap, but something else she mentioned struck me: before her dad left. I never knew her dad left. I didn’t know anything about her. And slowly, my heart started to melt.
Does that mean we became best friends? No. But at eighth grade graduation, the last time I would ever see her, we both approached each other in tears to apologize, ask for forgiveness, and hug. Seriously. It was like something out of a movie.
I think the point here is that, I didn’t know why she treated me the way she did, and so I couldn’t forgive her – until I realized that she was probably dealing with a lot internally or at home, things that I didn’t have to worry about. I have the best dad in the world. I couldn’t imagine life without him. She had a dad that left. My heart broke for her. Suddenly, I didn’t see her as Public Enemy #1. I saw her as a girl who was probably hurting in ways that I didn’t know or understand, and she just happened to take them out on me because she knew no better or was incapable of anything better.
I believe there’s a misconception about what Jesus meant when He told us “Forgive” (Matthew 6:14-15) and “Do not judge” (Matthew 7:1). Common culture likes to throw those terms around. If someone does something that’s very morally wrong, we’re told the correct thing to say is, “Hey, I don’t judge.” But how does that do any good?
Forgiving/not judging is not the same as turning a blind eye to the faults and wrongs of another. It’s not “not caring” what they say or do. Please care. Care very much about them.
Forgiving/not judging is, really, pardoning others of the wrongs they’ve done to you, pardoning them of the faults you perceive them to have, and acknowledging that you don’t know everything about them/their life. We judge when we measure people up to our standard of ideals. Frankly, most people aren’t able to live up to that standard – not even ourselves. And when others fall short, we perceive it as a character flaw. That’s where the forgiveness comes in. In my own life, I need to learn how to forgive others who are flaky. I am a committed loyalist who would never ditch out on anyone for any reason (probably because of the situation I just mentioned at the beginning of this post). But I have a lot of friends who, without even realizing it, forget that we’ve committed to meeting up at such-and-such date and time, or will cancel last minute constantly (to the point where I start expecting a cancellation more than the actual get-together), or will inadvertently ignore me if another person is introduced into our conversation. This to me is a character flaw that causes me to feel hurt and blame them. (“So-and-so is such a flake!”) But I’ve had to realize that those friends simply aren’t aware that what they do is hurtful, it’s done unintentionally, and whether I like it or not, they are not capable of living up to my expectations. So I have to forgive them for it. And it’s made all the difference.
So what are some ways that have helped me let go of bitterness, quit judging & blaming, and finally forgive others?
- Acknowledge that you don’t know everything. There are so many things you aren’t aware of that a person may be dealing with or going through that affect their behavior. Of course it isn’t fair that you get the brunt of it, but just understand that they probably don’t know how to handle it any other way. They just take it out on whoever they can. When people are dealing with stress or grief, they aren’t always at their best.
- Recognize your own faults, too. Now, I’m not saying to beat yourself up over everything you think is wrong with you. I’m just saying that for as many faults and flaws and they may have, you have a few of your own as well. Don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking just because you’re not blatantly mean to people like they are, you’re blameless. We all have areas that need improvement. It’s just easier to see their’s.
- Broaden the sphere of people you’re exposed to. This builds understanding and compassion. I’m not saying go out and befriend El Chapo. I’m just saying, at least encounter people from all walks of life. I had no idea how sheltered I was until I started working at a thrift store. You get every kind of struggling person – old folks, young unwed mothers, people who smell like weed, people who are on work release from prison, people with mental and physical handicaps, people who speak little to no English, people who can barely scrape together a few cents for a $0.69 shirt. Before this, I use to avoid a lot of these kinds of people, thinking they were scary or gross. But now, I chit-chat with them all at my register, and I see them as they are: people.
- Read. Books have allowed me a peak into the interior life of a diverse group of (albeit fictional) characters. Even if the characters disagree with my beliefs (in particular, I read a story about a kid who grew up Catholic but had some bad experiences and now writes about the faith with mockery). Don’t shy away from these differences. Instead, take them in with a grain of salt, and consider what caused them to think that way. It helps you understand why people in real life might believe or act that way.
- Volunteer. I’ll never forget my first time volunteering at a soup kitchen in Detroit. Almost everybody was dressed in tattered, dirty clothing, had missing teeth, and didn’t smell too pleasant. But they were kind, and always said “God bless you” as we scooped food onto their trays. Serving others builds humility.
- Go on a mission trip. Before, people with special needs used to scare me. I didn’t know how to act around them or help them. But then I went on a mission trip to Boston, where we spent several days moving a cognitively impaired man out of one apartment where he had hoarded things and let filth accumulate – the smell cannot be expressed in words – into another apartment, where we had to sort through his random, grimey stuff. But let me tell you, my group fell in love with him. He was sweet and quirky and funny. At the end, he hugged me and said, “I want to keep this one. She gets to stay with me!” and smiled his toothless grin. I’m not afraid of people like him anymore. Maybe there’s a certain kind of person that scares you, or that you’d rather avoid. Spend a week helping people like them. I guarantee you’ll be changed forever.
- Hear their story. Sometimes it helps to actually sit down with the person who has hurt you and talk with them, listen, and try to understand their side. In high school, I got called into the guidance counselor’s office because a girl in my class who hated me actually wanted to “reconcile”. From what I remember, she admitted to harboring a lot of jealousy towards me, and that’s why she was always acting out and being mean to me. Finally, it all made sense, and I was better able to forgive her.
- Ask for an apology, but don’t expect one. Sometimes you need to tell someone that they hurt you (in a gentle but honest way). It’s okay to let them know that what they did affected you. Tell them you’d appreciate an apology (be specific about what), but don’t hold it against them if their apology doesn’t live up to your expectations.
- See people the way Jesus does. God knows what’s going on in a person’s heart. Even when they mess up, He still loves them and continues to see their worth. Especially with people who’ve hurt us, we must try to do the same. We must still acknowledge that whether or not we see it, God sees their worth. And despite how we feel about them, Jesus will never stop loving them. I find reminding myself of that fact helps me forgive every time.
Suggested Prayer: Jesus, train my eyes to be like yours. Help me see people the way you see them. Train my heart. Help me to love like you love. Help me to forgive like you forgive. Grant me a heart of mercy and compassion.
Suggested Song: “Jesus, Friend of Sinners” by Casting Crowns