Rev. John Richardson, previously a pastor in the EFCA, serves as a mediator and as director of reconciliation services for Live at Peace Ministries.
In college, a friend offered me his old bowling ball. I rarely went bowling but said, “Sure, I’ll take it.” Three kids and four houses later I found this bowling ball while cleaning the attic. I asked myself, Why have I lugged this around for 13 years when I never bowl?
I donated the ball to a thrift store then looked around for other unnecessary clutter I was harboring. The items in the attic were easy to identify. Then I tried to apply the same approach to the stuff inside my heart. This was harder to label and deal with as I realized that I was carrying bitterness, hurt and resentment from a conflict several years earlier.
Dean and I had held sharply different ideas for the direction of the church where we served together in leadership. The conflict escalated and the church board tried to promote reconciliation. Despite repeated attempts at reconciliation, Dean left the church, and in time my family moved to a different community. Yet years later, I still carried resentment and mistrust.
Fractured relationships carry deep wounds, whether the context is family, church, workplace or friendship. Unresolved conflict is always accompanied by the opportunity to harbor bitterness, hurt and unforgiveness.
Full reconciliation depends upon participation by each person in the conflict. But even if circumstances—or the person’s refusal—prevent that complete reconciliation, you can step out of the unhealthy cycle. If you’re finding it difficult to do so. . . .
Recognize that harboring an unforgiving attitude has little impact on the other person. Clinging to an offense might give you momentary satisfaction, but it rarely ruins the other person’s day. When necessary, God is much better at punishing sin than you are.
Explore the reason for not letting go. Fear, pride and shame often feed unforgiveness. Fear will cause you to shrink back so you won’t be hurt again. Pride will judge the other person (are you using the “he’s unapproachable” excuse?). Shame will rob you of your God-given identity. When you uncover these heart conditions, confess them and accept God’s gifts of courage, humility and acceptance so that you can move forward.
Compare the benefit with the cost. Sin whispers that clinging to hurt gives you control, security, power and value. The truth? Holding an offense robs you of these things; the memories and the pain actually control you.
Let go of expected outcomes. There is no guarantee the other person will change, even if you do. Focus on the outcome God guarantees. The Bible contains many promises for you as you walk in faith and obedience, including His presence and His peace (Philippians 4:6-9), and the assurance of His sovereignty (Ephesians 1:11).
I had kept a file of documents and notes regarding my conflict with Dean—it served as a reminder of how unjustly I was treated. Not long after I donated my bowling ball to charity, I shredded that file and let go of the hostility in my heart. Now both my attic and my heart are tidier.