Acknowledging Pain

This is the third in a series about forgiveness. Click here to read the first post in the series.

I would say that the first step in forgiveness begins in our own hearts, because we can’t reach out to others if our hearts are full of pain and anger. This sounds simple, but nothing about forgiveness is simple or easy, unless the offenses are minor. Remember,  the greater the offense, the more serious the wound, the deeper the pain, and the more difficult to forgive.

I think that the beginning stages of forgiveness might be especially messy, as a person enters the stages of grief and steps of recovery. There’s often a lot of anger and tears when a person acknowledges the offense and pain. I think acknowledging the pain is necessary, especially for victims of abuse, who often have learned to ignore pain, explain it away, blame themselves, or to falsely believe they deserve it. No one deserves abuse.

In my own life, I remember times when my sister hurt me deeply, and I curled up on my bed telling myself, “It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt. I will forgive her.” I really wanted to obey God, and to be a person of love and forgiveness, you understand. I didn’t want to be unforgiving and hateful. After awhile, I was able to shove down the pain and forgive. This sounds good, but it felt like swallowing a grenade. Shoving down pain is like shoving down trash in a waste basket. Eventually you can’t shove down any more pain and it overflows and spills out.

I talked with a friend, once, who said that her Dad wasn’t the best Dad growing up, but she ended up establishing a loving relationship with him as an adult. The problem is that she had unresolved pain from childhood, yet felt bad about feeling it when she had “forgiven” her Dad as an adult. “What do I do with pain?” she asked. The pain was hurting her, but had no place to go. I told her to imagine that she had a basement of boxes filled with stuff. She couldn’t just leave them there because they were cluttering the basement. They needed to be dealt with. But she couldn’t just get throw everything out because there might be valuable things she wanted to keep. So what would she do? She’d have to go through each box, looking at each item, and sort them into piles of what needed to be saved and what needed to be thrown out. In the same way, she could look at her memories and saved the precious ones that were worth keeping, while confronting the painful memories, forgiving her Dad for them, and then asking God to take them away.

I had done this a few years before when I wrote an email, which I showed to friends, in which I acknowledged the pain that I had felt in my life. I wrote the email because the friends had said to me, “Does it really matter that your family did what they did to you?” In response, I wrote, “It MATTERS that I was rejected by my Mom and family because what they did was wrong, and it damaged my ability to trust…” Acknowledging the offenses allowed me to begin dealing with them, and I was able to throw out a lot of pain.
This sounds simple, but painful memories can be overwhelming, and it can take years to sort through emotional pain. When someone hurts us, it is easy to see them as monsters with no good characteristics whatsoever. In sorting through my pain, I was able to acknowledge that they wounded me, while also acknowledging good things they had done. Yes, my Mom is dysfunctional, manipulative, deceptive, and unforgiving. Yes she rejected me and other daughters. Yes, she accused me of things I had never done. These things are very WRONG, and it MATTERS that it wounded and damaged me, but I have good memories too, of sacrifices she made and good things she taught me. I am now able to look at both the bad and the good in my Mom.
But acknowledging pain does not end here. My friend told me that in the 12 Step programs, one step is to acknowledge the pain people have caused us. However, another part is to acknowledge the pain we have caused others. She told me that most people can begin acknowledging that, yes, they have been hurt by others and, yes, it was wrong, but few people can bear to acknowledge that they have been responsible for causing pain to others, and often at this point they drop out of the program.
God seems to have led me through many of the aspects of the 12 Step programs without ever having gone through them. After I had been able to acknowledge that I had been hurt, and it matters, and it was wrong, God began to deal with me with the pain I had caused others. I started out telling myself that I wasn’t the one who rejected my family, I wasn’t the one who said nasty things, I wasn’t the one who lied and deceived. This was true. When I began to recognize that my family was dysfunctional I told myself that I had been completely unaware of the dysfunctions as a child, and if I had known of them, I wouldn’t have done them. This, also, was probably true–because once I was aware of the dysfunctions, I began to work to overcome them. However, the fact is that, even though I wasn’t aware of the dysfunctions, I had participated in them, and by it I had hurt others. This horrified me, and at first I was unable to acknowledge it, I just shoved it down and blamed my family for the wrongs they had committed against me.
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?… if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?” (Romans 2:1-4, 19-23, NIV)
The same passage in The Message puts it like this:

Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in your own crimes and misdemeanors. But God isn’t so easily diverted. He sees right through all such smoke screens and holds you to what you’ve done. You didn’t think, did you, that just by pointing your finger at others you would distract God from seeing all your misdoings and from coming down on you hard? Or did you think that because he’s such a nice God, he’d let you off the hook? Better think this one through from the beginning. God is kind, but he’s not soft. In kindness he takes us firmly by the hand and leads us into a radical life-change…I have a special word of caution for you who are sure that you have it all together yourselves and, because you know God’s revealed Word inside and out, feel qualified to guide others through their blind alleys and dark nights and confused emotions to God. While you are guiding others, who is going to guide you? I’m quite serious. While preaching “Don’t steal!” are you going to rob people blind? Who would suspect you? The same with adultery. The same with idolatry.

I realized with horror that if I condemned my family for the pain they had caused me, I was also condemning myself. If I forgive myself, I had to forgive them.  I recognized that I may not have said or done the things they had accused me of, but I had certainly said and done hurtful things in my life, and although I hadn’t  seen or understood the family dysfunctions, I had participated in them. This completely crushed my pride and yanked me from my moral high ground. It was a turning point for me. It’s difficult to accuse or hate others for the dirt in their life when my own face and hands are dirty. I realized in a very deep way that we truly ALL are sinners in need of a Savior and that the ground is level at the cross.

There came a day when I went to each person in my family who was angry with me, and I asked them to forgive me for anything I had done that hurt them. It was the most pride-crushing, humiliating thing I had ever done. I did not try to explain or excuse my own actions, I did not try to add “but you, also, hurt me.” I simply asked for forgiveness for the hurt I had caused. One relationship was healed as a sister reciprocated by asking me to forgive her in return. Other relationships were not, but that takes us into a matter that I will write about in another post.

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