This series was refined and enhanced to become Making Sense of Forgiveness, published by New Growth Press in 2021.

Where do effective conversations begin? Often, we forget that good conversations begin where someone is rather than where they should be. When we rush the journey because we are excited about the destination, we do not serve our friend well. Forgiveness may be one of the subjects where Christians are most prone to rush one another.

When a friend begins a conversation where forgiveness is relevant, what do we know about them? We know they’re hurting. Whatever journey God has for them will start with understanding their pain. Take a moment and read what God said to Moses when he was going to lead Israel out of Egypt.

“Then the Lord said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings (Exodus 3:7, emphasis added).’”

God is repetitious – seeing, hearing, knowing – to emphasize the importance of being known in cultivating trust. If we don’t take the time to understand, our friend will feel more like a problem to be solved than a person to be heard. This undermines trust a second time; first – by the offense needing forgiveness, and second – by our insensitive rushing to the remedy. No one wants an orthodontist who promises to align their teeth in 6 weeks. The process would be too painful even if the outcome is “right.”

Notice the connection between understanding and trust building that is portrayed in Hebrews 4:15-16.

“For we do not have a high priest [Jesus] who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

It is because Jesus deeply understands our life challenges (temptations and weaknesses) that we are compelled to draw near with confidence that what he offers is what we need. This is what it looks like to be an “ambassador for Christ” (II Cor. 5:17). We embody this priestly role of identifying with the pain of our friend in order to cultivate courage to take the steps ahead. Jesus built relational capital to cultivate motivation towards the gospel-hope he offered. Our conversations about forgiveness should do the same. This happens through compassionate questions and patient listening.[1]

Every situation is different, so some of these questions below will be less relevant to some situations, but here are questions that could help you get to know where someone is starting their journey. If the answers to these questions is obvious, don’t ask the questions for asking’s sake; just acknowledge the reality that these things add to the pain.

  • What happened? Allow your friend to tell their story as it comes to their mind.
  • What cultivated the trust that made this offense more hurtful? Trust is often a factor that serves as a microphone to pain. Sometimes pain is as much a function of the trust violated (think, gunpowder) as it is the offense (think, fire). If we only assess the size and heat of the fire, we miss the point.
  • What is missing from your life as a result of the offense that is adding to the pain? Frequently, the indirect consequences of an offense can be as disruptive as the primary offense itself. If we don’t know the dominos of the offense, our friend is likely to feel like we “just don’t get it.”
  • What other relationships are compromised because of the strain? Our relationships tend to be like threads in a spider web. Changing one distorts the shape of the others.
  • What emotions do you cycle through as you deal with this offense? Often anger gets all the attention when forgiveness is relevant. Don’t neglect hearing fear, grief, confusion, and other relevant emotions.
  • What steps have you taken to make things better and how did that go? What steps are you considering? What your friend thinks is next also helps you get to know where they are starting their journey. As you listen here, get to know the why behind the what.
  • Who else do you have supporting you and how understood do you feel? The less understood your friend feels by others, the more weight they will put on your relationship. You should be aware of this dynamic.
  • What question do you wish I’d ask that I’m missing? This is an open-ended question to help make sure you’re not missing something important.
Sometimes pain is as much a function of the trust violated (think, gunpowder) as it is the offense (think, fire). If we only assess the size and heat of the fire, we miss the point. Click To Tweet

Initially, the focus is on getting to know the person and their experience. This engagement builds trust and provides clarity about what other conversations may be helpful.

Notice what we didn’t ask first, “What log do you need to remove from your own eye (Matthew 7:3-5)?” Is this an important question? Absolutely. Is it a first question? Usually, not. Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount was twofold: (a) when taking steps toward reconciliation we need to model the kind of ownership for our failings that we want the other person to respond with, and (b) we have more control over our actions than another person’s actions – hence the difference in size between the log and speck.[2]

Notice what Jesus was not saying. Jesus was not saying, “Your actions are more important than the actions of the person who offended you,” or, “You are ready to take steps towards reconciliation,” or, “The other person is ready for you to take steps towards reconciliation.”[3] When we jump promptly from our friend’s anger to Matthew 7, we inadvertently put these words in Jesus’ mouth.

When we listen well, we build trust, and arrive at Matthew 7 when it is a “word fitly spoken” (Proverbs 25:11). Like the punchline of a good joke, applicable counsel becomes ineffective when it’s given too soon.[4] This first reflection on forgiveness has been a lesson on helping us avoid this mistake.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Think of a time when you needed to forgive. How would having a friend who heard and cared for you in the ways this article describes help you take the steps ahead?
  2. Can you think of times when you were willing to do what needed to be done next (whether forgiveness or another response) but feeling rushed created a sense of resistance within you? How did feeling rushed and misunderstood become a setback?

[1] If you struggle to be a patient listener, consider the 15-minute video overviewing good listening skills at bradhambrick.com/pastorascounselor4.

[2] For more on how Matthew 7:1-6 applies to chronically broken relationships, see bradhambrick.com/selfcenteredspouse (particularly articles 3, 4, and 5).

[3] If the relational offense is abusive, then reconciliation is not the next step. It is recommended that you consult churchcares.com for guidance on next steps based on the type of abuse that is involved.

[4] If you are prone to arrive at needed advice prematurely (before your friend is ready for it), consider this brief reflection on the timing of counsel – bradhambrick.com/on-counseling-and-comedy.