Relationships involve risk. Whether two people relate as strangers, neighbors, friends, or family, entering into a relationship always has the possibility of either leading to connection or to pain. Choosing to be friends with someone requires us to accept the risk of getting hurt in favor of the greater hope for connection. Relating to others requires courage.
If we’ve experienced a lot of loss and pain in our relationships, it can make us inclined towards isolation as we fear more of the same. If we aren’t watchful, this can lead us to resent whole groups of people. And then we use our resentments and past pain to justify our un-Christian behavior.
We don’t have to think in the abstract when it comes to people harming us. We have all been there before, and most of us can probably think of several people in our lives right now with whom we’re still not on good terms.
So what are Orthodox Christians to do in moments like this? How do we react in the moment, and how do we move on? Is it as simple as forgive and forget?
1. In the moment
A friend becomes selfish or ignores us. The person we’re in a relationship with says something so hurtful it makes us want to walk away. A stranger on the street robs us or is rude to us.
Nature inclines us towards self-preservation: fight or flight. Either we want to argue or we want to shut down and move on. In the moment, fear motivates us to take care of ourselves because we don’t want to get hurt any worse.
Instead of fear, God is constantly calling us to peace. He brings us peace, casts out fear, and restores our hope. So in these moments of conflict, do we retreat inward to instinct or do we reach out to God to be our strength?
How we respond in moments of conflict will be determined by how we are living our lives the rest of the time. If we are turning towards God and asking Him for His guidance, if we are humble and aware of our own shortcomings, we will be more inclined towards patience with others. But invariably, conflict happens and we have to do something about it after it has.
2. Positive confrontation
In moments of conflict, we may need to step back from this situation before we respond. Otherwise, we are just acting out of fear and instinct. This may mean simply stepping back for a moment before speaking or reacting at all. Have we prayed about the situation yet? We should never act on something without first turning to prayer.
Christ calls us to bless and not to curse, to actually bless those who wish us harm (Romans 12:14; Matthew 5:44). When was the last time you made the sign of the cross over that driver who cut you off on the road? Our prayer in the moment of our frustration helps us by giving blessing to others and releasing us from our anger.
With someone with whom we have a long-standing relationship like a friend, partner, or family member, offering a blessing may require something more. When we are hurt, we can either focus on the harm itself and seek punishment (ie. shame: “you always…” “you never…”) or we can seek to heal the wounded relationship. This requires a positive confrontation: an opportunity to heal a rift or solve a conflict rather than to argue.
It is best that we be as sober-minded as possible – that we aren’t speaking out of anger or frustration – but sometimes our anger is justified. If a woman is assaulted, a child is abused, or a person is robbed, an injustice has taken place. And even Jesus was angry at injustice (Matthew 21:12, John 2:15).
Some people like to sweep conflict under the rug and never address it. But Jesus gives us another view of confrontation. He repeatedly confronted the religious leaders, He confronted St. Peter after he denied Him (“Do you love me?” John 21:15-17), and He confronts us in our moments of lukewarm faith (Revelation 3:16).
When someone has hurt us, a relationship has been damaged. This deserves to be spoken about, it deserves to be addressed. What do we need to do in order to mend the relationship? Can it be mended? And afterwards, we have to move on.
3. Moving forward
After we have addressed our hurt, we have to move forward somehow. We aren’t moving forward if we continue to live in resentment – continually judging our offender in the courts of our mind.
Our ability to move on with those who have hurt us is related to our ability to receive God’s forgiveness as well. We ask Him to “forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us,” to forgive us to the same degree that we forgive others. God has given us chance after chance to turn back to Him. Do we extend this same grace to others?
Prayer is vital to our recovery from harms done to us. And I don’t mean prayer for their repentance or prayer for them to find justice. We must pray that the person who injured us will have all the good things we desire for ourselves. We must pray that they are blessed and that God will be present with them too. It helps to have a list of names of people to pray for: of our loved ones, those who are sick, and those we struggle to love because they have hurt us. As we pray for these people on a day-by-day basis, we will find that the pain lessens over time.
But it’s neither healthy nor necessary to stay in a relationship that is one-sided or where we’re continually being hurt. Sometimes we do have to end a relationship. This will be painful too, so we’ll need to remember that it’s natural to mourn the loss of relationships. We don’t need to be friends with everyone, nor do we need everyone to like us, but we do need to be willing to pray for everyone.
We may not be strong enough to embrace them in our arms, but we have a God whose loving embrace is large enough for the both of us.
We are stubborn people, but God loves us anyway. We repeatedly turn from God, but He never turns from us. It’s important that we always frame our relationships with others in this context. All of our relationships should seek to model the love and forgiveness that God has shown us. We are called to respond to being hurt with a sober mind and not from a place of fear. After we have prayed for strength, we should address the situation with the other person. Finally, moving on means we continue to pray about the situation and commend that person to the care of God.
Do you struggle with resentment towards those who have hurt you? How is God calling you to mend your broken relationships?
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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.
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