I’m not sure exactly why this is, but recently in my counseling I have found myself going to the white board in my office and drawing one particular diagram more and more regularly. It has to do with how we, as Christians, ought to respond when people repeatedly hurt us.
We sometimes assume that simply placing our faith in Christ and learning to forgive those who have sinned against us in the past is enough to enable us to handle present and future episodes of hurt and rejection. It may not be so.
Of course, understanding and obeying the Gospel is foundational for everything that follows. And Jesus made it clear that once we have been forgiven, it is one of our highest obligations to forgive those who sin against us. For more about this mandate, please see my booklet Bitterness: The Root that Pollutes. But if we have trained ourselves to respond unbiblically, there is something else necessary that must be done: we must learn how to replace the sinful responses (both internal and external) with which we have habitually trained ourselves with their biblical alternatives.
Ephesians 4:31-32 as a Paradigm for This Concept
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31–32)
Sinful ways that we have learned to respond, in our hearts and with our communication approaches, when we have been rejected over the years include bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor (talking uncharitably in front of lots of people), and slander (falsely accusing our offender to individuals).
Biblical ways to respond when hurt or rejected include, kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness. This leads us to the aforementioned diagram:
|Your Past (Old Self)||Your Future (New Self)|
When people reject us, or when they do not love or value, or honor us the way they should, it hurts. We often interpret the rejection and hurt through the lens of our past experiences rather than through the lens of Scripture. The rejection leads to a flood of thoughts that in turn trigger our feelings and ultimately our actions, which includes both verbal and physical responses. Over time these internal and external responses become automatic or second nature for us. We often think, speak, and physically do or fail to do something without stopping to consider if our responses are pleasing to God. We justify our sinful responses with, “God certainly understands how wrong it was to be rejected by that person, and how much it hurts because, after all, He created our feelings”.
But if, in our hearts, we respond to the rejection and hurt unbiblically (with, for example, sinful anger, pride, or self-pity) or, if we see the “rejection” as a sin against us, when it really wasn’t, we will exaggerate our misery simply because we are not interpreting and consequently responding to the “hurt” biblically. If that is what we are doing we must repent—rethink our responses in light of Scripture. If we fail to change our thinking, at this point we may respond verbally or viscerally (externally) in an unbiblical fashion.
So, if for example, our sinful responses to being rejected and hurt include (internal and/or external manifestations) of bitterness, anger, wrath, clamor, evil speaking or malice they must be deliberately replaced with internal and external responses that are kind, tenderhearted and forgiving. This means that you can’t say “you’ve forgiven the person in your heart” and still the person at an arm’s length. Of course, Ephesians 4:31-32 does not represent the full spectrum of good and bad responses to hurt and rejection but, as I said it serves as a paradigm.
The point I drive home to those I counsel, and sometimes to myself, is that far from being automatic, it takes deliberate, conscious effort to change the way Christians respond to being sinned against. In time it will likely become automatic. Even though we’ve been forgiven by God and we desire to obey God by forgiving those who sinned against us, we still need to practice thinking rightly and cultivating godly virtues of kindness, tenderheartedness and love.
It is easy to draw this diagram for someone and unpack it. But the pain those you counsel may be experiencing due to rejection and hurt from past relationships may make it difficult for them to put what you are asking them to do into practice. It will take time. They will likely stumble along the way. They may have difficulty concentrating on what you are asking them to do because they are still hurting.
So, please be patient with them, acknowledge that you know that this is a difficult process, and help them to draw divine strength from the Holy Spirit to provide them with grace to obey what God is asking them to do. God has not left us to our own devices to change, but He has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ, and we can be confident that He who began a good work in us will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).