My childhood had some rough patches. One of the worst was being bullied. Growing up in a rural part of the south, where everyone knew everyone, I had a rough time fitting in during my middle school days. Amidst the peer pressure to be popular and in the coolest clique, I was a girl who wasn't into sports or cheerleading, plus I struggled academically. This made me the perfect target for social rejection and bullying.
Both subtly and directly, my tormentors let me know that I was fat, stupid, would never amount to anything, and no one would ever love me. Ouch! That was some serious hurt, and the pain stuck with me for a long time.
While it's difficult talking about it even today, one small action made a world of difference in how the bullying affected me. Somehow, I was able to share my story with a youth pastor. This was his response:
"Try forgiving them."
The most immediate relief I found in the pastor’s words was that they let me know that those who taunted me had committed a wrong. This was vital for me to understand. Most of the time, the victim being bullied is so overcome with shame, they never think to question the validity of the words hurled at them. This is actually the worst damage caused by bullying—on some level, the victim absorbs these negative opinions as the truth about themselves.
With the knowledge that I had been attacked unjustly and it wasn’t my fault, I didn’t have to believe what the bullies said about me. However…that’s also when anger set in. And while being angry was a pretty normal, even healthy response to being abused, I started feeling bitter and wanting revenge. Forgiveness? No way!
The Question of Forgiveness.
The thing about harboring anger or having a vendetta against someone who injures us, is that these attitudes create more problems than they fix. While the people who hurt others should receive just consequences, making their punishment our job only digs us deeper into hurt and renders us no better than our persecutors as inflictors of harm.
The pastor also taught me that forgiving was not the same as simply forgetting or condoning peoples’ misdeeds or bad behavior. In this imperfect world, some wrongdoings are punished, while others go on without consequence. Unfortunately, we often have little to no control over whether someone is penalized for their misdeeds, especially all the ones that happen under the legal radar. People are constantly inflicting emotional (and sometimes physical) injuries on the people around them, including their families and friends. Real-yet-unproveable discrimination against certain individuals or groups of people goes on every day, all around the world.
I don’t want to sound complacent, since I believe people should be made responsible for their actions, but it seems like this kind of flawed justice is part of the human condition. That being the case, it would appear more realistic to leave punishment in the hands of God. In fact, the Bible spells it right out: Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay.’… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19 and 21 [NIV])
Letting go the need for revenge leaves us with the sole choice to forgive…or not. And though it can be far from easy, forgiveness releases us from the chains of hurt and anger that bind us to a situation or person. By freeing our minds and opening our hearts, forgiveness both supports and reflects emotional and spiritual maturity.
Actually, forgiveness is a topic broadly researched by scientists. The Mayo Clinic has reported that forgiveness results in healthier relationships; increased spiritual and psychological wellbeing; less anxiety, stress and hostility; lower blood pressure; a stronger heart and immune system; decreased signs of depression; and higher self-esteem.
When Forgiveness Seems Impossible.
Undoubtedly, it can be difficult to forgive, and sometimes even seemingly impossible. But this is where God can help me reach forgiveness, as long as I’m willing. I remember the words of Alexander Pope: To err is human; to forgive, Divine. What this literally means to me is that God works inside me to bring about the ability to forgive. I may not get there immediately, but I am guaranteed this gift if I persist and rely upon Him.
I’m grateful that I was able to forgive myself for my anger towards those bullies, and then forgive the bullies themselves. It’s an ongoing journey, as new challenges to forgive continue to present themselves. Today I know that I’m not alone when I struggle to forgive, and that I’m worthy of the joy and freedom it brings.