Recently, a co-worker did something that bothered me. When I confronted them, they didn’t accept responsibility. It wasn’t that serious of a situation; it was more annoying than anything.
This happens to all of us. Someone does something that bothers you, but it isn’t a big deal. Maybe they minimized your contribution, mocked a mistake you made or blocked a seat you were going for. Maybe they apologized. Maybe you found another spot.
Maybe you told yourself it’s no big deal. That person didn’t mean anything by it, and they’ve apologized. Let it go.
But sometimes our brain tries to make it a big deal. It tells us that this is a serious event, and that we need to do something about it. It returns to the incident again and again, trying to provide a reason to escalate the situation. That person needs to know what they did and that we didn’t like it.
I started to wonder why my brain was dredging up these feelings. I can think of several reasons.
For one thing, I’ve been wronged before, so this is a familiar feeling. Sometimes we seek out things that are familiar, even if they are negative. In his book The Four Loves, CS Lewis talks about having affection for a curmudgeon because the curmudgeon is familiar. Even though they are annoying and exasperating, they are “our curmudgeon.” In the same way, we may cling to hurt feelings because they recall previous times in our lives. This is a pretty well-documented effect, often attributed in cycles of abuse.
Another possible reason is that when we’ve been seriously wronged, we feel we’ve earned the right to special treatment. Empathetic bystanders will seek out ways to comfort and console us. So we embrace the comfort we will receive from an especially egregious wrong. My brain wants to manipulate the situation to seem more difficult than it really is, to maximize the consolation even if it will be greater than the situation merits.
I also think we cling to wrongs because of the power we feel we have over the person who wronged us. All of us know stories of a victim taking advantage of a repentant party, forcing them to make amends over and over again.
Finally, the greater my mind makes the wrong, the more I can retaliate. I can scale up the size of my response in accordance with the scope of the wrong my brain is creating.
I bet if we put our heads together, we could think of more ways we try to intensify a wrong.
But that is often what happens. When we’ve been wronged, we bring it to someone else who will agree with us about the damage done, the seriousness of it and that the offending party needs to be held responsible.
I am overwhelmed by the damage that might result if we let our brains have their way. We already have a problem with making good connections, and this dynamic will only serve to pull us apart. When we consider the consequences of escalating the pain between us, and how it will drive a wedge between us that will prevent love and friendship and encouragement, we need to find ways to prevent this from happening. We need to establish guardrails so we aren’t so prone to promoting the rift between us.
This makes the message of Jesus Christ, the message of forgiveness and love and compassion and humility, all the more radical and beautiful and world-changing.
Considering all the ways we might justify retaliating, extracting, manipulating or aggrandizing a wrong, and the insidious ways that our brain tries to trick us into extracting our measure of justice, the message Jesus Christ teaches is that much more life-altering.
Jesus teaches a gracious response over and over again. We have the parable of the unforgiving servant, and also the parable of the prodigal son — about the power of forgiveness even in the face of a righteous wrong. When Jesus teaches His disciples to pray, He says, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”
When Jesus teaches us how to address wrongs between us in Matthew 18, He teaches us not to escalate by dragging other people into it, but to communicate directly with the person involved.
While our brains try to drive a wedge, Jesus calls us to restore the relationship.
‘Don’t wage war as humans do’
The scriptures address the issue in a number of ways.
Paul teaches us to put on the garment of Christ by bringing compassion, humility, kindness, forgiveness, love, patience and gentleness in Colossians 3:12-14.
And in 2 Corinthians, Paul talks about the necessity of taking every thought captive and putting it under the authority of Jesus Christ.
We are human, but we don’t wage war as humans do. We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ. – 2 Corinthians 10:3-5
Rather than letting these thoughts of revenge, blame and accusation control us, we must subject those thoughts to the influence that Jesus Christ has on us.
I especially like how Paul acknowledges the use of Godly weapons, not human weapons. While we might wonder “how can I be stronger and dominate the other person?” Paul calls us to dominate the things that separate us from knowing God and reconciling with one another.
As my brain tries to drag me back into the wrong, I also need to remember the truth that Paul wrote to the Romans in Chapter 12.
First, he tells them we have to change the way we think about the situation. We have to take our brains captive and let God transform us into new people by changing the way we think:
Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. – Romans 12:2
Paul also reminds them to strive to love:
Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. – Romans 12:9
What I really love about these verses is the lesson that the right response is the right response, no matter how many times the wrong response is offered.
Sometimes we cave in to persistence. We know the right choice, but because the wrong choice is offered over and over and over again, we eventually succumb to the pressure and say yes to the wrong choice.
So let’s change the way we think so that we can live at peace, as Paul challenges us in Romans 12:17-18:
Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.