What do you do when there seem to be ongoing offenses within the family?


       Family gatherings — which many of you might have experienced over the holidays — can be a bit like a gem tumbler. You put rocks in the tumbler, and they are brought into close contact with each other. They can knock the rough edges off one another until each gem is smooth and pretty. But, if you don’t put the special compound into the tumbler with the gems, the stones might bounce against one another with no effect, or they might crack or shatter each other.


     The grinding compound in the gem tumbler is like the grace of God working within families. Without the power of His grace, truth and love can’t blend well. Within families, each member can choose to either stay away from one another if there is conflict, or they can attack and shatter each other.


     Grace informs us that, if possible, we are not to give up on others and not to give up on seeking to mend relationships. Matt. 5:23-26 tells us we should go to someone if we know they have something against us. Matt. 18:15-20 says we should approach someone if we have something against them. If a relationship has cooled off or weakened in any way, it is always your move. It doesn’t matter “who started it.” God holds you responsible to reach out to repair a broken relationship regardless of how it began.


     When someone wrongs you (especially in families, it seems), there is this sense that the wrongdoer owes you, and there is the compulsion to make the other person pay that debt. We do this by yelling at them, hurting them, making them feel bad in some way, or just watching and hoping something bad happens to them as payback.


     Now we get to the hard part of this: What exactly is forgiveness? Within families, forgiveness is going to be needed. Tim Keller says, “Forgiveness means giving up the right to seek repayment from the one who harmed you. But it must be recognized that forgiveness is a form of voluntary suffering. To forgive is to cancel a debt by paying it or absorbing it yourself. Someone always pays every debt.”


     Forgiveness is costly. When you forgive, you are the one who is paying the debt.


Here are a few steps to forgiveness:


  • You refuse to hurt the person who wronged you. You do not seek payback or vengeance or seek to inflict pain. Instead, you choose to be as cordial as possible. There are very subtle ways to exact payment. Here are things to avoid: making cutting remarks and dragging out past injuries, even in your own mind; being far too demanding and controlling with this person than with others because you feel they owe you; and/or avoiding them or being cold toward them.
  • Refuse to use “spin,” gossip or direct slander to diminish those who have hurt you. Don’t run them down under the guise of warning the rest of the family about them or under the guise of seeking sympathy and support, having the other family members share your hurt from the other person who has wronged you.
  • Don’t continually replay the tapes of the wrong in order to keep the sense of loss and hurt fresh so you then remind yourself to stay hostile toward the person and actually feel you are virtuous because you would never do what they did. Don’t continually vilify the offender in your imagination.
  • You can remain bitter toward another family member only if you feel superior to them; if you are sure you would never do something like that. To remain unforgiving means you are truly unaware of your own sinfulness and need for forgiveness.


     Fredrick Beckner says it well when he warns us about the dangers of reliving past hurts: “Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll your tongue over the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last morsel both the pain you were given and the pain you are giving back — in many ways it is a feast for a king. The chief drawback is what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”




Barbara Martin, LPC, LMFT, is a counselor in private practice in Ridgeland. She can be reached at