We are called to encourage one another and lift each other up. These days, it only takes a few minutes online to see a lot of hurting people and broken relationships. A quick scroll through our social media channels can be overwhelming and discouraging.

I heard one leader years ago say, “Hurt people hurt people.” Leaders have a unique opportunity to take the hit from hurting people and help them work through the pain. Leaders maintain many relationships and make many mistakes in the process. A genuine, heartfelt apology and a forgiving spirit can go a long way towards building thriving relationships. Frankly, the words “I’m sorry” may be the secret to longevity.

Years ago, Gary Smalley shared with me five ways to maintain a forgiving spirit while ministering to the broken. They impacted me profoundly. I hope they do the same for you.

Be tender

Make a decision to seek reconciliation in your stressed and strained relationships. How do you do that? Pay attention to your approach. If your words, tone, and body language place you on the offensive, this puts the other person in the position of playing defense. If you find yourself taking the wrong approach, then walk back out of the room and start again. An approach such as, “If you have a free moment I could really use your help on this” is far more tender and much more effective.

Practice empathy

Nurturing a forgiving spirit in a relationship means desiring to understand the other person above being understood. If you have offended someone, try to find out what’s at the core of the offense. Here’s a little secret: You can discover the core issue by asking the right questions. Resist the temptation to defend yourself and instead focus on how you can restore and reconcile the relationship. Remove words like “but” and “I” as you treasure hunt for the truth of what’s happened.

When you’re treasure hunting, you may hear some unpleasant things. You may hear phrases such as, “I felt like you didn’t really care for me,” “I felt like I wasn’t really important to you,” “I felt like your work was more important than our family,” or “I felt that you were being selfish and manipulative.” Those kinds of words can be hard to hear, but don’t be put off by them. Continue to approach the situation with gentleness. When you care enough to find out what happened and why, your empathy establishes a foundation for reconciliation.

Affirm hurt and admit any wrong

No matter what the situation, everyone has a different perspective. For instance, the things that make my daughter cry, don’t make me cry. In spite of this, the pain or loss she experiences is very real to her. It’s all a matter of perspective.

In nurturing a spirit of forgiveness, words and attitudes determine the rate of reconciliation. That’s why you need to eliminate certain phrases from your vocabulary, such as, “If I offended you, I’m sorry,” and “You shouldn’t have felt that way.” Those kinds of statements deny the pain or distress the other person has experienced and block the road to forgiveness.

Instead of denying or dismissing a person’s woundedness, a forgiving spirit acknowledges the pain and admits the commission of hurtful wrongs. Instead of offering quips like, “That’s crazy,” “I was just kidding,” or “Get over it,” own up to the pain you have caused and ask for forgiveness.

Touch gently

Nurturing a spirit of forgiveness means using a gentle touch when appropriate. A hug or a handshake goes a long way toward preventing conflict and building a healthy relationship. The crossing of the arms screams “closed posture.” When we open up, move towards, and lean into another person it says, “You matter to God and you are important to me.”

Seek forgiveness and wait for a response

Even though you follow the first four keys to nurturing a spirit of forgiveness, you may not receive forgiveness right away. If you have been soft and tender, admitted any wrongdoing, and maintained an open posture, you may believe that you deserve a response right on the spot. But some people won’t be ready or able to provide one. They need time to process everything, and that’s okay.

You may do everything right when it comes to seeking forgiveness yet not be forgiven by the other person. Or you may do everything right and receive forgiveness but nothing more. You may wonder what went wrong. Rest assured that if you’ve done everything you can to seek forgiveness, then you’re doing things right. You cannot control what someone else thinks or feels, but you can control your own emotions. When you choose to reconcile, you are choosing freedom for yourself.

Whom do you need to forgive? Is there anyone holding a grudge against you? Maybe there is a friendship from your past that turned sour. Maybe there is a family member you haven’t spoken to in months or even years. Maybe there is something between you and your spouse that needs to be resolved. We want to encourage you today to take the first step. Spend some time in prayer and study and fill up your forgiveness tank. Prayerfully begin using the five keys to nurturing a spirit of forgiveness and see how you—and your relationships—begin to change with God’s help.

Ted Cunningham

Ted Cunningham is the founding pastor of Woodland Hills Family Church in Branson, Missouri. He and his wife, Amy, have been married for over 20 years and have two children, Corynn and Carson. Ted is the author of Fun Loving YouTrophy Child, and Young and In Love, and coauthor of four books with Dr. Gary Smalley including The Language of Sex and From Anger to Intimacy. Ted’s most recent release is A Love That Laughs. He is a comedian on the Date Night Comedy Tour and a frequent conference speaker at churches and events across the nation. Ted is a graduate of Liberty University and Dallas Theological Seminary.

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