I watched the mailman open my mailbox, take out my letter, climb back into his truck and drive away. I got back on my knees in prayer. Once again, I asked God if I had done the right thing in mailing the letter. It had been a long time since I’d spoken to its intended recipient. (I’ll call her Caitlin.) Never before (or since) had I experienced such overt and consistent hostility from a friend. Caitlin and I had lived in the same ward as young married women, and had been friends for only a few months before our friendship soured. Shortly thereafter, my husband and I moved out of the ward while remaining within the stake. Occasionally, I encountered Caitlin. Although we had sincerely tried to amend our conflict, residual resentment between us continued to linger over the years.
Now, having heard Caitlin’s husband had been sustained a new bishop, I decided to send her a kind note of well wishes. While writing, I felt prompted to acknowledge the hostility between us—and ask Caitlin for her forgiveness. I hesitated—not wanting to dredge up our painful past. Yet how could I deny the Spirit and its promptings? So, I wrote—feeling a growing sense of peace—along with increasing dread. Asking for Caitlin’s forgiveness placed me in a vulnerable position. Frankly, I wasn’t sure what she’d do with it. Caitlin had always been highly critical of my appearance, my personality, my performance in my church callings—everything about me seemed to grate and irritate her. And she let me know it; her constant put-downs became her calling card. As a result, my defensiveness switched into overdrive when in her presence. My responses to Caitlin’s criticism had not helped our relationship. Many months of passive-aggression on my part finally culminated into a confrontational phone call to Caitlyn. (I conveniently waited until after I had moved out of her ward before calling). Well, my phone call had been like putting out a fire with gasoline. Now, years later, acknowledging my mistakes to Caitlin was akin to being burned at the stake. Psychologist, Dr. Beverly Engel voiced some of my apprehension:
Often the reason one or both partners [or friends] in a relationship refuse to apologize is because it feels to them like a relinquishing of power. Both partners [or friends] are afraid, hurt, and angry, but no one wants to make the first conciliatory move for fear of losing ground (The Power of Apology, p. 186).
My fear wasn’t about “losing ground.” I feared Caitlin’s response would be, “See, Julie! You have finally admitted that you are all the bad things I said you were.” I knew I was a good person (and so was Caitlin), but exposing my vulnerability left me…well…vulnerable. Thankfully, the Spirit drilled down through my defenses, and I learned there’s beauty in vulnerability. In short, extending grace and asking for grace heals. Praying for further insight, I opened my scriptures. This verse caught my eye:
And if any man among you be strong in the Spirit, let him take with him, him that is weak, that he may be edified in all meekness, that he may become strong also (D&C 84:106).
The Power of Personal Accountability and Imperfection
I’m not implying Caitlin was “weak.” However, I was growing increasingly stronger; my willingness to deliberately expose my weakness and vulnerability to Caitlin gave me additional strength. Even more, by acknowledging that I had hurt Caitlin and showing her my willingness to be accountable further empowered me. The Lord being “strong in spirit,” took me “that is weak…that I may become strong also.” Consequently, I felt strong—exceedingly so. And in my strength, I could help strengthen Caitlin according to the scriptural verse. The Spirit continued to teach me:
- Caitlin was no longer the issue. I was now the issue: The Lord was using this opportunity to give me closure and complete healing.
Helamen 3: 35 reflects my healing:
Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls even with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God.
The above verse outlines the Lord’s basic procedures for dealing with enemies. And they work. Applying these prescriptions soothes and heals our wounds through the purification and sanctification of Christ’s atoning power. Consequently, our anger, vengeful desires, and defensiveness are spiritually cauterized. Personal shame and guilt are additional painful byproducts of conflict. Christ’s atonement purges these demoralizing emotions thus healing our consciences as well.
This sanctifying process untangled additional knots:
- I didn’t need Caitlin’s grace. I needed God’s grace to generate grace within me.
- I didn’t need Caitlin’s approval. I needed God’s approval.
- Asking Caitlin’s forgiveness had nothing to do with my vulnerability. My direct request for her forgiveness was a form of personal empowerment for me.
- My request for Caitlin’s forgiveness was an act of grace—not just for Caitlin’s sake but for mine.
- My request for Caitlin’s grace, was an extension of grace to myself. In other words, I was allowing myself to be weak and imperfect. (From my experience, requesting grace and receiving grace are two sides of the same coin. Both can be very difficult because they require accountability and forgiveness.)
- The Lord gives us the courage and the grace required to do His will. Thus, courage + grace = empowerment and peace.
I turned an emotional and spiritual corner that day. And I was glad to learn these hard lessons as a young woman. When we become strong, we increase our ability to strengthen others—like a chain reaction with God as the source. Writer Aaron Lazare in a Psychology Today article verifies my conclusion:
In fact the apology is a show of strength. It is an act of honesty because we admit we did wrong; an act of generosity. Finally, the apology is an act of courage because it subjects us to the emotional distress of shame and the risk of humiliation, rejection, and retaliation at the hands of the person we offended. All dimensions of the apology require strength of character, including the conviction that, while we expose vulnerable parts of ourselves, we are still good people (Go Ahead, Say You’re Sorry, January 1, 1995).
I came to understand that pleasing God, pleases me. We feel good about ourselves when we do hard things and when we do God’s will. I could not have found the strength to send Caitlin a conciliatory note without God’s prompting—and without His help to write it. The verses in Ether 12: 26-27 has become my mantra when coping with opposition:
My grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness. And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.
Time and again, the Lord transforms my fears into confidence and my weaknesses into strengths.
Psychologist Beverly Engel verbalizes my feelings:
Making apologies allows us to be imperfect. While it doesn’t take away the hurt we can cause by our impatience, lack of consideration, pettiness, selfishness, or unreasonable expectations of others, it does provide us with an opportunity to make amends to those we have hurt, to express our remorse, our caring, and our intention to do better. This is far better than trying to do the impossible—to be perfect. By acknowledging, admitting, and ultimately accepting our so-called negative qualities, we take them out of [the dark] and into the light, where they are far less powerful and far less likely to eat away at us and cause us to feel self-critical. We also understand that making a mistake does not make us a bad person (The Power of Apology, p. 138).
I often write about the wonderful Twelve Step Program, and how it promotes empowerment and healing through individual ownership and accountability. Authors Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketchum in their book The Spirituality of Imperfection further elaborate:
Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve-Step groups are founded on a different truth: Human beings connect with each other most healingly, most healthily, not on the basis of common strengths, but in the very reality of their shared weaknesses. Among those who accept their imperfection there seems to be a special sense of likeness or oneness in their very mutual flawedness—in ‘torn-to-pieces-hood’ somehow shared. In such a context of shared weakness, qualities in other people that might, in different circumstances, irritate or anger instead elicit compassion and identification.
Shared weakness: the shared honesty of mutual vulnerability openly acknowledged. That’s where we connect. At the most fundamental level of our very human-ness, it is our weakness that makes us alike; it is our strengths that make us different. Acknowledging shared weakness thus creates a rooted connectedness, a sense of common beginnings. We will grow in our different directions, with our different strengths, but our roots remain in the same soil as everyone else’s—the earthy humus of our own imperfection (p. 198).
Hence, the power of apology! And the power of taking ownership for our mistakes and weaknesses! Asking and extending forgiveness is a vehicle for showing our humanity. Being accountable for our weakness and mistakes takes guts and connects us to those we’ve hurt. Surely, the aftermath of a broken friendship is difficult regardless of who started it. Even so, most of us desire the same outcome: peace. No matter which side of the conflict we’re on.
Power and Paradox
Spiritual elements and experiences often contain paradox and irony. Thus, utilizing the Spirit in conflict resolution will bring many ironies. Here’s a big one: Christ’s admonition that whomever is least among you shall be the greatest (Luke 9:48). “Being least” can mean admitting our mistakes to ourselves, to God, and to those we’ve hurt. “Being great” can mean the resulting spiritual and emotional empowerment. When we feel powerless, we feel depressed, resentful, vulnerable, and weak. Increasing empowerment is proportional to our peace. And, the more we feel “the least” in our humility toward God, the more God empowers us. Consequently, our circumstances don’t determine our peace. Giving ourselves to God’s will gives us peace—regardless of what’s happening around us.
Writer Aaron Lazare further explains:
Whatever the motive, what makes an apology work is the exchange of shame and power between the offender and the offended. By apologizing, you take the shame of your offense and redirect it to yourself. You admit to hurting or diminishing someone and, in effect, say that you are really the one who is diminished–I’m the one who was wrong, mistaken, insensitive, or stupid. In acknowledging your shame you give the offended the power to forgive. The exchange is at the heart of the healing process (Psychology Today).
Caitlin never acknowledged the note I sent her. And that was fine. I didn’t need a response from her. Still, the subsequent dynamic between us had greatly improved when we crossed paths—her putdowns stopped. And that’s all that mattered to me. Months later, our stake presidency held a weekend bishop’s seminar. Because my husband and Caitlin’s husband were bishops in the same stake, she and I had a fresh opportunity to interact in a more intimate setting. Unfortunately, I felt the familiar sting of Caitlin’s competitiveness toward me during the entire weekend. The old hostility was resurfacing. I knew then I needed to end all contact with her—including casual conversation and small talk. I could not control her continued hostility—nor did I want to. I had done everything I could to facilitate peace between us. I had healed. Now, I needed to completely let go and allow Caitlin to heal. (That is, if she chooses to heal.)
Again, I refer to Dr. Engel:
Even if your friend wronged you, begin by offering her your forgiveness. Why are you offering your forgiveness even if you are the one who was wronged and should be offered forgiveness? There are several reasons. The first is that you cannot control someone else’s behavior, only your own. If you offer forgiveness, you may inspire your friend likewise to offer forgiveness, as she will learn from and maybe even be inspired by your example.The second reason is that being forgiven could be a humbling experience to your friend. Finally, it is much harder to stay angry with someone if she has ceased being angry with you.
Even if you are the party who was ‘at fault,’ in certain instances a simple ‘I’m sorry’ may not do the trick.That is because friendship is a relationship based on the needs and feelings of both parties.You may ask for forgiveness, but it is up to your friend to forgive you” (p. 119).
A few months later, I moved out of town and into another stake. Many years have passed. I have stayed in peace and hope Caitlin has found peace. Over the years, I’ve seen her a few times. And I have purposely declined to communicate with her. I don’t do this out of spite—I do this for peacemaking. Some may think my silence is not Christ like. I disagree. Caitlin and I cannot be friends. My decision to cut Caitlin completely out of my life came with prayerful consideration. The Lord answered my prayers in the form of a memory: I “remembered” my friendship with Caitlin during our pre-mortal existence. In my moment of recollection I could see how divine intervention had placed Caitlin in my life for learning purposes. And even though Caitlin and I could not be friends in this life, we had been pre-mortal friends and would someday be eternal friends. I will be forever grateful for these life lessons despite the difficulties in our relationship.
Opposition plays a large role in our lives. Helamen’s account in Alma 58: 10-12 gives me great peace while under enemy fire:
Therefore we did pour out our souls in prayer to God, that he would strengthen us and deliver us out of the hands of our enemies, yea, and also give us strength that we might retain our cities, and our lands, and our possessions, for the support of our people.
Yea, and it came to pass that the lord our God did visit us with assurances that he would deliver us; yea, insomuch that he did speak peace to our souls, and did grant unto us great faith, and did cause us that we should hope for our deliverance in him.
And we did take courage with our small force which we had received, and were fixed with a determination to conquer our enemies, and to maintain our lands, and our possessions, and our wives, and our children, and our cause of our liberty.
I testify to the principle and power of Helamen’s prayerful call for God’s help in conquering our enemies. As I stated in a previous post, the Lord delivers me from my enemies and/or opposition when I humbly call upon Him. Like Helamen, I go to God and “pour out my soul in prayer” and ask that God “would strengthen” me and “deliver me” from my enemies. Delivery can come in many forms—often through apology and accountability. Regardless of the form, God has always given me the spiritual, temporal, and emotional victory—simply because I call upon Him. Thus, my rejoicings echo Helamen’s:
And behold, we are again delivered out of the hands of our enemies. And blessed is the name of our God; for behold, it is he that has delivered us; yea, that has done this great thing for us. I was filled with exceeding joy because of the goodness of God in preserving us,that we might not perish and entered into the rest of our God (Alma 57: 35-36).
Look to God and Live
Indy: “There’s a big snake in the plane, Jock!”
Jock: “Oh, that’s just my pet snake Reggie.”
Indy: “I hate snakes, Jock! I hate ‘em!”
Jock: “C’mon, show a little backbone, will you?”
I love that scene from the movie Indianna Jones, Temple of Doom. I, too, loathe snakes. So did the Israelites. In consequence of their idol worship, stony hearts, pride, endless whining, and self-pity the Book of Numbers tells us, And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died (Numbers 21: 6). Suffering in their sickbeds, the Israelites came to Moses and admitted their sins against the Lord. In his mercy God said unto Moses, make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.” The Old Testament continues:
And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.
From the Numbers account, we can see that all the Israelites had to do was look and they were healed. However, Nephi provides a different perspective:
He sent fiery flying serpents among them; and after they were bitten he prepared a way that they might be healed; and the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished (1 Nephi 17: 46).
Additionally, Helamen offers his commentary:
Yea, did he not bear record that the Son of God should come? And as he lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, even so shall he be lifted up who should come. And as many as should look upon that serpent should live, even so as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith, having a contrite spirit, might live, even unto that life which is eternal (Helamen 8:14-15).
I will never understand why so many people refused to look upon the serpent for healing. Instead, they would rather die soaking in the venom of snakebites.They simply could not or would not believe Christ could heal them. Why not simply give Christ’s healing power a chance? Unfortunately, we are no different from the Israelites. How many of us fail to believe in Christ’s willingness or ability to heal us? How many of us would rather soak in our venomous bitterness and die in our pride? Too often we call upon God in half-hearted attempts for His healing power—while at the same time doing everything we can to avoid personal accountability. Thus, our defensiveness, pride, and need to be right stay intact.
Again, I see parallel ironies when comparing our stories to those of the Israelites: They were bitten by “fiery serpents” yet God used a brass serpent—the very creature that bit and poisoned them—to heal them. Today, we deal with our own fiery serpents. For whatever reason, the brass serpent fashioned by Moses symbolized Christ’s atoning power to heal. Like the Israelites, we often refuse to look at the brass serpent. To look at it means we must admit that we’re marinating in our own venom. Admitting our venom means undertaking a painful, arduous search for the source. Even worse, the source for our venomous pain is often ourselves. Ironically, we often prefer marinating over personal accountability. But our refusal to be accountable hinders our first step toward healing. Dr. Iyana VanZant tells us, “If you can’t own it, you can’t heal it!”
Let’s look to God and live,