The Hardest Question

I was sitting in a conflict mediation training recently, listening as the trainer began talking about how often we get forgiveness wrong. The fact that well-respected Biblical scholars hold so many opposing views only adds to the confusion about what forgiveness is and what it is not…apparently it depends on who you ask. What appears to be universally true, however, is that asking “will you forgive me?” is the hardest question to ask. Just think about the last time you had to seek forgiveness – what did you say? I apologize. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. I hope you can forgive me. All of those are statements, statements that don’t highlight our position as one who is in need, as “will you forgive me?” does.

It seems like there is something important about forgiveness that I am supposed to be paying attention to, because it keeps popping up in different places. So I’ve been listening. And pondering. And practicing.

Here is what I’m realizing about myself:

It isn’t usually that I have trouble recognizing when I’ve done something wrong and hurt someone, something that I need to ask forgiveness for. It’s that I get stuck at the awareness of my sin, and then let shame take away my words.

What I did was so awful, shame whispers, that I won’t ever be able to hold my face with that person again. Maybe if I just keep silent, it will pass and I can pretend it never happened, or hope I have built up enough positive credit in the relationship that my offense could be overlooked. And so I hide out, convinced that speaking the truth would bring death.

I am becoming more acquainted with the little girl inside me who spent so much time hiding out in fear. There were so few places I felt safe and deeply loved, so many of my relationships felt precarious: you’re only my friend until someone better comes along, you wouldn’t be my friend simply because you enjoyed me…I am too deeply flawed. As soon as you figure that out, you’ll leave me and I will be alone once again.

the hardest question

As I look at pictures of that little girl, I see how tentative her smile is, how much painful hope and longing is reflected in her eyes. I still return to that little girl on days when I’ve decided that hope and longing are foolish, when my eyes instead read disappointment and rejection everywhere I turn. Time to hide, I hear the whisper, at least then you won’t have to watch it unfold up close.

Last week, she and I held hands as we stepped out of hiding and asked a friend the hardest question, “will you forgive me?” I was aware as I faced my friend that I had failed her, and saw the disappointment in her face. The truth is, I knew even before I saw her that I had failed, and that’s where my old familiar shame response had kicked in. As I reviewed the evidence of what a terrible friend I was in my head, I left her and any possibility of reconnection with her far behind. I put myself on trial, and handed down the verdict, when all that was necessary was four honest words – will you forgive me?

And this is where I am realizing something else really important about myself: as I lovingly care for those little girl places in my heart, I have more courage available to walk back into relationships with maturity, and own where I have caused harm. My friend was kind, and even willing to overlook the offense, but the difference I read on her face as I asked for forgiveness told me that it was important. There was no trial, no guilty verdict, only love and grace. I am willing to ask a really hard question in order to see that…how about you?


Janet Stark is a woman learning to embrace her depth and sensitivity.  Inspired by Mary pondering things in her heart, Janet writes about her experiences here. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband of 26 years, as well as her 4 children and 2 grandchildren. She is a life-long lover of words and looks forward to reading and sharing at Red Tent Living.