By David Cannistraci
Offenses are connected with deeper emotional issues, but learning to refocus our faith will set us free.
This is the true story of two believers engaged in a life and death struggle with grief and offense, and the lessons that they learned as they overcame and reclaimed their joy. It begins on a warm summer Saturday in 2003, when I received a call that I’ll never forget. Trini and Al were joyful members of our church, but now they were hysterical and confused. “The sheriff just called us, Pastor. He told us Anthony is dead.”
Anthony was their bright and loving 16-year old son. The natural athlete had been swimming in a lake in Northern California when, for some unknown reason, he slipped beneath the water and away from his family and friends forever.
The news hit Trini and Al like a bolt of lightening. It left them stunned, unable to process the words they were hearing, and powerless to bear the grief. Within a few hellish hours, they would stand in a cold coroner’s locker to identify the lifeless body of their son. The tailspin began, and the pain-struck parents spiraled uncontrollably downward toward the unforgiving surface of their new, unwanted reality. Friends and family rushed in to soften the blow, but the impact was unavoidable.
Unspeakable grief would not be the only source of Trini and Al’s pain. It is with their encouragement that I relate the story of a secondary infection that raged through their shattered souls: the poison of offense had penetrated their wounds, and their spiritual condition became critical.
We had been very close to Trini and Al, so we cared for them like family. But despite hours of prayer and counsel, meals and cards, flowers and visits, things just got worse. They felt abandoned, that no one really understood or cared. Their pain became anger, bitterness and eventually deception. They were offended with God and His people. No matter how we all tried, nothing could keep them connected. Within a few months of Anthony’s memorial service, they were gone.
SET UPS AND SECONDARY INFECTIONS
In a world so filled with pain, God’s people often find themselves struggling under the weight of past hurts and broken expectations. The difficulties of life often leave us emotionally drained and vulnerable to the infections of offense. In our distress, we are set up for a fall by the enemy of our souls.
Being offended is an all-too-common experience. It’s the feeling of being insulted, slighted or wronged by others. It’s an emotional response to a perceived injustice or indignity that leaves us feeling hurt, angry and even outraged. The Biblical word for offense means a stumbling block or a trap, hinting at the fact that offenses are unexpected and lead to a damaging downfall. And is it just me, or do people everywhere seem to be more and more offended with each other? Even in the church, instead of practicing greater love and tolerance for the mistakes of others, too many of us are finding new ways to feel violated and angry.
When negative things happen to us, why can’t we just get over it? Why do we struggle so much with feelings of offense, blame and anger at others? I’m convinced part of the answer is found in the increasing emotional strains of life. When we are already wrung out, it’s hard to resist offense. When hurt feelings push us to the edge, we face a critical decision: Will we get over it and walk away clean, or will we enter into a contaminating cycle of pain, confusion and conflict? The choice we make determines our destiny.
After two years of isolation, pain and emptiness, Trini and Al made a miraculous comeback. It took some time to unearth the long buried foundations of their pain, but the Holy Spirit has taken them through a process of healing that has set them free. They understand the devastating role that set ups and secondary infections can play in our lives. When they contacted me to ask if they could “come home,” I knew they were free from the offenses that nearly suffocated their faith.
So how’d did they do it?
GETTING OVER OFFENSES
Overcoming offenses requires us to look beneath the surface of our day-to-day lives. There are deep fault lines running through the human condition, and the increasing offenses of our time are the tremors of a distressed world struggling with its pain, sin and separation from God. Ultimately, only the power of Jesus Christ can free us.
Still, we have our part. And from behind the scenes of Trini and Al’s heartbreaking story, a few life-giving principles have emerged to help us. As we’ve talked, prayed and processed the pain, three important lessons stand out.
Lesson One: Surrender past hurts to the Holy Spirit.
Before they could be free of their offenses, Trini and Al had to find healing for the sore spots that were a part of their souls. Both of them had experienced the trauma of abandonment and rejection early in life. Life had sent them a message: “You’re on your own.” Unresolved hurts and anger helped create the emotional set up that sent them reeling when tragedy struck. Losing Anthony took them back to the familiar script of abandonment, where they couldn’t recognize the loving role of God and their friends.
David’s words in Psalm 55 are liberating. They describe the depth of his distress over the betrayal of a close friend. He wanted nothing more than to run away and hide, just like Trini and Al did. But by the end of his song, he was able to prophesy his own pathway out of pain: “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He shall sustain you…” (v. 22)
It works. Trini and Al reclaimed their joy by allowing the Holy Spirit to free them of their abandonment and rejection. This is an ongoing process that requires patience and faith, but it is paving the way for their journey out of grief as well.
Lesson Two: Let your expectations rest in God alone.
In their pain and confusion, Trini and Al looked to people to stop the pain. Without realizing it, they stumbled over their own unreasonable expectations of others. In a letter, they confessed to me: “We placed our hurts and frustrations entirely on your shoulders and expected for you to perform a miracle. It was much easier to place the blame of unresolved issues on someone [like you] than to trust God to work it out. But we had issues too deep for any man to reach.”
Their brutal self-evaluation points the way for all of us. Are we looking to others to complete us, or is Christ enough? Jesus flatly predicted people would offend us (Luke 17:1). He was saying, “Be realistic in your expectations of the imperfect.” But He also said we’d have an abundant life if our focus was right (see John 10:10 and Matthew 6:33).
Trini and Al have regained their faith by redirecting their expectations. They no longer saddle people with the job of making them whole. They’ve placed their hopes entirely in Christ. Let’s follow their lead. If our expectation is in others, we’ll be devastated (Jeremiah 17:5-8), but if we trust in the Lord, as the psalmist did, we’ll never faint: “My soul, wait silently for God alone, for my expectation is from Him.” (Psalm 62:5)
Lesson Three: Don’t resist the dealings of God.
The Lord may allow us to walk through times of offense because He wants to reveal something that needs to change in us. Certain distresses are designed to turn us in a new direction. Paul said “Distress that drives us to God…turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God…end up on a deathbed of regrets.” (2 Corinthians 7:10, Message Translation)
God may allow us to be offended in order to reveal an area of unforgiveness deep inside.
I’ve noticed that we all want forgiveness when we need it, but few of us really want to give it to others. Passing along God’s mercy to those who have failed us is the ultimate anti-venom for offense, and the best protection from the enemy (Mark 11:25-26, Ephesians 4:32). Don’t resist God when He reveals the issues that drive you into offense.
Trini and Al have learned not become discouraged or resistant if the Lord is correcting them. They know that this is all a part of God’s loving interaction with us as His children (Hebrews 12:3-9). Their amazing victory over grief and offense has opened doors for them to minister to others who suffer. “As tempting as it may be,” they explain, “blaming others, running from life, or getting mad at God can never free you from pain or grief. If we let God have His way, we can be free.”
One of my greatest joys lately is looking out over our congregation to see Trini and Al laughing, lifting their hands in worship, and embracing others again. They still feel the loss of their son, but their shining faces remind me that despite life’s deepest distresses, if we’ll yield to God, we can bounce back stronger than ever. If we’re willing to change, we really can get over it.
* The names in this true story have been changed.