Resolving the Unmerciful Heart

Most of us at one time or another in our life have struggled with forgiveness. Most often this was in the form of forgiving someone else. Perhaps it was a specific incident that occurred with a specific person, group, or even a community. Some of us might find that our struggle in forgiving was largely tied to that specific incident and that we generally do okay being a forgiving person.  However, some of us may begin to sense or notice that we chronically struggle to forgive others. We might notice that we have a chronic unmerciful disposition. It is not just one person or the sporadic incident with which we struggle, the struggle to be merciful and forgive is chronic and pervasive. Such moments of awareness and realization, while initially uncomfortable, are truly a blessing. When such moments occur, a window of opportunity has opens for us.

Assuming we might struggle with the latter scenario (of struggling with forgiveness chronically and having an unmerciful disposition), there is some exploration that we can do that might be of help. Sometimes we struggle to forgive what occurs in the present because we have not forgiven the past. In such subtle ways we see the past leaks into the present and colors how we view and perceive the present. Unless we have begun to hone our skills of looking within and gaining insight, this will be hard to detect. This also has very significant ramifications for our spiritual lives.

In the counseling field there is something called transference. It is a word used to capture or describe a phenomenon that directly and commonly affects our spiritual life. Transference is when the past leaks into the present. Author Tian Dayton wrote, “it is when we layer yesterday’s pain onto today’s relationships”.  She also has described it as “when we shadowbox with our past, through our relationships in the present”.  We can clearly see how these transferences can literally block mercy and compassion in our hearts.  When the past is coloring our perceptions of the present, we will notice that we mysteriously keep having the same experiences in life and relationships over and over again.  If unchecked, we can gradually develop very jaded and negative views and beliefs about life and other people in general. This is because the past keeps getting replayed in the present due to us going through our present life looking through the lens of the past. Everything we experience and all who we encounter (and everything they do) are seen and interpreted through past unresolved experiences. This can make life times more difficult.

It often starts when an incident occurs in the present that has some aspect or trait that was also present in a painful event from the past. This aspect, detail, or trait of the present event (that was also present in the past painful event) is called a trigger. It is the common detail or aspect that both the past and present event share. Perhaps it is something that was said, a tone of voice or facial expression, and insinuation or underlying meaning we assigned to the event. This trigger activates the transference. As a result, not only do we feel the normal and appropriate feelings we would normally as a result of the present event, we then also feel the addition of unresolved feelings from the past event. We then react not only to the present stressor but to the past unresolved one as well. This often leads to disproportionate reactions and anger to present day stressors or experiences. If the present stressor occurred in a relationship, we may end up over-reacting and punishing the other for not only the present, but our past as well. We may hold onto feelings of anger far longer than we should. This also leads to us having a hard time accepting apologies from others. It is a confusing experience. We want to forgive the other, preserve the relationship, we want to be free of and move past the present experience, but we are often not consciously aware that we have not forgiven the past and we are actually holding the person in the present accountable for our past. If we find ourselves doing this, it is good to add this to our confessions; that we punished others and held them accountable for our past that we haven’t resolved or forgiven. Certainly, it is not fair to those people in our present. We say this not to shame, but so that we might grow spiritually.

Coming to the realization that this is occurring in our lives, while painful, can be incredibly liberating. It is also a powerful source of humility. To finally realize, that all this time, it is not other people who are so disappointing, but it was our expectations we hold people to in the present. These expectations were forged in the past.  So we see then, that the past does not keep re-occurring in the present outside of our control; that perhaps I am not being constantly victimized. Sure, other people can be aggravating. However, we begin to understand that much of the perceived injustice was coming from us. Suddenly we begin to see people in the present differently. Perhaps they aren’t so difficult and untrustworthy after all.

Apologies may have to be offered in the present if appropriate. Some apologies might be better left unsaid if too awkward. In those instances, confession and change of behavior will suffice. Some people apologize through actions that are meaningful and symbolic. We then take the steps to address the past unresolved event that has been affecting our perceptions and reactions.  As we work to resolve the past experience by getting out any lingering anger, grief, etc. and coming to terms with it, we will find ourselves starting to react to the present in a healthy way. It will take vigilance in the beginning to maintain this new awareness and we ought not to get discouraged by occasional set-backs, they are normal. Increasingly, we will see and experience that our present life is what we make of it and see those in the present for who they are- God given people in our life who we have for a short time.

The present is just to precious and beautiful to be colored and clouded by the past. Separate the two, resolve the past, and our spiritual growth and theosis will improve dramatically.

About Fr. Joshua Makoul

Fr. Joshua Makoul has been serving as the Dean of St. George Cathedral in Pittsburgh since 2012. Before that time, Fr. Joshua worked in the Counseling Field for 16 years. This involved work in a family-based, school-based, and an outpatient setting. Fr. Joshua received two years of training in family therapy at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center and completed a one year certificate course in Cognitive Behavior Therapy at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. During his last six years working in a small outpatient group, he was supervised by Dr. Jesus Salas who supervises at the Beck Institute in Philadelphia. Fr. Joshua received his Masters Degree in Counseling Psychology from Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia and his Bachelors in Psychology from Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. He is licensed in the state of Pennsylvania for counseling. For seminary he attended Holy Cross Seminary in Boston and received an M.Div.


  1. Hello,

    This article was really helpful and I’m very thankful I found it. There’s a lot of psychological and therapy related problems people have and that we may project onto the situation. Some people do wrong because they “know not what they do” and this gives an example. I think that psychology/therapy can show the truth of Christianity, healing, growing, and loving others. If you don’t mind me asking, what kinds of psychology/therapy would you recommend that complements Christianity? I’ve been wondering about this for a while. Thanks.

    1. Hello Joseph,

      Thank you for the message. Please forgive the delay in responding. Cognitive-Behavior Therapy fits well with Christianity. Also, we can pick and choose helpful concepts from other theories without using the whole theory. This is true of the Psychoanalytic theory. Much of Freud’s work on the unconscious (not all of it) and his work on defense mechanisms are very helpful. Unlike with our faith, we can pick and choose with therapy/ psychology. Whatever they offer that can help us get to the Kingdom of God and gain insight, healing, and peace along the way.

      ~Fr. Joshua

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