Forgiveness is one of the most important and one of the most difficult things we do as human beings. It is also one of the most misunderstood commands of scripture.
How is forgiveness possible? What do we do with our anger, fear, and hurt? Does forgiving meaning forgetting? Is it the same as reconciliation? Does forgiveness always restore a relationship to the way it used to be? Is forgiveness something that happens in a moment of decision, or is it a process that takes time? What if the offender never apologizes? Is forgiveness for me, for them, or both? How does my willingness to forgive impact my relationship with God?
In what follows, you will find concrete steps on the journey toward forgiveness that will help you start answering some of these questions. While these steps will prove helpful for anyone seeking healing, they are intended for those who have experienced “normal” levels of hurt (for lack of a better term). Those who have experienced intense, chronic abuse resulting in psychological trauma should seek professional counseling as part of their spiritual program.
The most important thing to remember as we proceed is that forgiveness is not a magic trick. It takes time, and some people need more time than others. Be kind to yourself in the process.
HELPFUL STEPS IN MOVINGTOWARD FORGIVENESS:
Fully acknowledge the wrongdoing. When we say to someone, “I forgive you,” there is an implicit condemnation of wrong doing. Imagine how strange it would be if someone said to us in a first encounter, “Hi. I’m Jim, and I forgive you!” We might reply, “Forgive me! For what?” The reason is because we only forgive people who have wronged us in some way.
In the Christian tradition, honest condemnation of wrongdoing is part of the logic of forgiveness. First we say, “What you did to me was wrong,” and then we say, “but I will not insist that you get what you deserve.” True forgiveness cannot happen unless we fully acknowledge the wrongdoing and find ways to speak our pain. Sweeping it under the rug, pretending that nothing happened, making excuses, and other kinds of minimizing behavior, does not facilitate forgiveness—it hinders and prevents it.
However, in most cases, it is not wise to immediately confront the offender. Christians are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), but we typically cannot do the “love thing” without the spiritual and emotional work that enables us to gain clarity, process our feelings, and seek wisdom. We often make things worse when a compulsive overreaction is triggered by emotional flooding. Unfortunately, some Christians who have a hard time disengaging when emotionally triggered appeal to Ephesians 4:26 (“Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry”) as a way of forcing a conversation that should wait. Rather than compulsively reacting, consider disengaging and working the following steps (being very careful not to use the need for a break as an excuse for stonewalling, a passive-aggressive expression of anger in which we withdraw from the other to punish them).
Prayer and journaling provide helpful ways to fully acknowledge our pain, not only to ourselves but also to God. There is something healing and empowering about speaking our truth before God, as is illustrated in the complaint Psalms (e.g., Ps. 3, 6, 60, 90) and the book of Lamentations. In addition to some healthy venting that can diminish the emotional charge and deescalates the situation, the Holy Spirit can work through prayer and journaling to help us sort out our feelings, gain clarity about the real issues, own any wrong doing on our part, and reclaim our identity in Jesus Christ so that we can act accordingly.
Conversation with wise friends, spiritual directors, or professional counselors can also be helpful. These conversation partners should be chosen carefully, and what is said should be kept in strict confidence. The goal is not to ruin the reputation of the offender through gossip, but to process our feelings and receive wise counsel in moving toward forgiveness.
One very important task in sorting out our feelings is to discern whether or not they are proportionate to the situation. If the emotional charge outstrips the severity of the offense, then it is almost certainly triggering old wounds that have not completely healed. In this case, we can ride the present pain like a horse back to the old wound and continue our spiritual and emotional work in this area. In this way, we distinguish between past and present offense and refuse to make the present offender responsible for something she or he didn’t do. The goal is to fully acknowledge the present offense without conflating it with similar wrongs in the past and projecting the whole shebang on the present offender.
All of this creates a huge challenge when trying to forgive someone who continuously hurts us. Before we can calm down, process our feelings, and discern a way forward, the offender does something else to hurt us again! Since forgiveness is a process, some people hurt us so frequently that it feels impossible to keep up! This is a complex topic that deserves its own article, but suffice it to say that if you are in a relationship with someone that is constantly hurting you, then you need to take steps to change or end that relationship. In the least, you should think carefully about establishing appropriate boundaries (see Cloud and Townsend, Boundaries).
If safe, appropriate, and wise, speak your truth assertively to the offender. Part of the spiritual and emotional work mentioned above is to prayerfully discern if and when to confront the offender. Sometimes it is wise, and sometimes it is not.
As you pray, journal, and talk with trusted friends and counselors, ask God to disclose your real motivations for wanting to confront the person who wronged you. Also, ask God to surface the outcomes that you hope to achieve and whether or not these are realistic. In terms of motivation, your primary reason for confronting another should be to speak the truth in ways that make genuine forgiveness more likely.
Importantly, while true forgiveness always aims at reconciliation, it does not always lead to that outcome. It only takes one to forgive, but it takes two to be reconciled. However, you can still forgive someone even when reconciliation is unlikely. You can forgive someone even when you know that the relationship will never be the same, when you know that new boundaries must be established or that a necessary ending is required. Even in the best case scenarios, when someone has been seriously injured (physically, emotionally, or spiritually), forgiveness does not always restore the relationship to the way it used to be. For example, you can forgive someone for abusing you as a kid without giving them access to your children. All of this leads us the question of our primary goal in confronting an offender.
The goal of confrontation is not to make everything the way it used to be (although this might be the fantasy of a remorseful offender seeking absolution). Nor is the primary goal to create a change in the offender. Rather, it is authentic self-presentation in obedience to Christ—honestly speaking our truth in a way that is consistent with our Christian values. We might ask the other person to hear, understand, and acknowledge our feelings. We might hope that in doing so the offender will acknowledge the offense, ask for forgiveness, and work with us to renegotiate a healthy relationship. But at the end of the day, we have no control over how people interpret and respond to our assertiveness. And remember, you can forgive someone even if they refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing and reject your forgiveness. Again, the main goal is to speak the truth in love, which can help you find freedom from hurt and move on with your life.
If you have prayerfully discerned that speaking your truth to the offender is appropriate, wise, and safe, then you want to proceed assertively. Assertiveness is the healthy alternative to passive, passive-aggressive, and aggressive behavior. Here is a helpful model for assertive communication.
- State the facts clearly. Pretend you are a reporter responsible for explaining as concisely as possible exactly what happened, without any interpretation or value judgements. Avoid generalizing (“You always . . .”) and keep a laser focus on the facts of the specific situation.
- Use “I” language to express how you feel. Don’t blame, judge, or condemn with “you” accusations, but use “I” language to honestly and clearly express your feelings.
- Focusing on the specific situation at hand, say clearly what you want to happen in the future. If you are feeling unimportant because your spouse is always late, you might say, “I want you to be on time when we make plans with each other.”
- Say how your relationship will improve if they are willing to negotiate that change with you. “If you are on time then we will be able to better enjoy what we have planned.”
In all of this, do not get distracted by argumentativeness, and if you feel yourself getting emotionally flooded, disengage, calm down, and try again later.
While proceeding in this way will make it more likely that our concerns will be heard and addressed, it is not a magic formula that makes people acknowledge wrongdoing and conform to our expectations. Again, our goal is authentic self-presentation. We express our feelings, make our requests known, and invite the other person to join us in working on the relationship. But then we release the situation to God and take the other person’s response as information as we find our next steps.
Make a decision to let it go. This is the heart of forgiveness. Instead of seeking revenge, punishment, or vindication, instead of insisting that the offender gets what she or he deserves, we decide to forgive—we let it go so we can move on. This should not be confused with rescuing people from the natural consequences of their actions. In fact, natural consequences are life’s best teacher. If your husband will not sever all ties with his mistress, you can forgive him and file for divorce. A natural consequence of serial infidelity is a loss of trust, and you cannot have a healthy marriage with someone who is fundamentally untrustworthy. So the suggestion is not to rescue people from natural consequences, but to resist the temptation to willfully dig-in and stick-it to the person who hurt us.
Part of letting it go means refusing to bring up the offense in the future for the sole purpose of hurting the offender or ruining his or her reputation with others. We don’t forever forget the offense, and trying to do so is often unwise. Remembering what someone did to us can provide valuable information for discerning healthy and wise next steps. Also, there are situations in which it would be appropriate and necessary to discuss the offense (either with the offender or with someone else) later down the road. But all of this is different from using the offense as a weapon for the sole purpose of ongoing punishment.
The most difficult battleground for the task of letting go is our imagination. When the offender or offense comes to mind, we are tempted to fantasize about retaliation, but generating and dwelling on these imaginative scenarios can be like drinking poison. The initial adrenaline surge might make us feel powerful, but ultimately the fantasy will trigger and intensify the very feelings we are trying to resolve, making us feel even more powerless and victimized. And if the content of the fantasies is contrary to our value system as a Christian, they will have the added effect of creating unnecessary guilt.
(Some psychologists suggest that we can heal memories by reexperiencing them through fantasy with compassion and power. For example, if we cannot confront a parent who abused us as a child because they are deceased, then we might fantasize about a memory of abuse and imagine our adult-self standing beside our child-self and speaking-up in assertive ways. Or if we cannot confront someone as an adult because she or he is violent and unsafe, we might fantasize about standing-up to him or her and speaking honestly about our pain. What distinguishes this kind of fantasy from what is discouraged above is that it is not punishing, vengeful, or retaliatory. It is self-healing not self-wounding.)
Rather than getting lost in punitive fantasies, pray for the offender every time they come to mind. Pray that God will heal whatever brokenness drives their bad behavior, and that God will help them honestly see what needs to change. We consciously choose to let go of the offense and then pray for the offender, not primarily because it has some good psychological effect for us (although it does) but because this is what Jesus commands:
“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:28).
This is an essential part of being a follower of Jesus, and true forgiveness happens only when we come to see the offender through the eyes of compassion. This usually doesn’t happen unless we pray for them so that God can change our hearts in the process.
Finally, forgiveness includes consciously and continuously rejecting any toxic messages about ourselves that are triggered by the memory of the offender or offense. Sometimes conflict makes us fear the worst about ourselves, leading us to accept false, negative judgements made or implied by the offender. (See my article, “Don’t Label Me! The Subtle Violence of Judgmentalism.”) If we are not careful, we find ourselves myopically focusing on our failures and growing edges, which generates distorted stereotypes and leads to relentless self-recrimination. This is not to say that we should avoid honestly owning our part in conflict, but beating ourselves up with false stereotypes actually makes it more difficult to accurately assess the situation and move toward genuine forgiveness (which might include forgiveness of ourselves too). As those toxic message pop into our minds, we should ask, “Is it true? Is this what God says about me? Is this what people who know and love me say about me?” If not, surrender it in prayer and reclaim your identity in Christ.
As stated at the beginning, forgiveness is a process that takes time. There is no magic formula or quick fix. It is difficult spiritual and emotional work. Some people have been so betrayed or traumatized that forgiveness seems impossible. For those people, I would suggest that it is an “impossible possibility.” It might be impossible for you on your own strength, but it is not impossible for God to do through you, if you are willing to stay close to God and give yourself time to heal. Wherever you are on the journey toward forgiveness, I pray that God give you courage, strength, and hope, as well as a couple of good friends who can walk beside you.
(If you liked this article, you might also like “The Power of Weakness: How Attempts to Be Strong Lead to Impotence.“)