Forgiveness is a topic I frequently research and discuss, not only for my professional life as a therapist, but especially for my personal life as a woman who loves Jesus. I have been greatly forgiven, and it is important to me that I extend grace and forgiveness to people around me. Throughout my journey so far, I have been challenged to think of forgiveness differently. Here are some things I have come to believe about forgiveness:
- The forgiving person can feel just as relieved as (if not, more than) the forgiven person.
- Forgiveness dismisses a debt (and relieves you of the responsibility to keep tabs on all of your debtors).
- You can forgive even if the offender has never apologized, earned your pardon, or asked for your forgiveness. In fact, forgiveness is not conditional at all.
- Forgiveness is supernatural and miraculous. I believe that forgiveness is an extension of God’a grace; sometimes forgiveness is more about yielding to Him than turning toward the person you want (and especially when we don’t want) to forgive.
- Forgiving someone does not make you a doormat. In fact, forgiveness is a healthy expression of power within our relationships.
- Forgiveness is not forgetting, but letting go in healthy ways can be a step toward freedom.
- A mistake is not the same as a transgression.
- Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling. Let’s be honest, we aren’t typically so full of love and grace that we are instinctively driven to forgive.
- Forgiving does not mean that your feelings don’t matter.
- Perhaps most importantly, forgiveness does not necessitate reconciliation!
So, how do we forgive? (These 3 steps are a very condensed version of what I discuss with clients. The best way to have an in-depth discussion about these steps or the points above is to contact me or find a trusted person to walk this journey with you. You don’t have to do it alone!)
- Label what has happened. Start by labeling it for yourself, but processing the event with a counselor or trusted friend can be very helpful. It is important that you are able to label both the offense and your emotional response as accurately as possible, especially if you may try to share these thoughts with the person who has hurt you. There are pressures everywhere to move on as quickly as possible, but rushing through or skipping this step toward forgiveness usually results in bitterness, resentment, rage, and lack of true forgiveness. Two of the most common reasons we skip this step: we haven’t learned how to label feelings or we don’t believe that our feelings are important or valid. It may be helpful to start by journaling or writing a cathartic letter (don’t send it). This way you can begin to put words to some of the anger and hurt that you have experienced. Authentic emotion is the beginning of authentic forgiveness. But don’t get stuck in the raw emotion…
- Choose to forgive. Like I said above, forgiveness is supernatural; it is not our first instinct. Start by being honest with yourself about your willingness to forgive. Are you desperate for the freedom of forgiveness? Still holding onto the anger over the injustice? Refusing to forgive? There is space for all of those perspectives, but you won’t know where you’re headed until you acknowledge where you are in the choosing process. Then using the list of truths above, consider what forgiveness would mean for your situation and how choosing to forgive might change your life. Although forgiveness is a choice, I describe it as a journey more than a one-time life event because our perspective of the offense may change as we gain life experience. Two of the most common reasons people are unforgiving: we don’t value the relationship enough to work toward healing or we’re afraid of becoming weak. As a Christian, I am grateful that the Holy Spirit can extend forgiveness through me even as I feel unwilling or unable to forgive on my own. I once heard Dallas Willard describe that attitude as, “wanting to want what I don’t want yet.” He believed that a willingness to be willing made us malleable in the hands of our Creator, that our hearts can change.
- Decide whether reconciliation is possible/healthy. Although sincere reconciliation is ideal, it is possible to forgive a person and not reconcile. In fact, there are situations where reconciliation can be more damaging, especially if it would mean returning to an abusive relationship. This is why periods of structured separation including counseling can be restorative for couples; it offers space and time to heal without feeling pushed into divorce. It is important to slowly and carefully consider the options and wait to reconcile until it is safe and appropriate. Do not use this as an excuse to avoid doing the painful work of healing reconciliation or to control or punish the other person! It would be irresponsible to dismiss reconciliatIon just because it isn’t mandatory. It is possible to reconcile at any point after forgiveness, but true reconciliation cannot happen apart from forgiveness and repentance. It takes one person to forgive, but two people to reconcile.
Do you see what I did there? Forgetting is not a part of this conversation. I believe that we must remember in order to truly forgive. For example, which of these statements of forgiveness sounds more powerful? “I don’t even remember what you did to me, so it’s fine,” or, “It has been a very painful experience and process, but I have decided to extend forgiveness anyway. Let’s talk about boundaries and clarify expectations before we can move forward in relationship together.”
You have power in your relationships, especially the power to forgive! Don’t judge your ability to forgive on your ability to forget.