Forgiveness is an issue I must deal with on a frequent basis, because of my work as a marriage and family therapist. However, let’s face it – it is something we all must address at some point in our lives, probably many times throughout our lives. We live in a fallen world. We disappoint, hurt, and betray one another – spouses, family, friends, neighbors, enemies, co-workers, teammates, and any other relational context in which we find ourselves. And if we are to survive the human experience in any kind of healthy way, we must learn to forgive. Following are some of the things I have learned about the difficult and powerful process of forgiveness:
– Forgiveness involves first fully acknowledging the wrong that was done. There are many, many ways in which this can be done. It can be done alone or with others, in conversation with the offender or without the offender, publicly or privately, gradually or immediately. But unless one genuinely acknowledges the wrongness of the offense, true forgiveness cannot follow. It becomes more an exercise in sweeping something under the rug, or pretending it was OK. To put it simply, it represents the difference between saying something like, “Don’t worry about it,” or “It’s OK,” or “It’s no big deal,” versus saying, “I forgive you.” I urge you not to minimize the importance of this point! Real forgiveness must include a full recognition and expression of just how bad the offense was. Otherwise, you aren’t forgiving, you are ignoring. I see so many people miss this point out of an effort to get through the unpleasantness and restore a feeling of peace, but this does not lead to a real, lasting peace.
– Forgiveness does not depend on the admission, confession, repentance, or remorse of the offender. While this can certainly facilitate the process of forgiveness, it is not necessary. This is actually good news for the offended. It means you are not at their mercy as you move on with your life. Moving forward and growing are choices that you get to make for yourself, even if the offender does not choose the right path.
– Forgiveness is more about setting the offended free, not the offender. Offering true forgiveness prevents you from being destroyed by the cancer of bitterness. Bitterness is one of the most destructive forces in the human experience. Believe me, you want to steer clear of it. Forgiving the wrongs against you will guard your heart and life from this firestorm of destruction.
– Forgiveness does not require you to trust the offender again in the same way you did before. Offer forgiveness, mercy, and loving-kindness – yes. But extending full trust again, I don’t think so. I think a misunderstanding on this point is one of the biggest barriers that prevents many people from forgiving. They are afraid if they forgive, they have to be willing to go back to the way things were, and then they are vulnerable to being hurt all over again. While there is simply no way for any of us to keep ourselves from being hurt by others, we do not have to knowingly subject ourselves to the same relationship rules that allowed us to be hurt the first time (or perhaps multiple times) by the offender. However, we must understand that a relationship cannot be fully restored without rebuilding trust. In some situations, that is a choice we can live with. In others, it isn’t good enough, and we must learn to rebuild trust. This process, however, is a topic for another post.
– Forgiveness does not absolve the offender from consequences. You may choose to release the emotional debt, and Christ offers his payment for the spiritual debt. But life demands consequences for our choices. Scripture is full of examples of individuals and groups who were forgiven by God for their sinful behavior, but still paid a price for their wrong choices. Sometimes these consequences may mean a change in our relationship or a loss of some privilege. Other times the consequences naturally follow, simply from the way life goes. Still other times these consequences may be imposed by an outside authority. This will, of course, depend on the nature and circumstances of the offense. This is another point on which I have seen many Christians take a misguided path. I would urge a careful study of Scripture on this point.
– Forgiveness is necessary to be at peace with God, ourselves, and others. Read through the Bible. God is unyielding in His call to us to be a people of forgiveness. He goes so far as to tell us we will be forgiven to the degree we forgive others. This is sometimes a very hard teaching, but I have come to understand God always gives us instruction based on what is best for us, not just to give us tough rules to follow. Forgiveness sets us on the path to true freedom.
– We need God’s intervention in order to fully forgive. Some are hurt in ways that are simply unimaginable, and telling them to forgive almost seems ridiculous. But it still needs to happen. I encourage my clients to begin this whole process by inviting God to give them both the desire and the ability to forgive. God faithfully honors requests such as these from those who seek to obey Him and live well.
For further insight into this process, I would urge you to read through the Bible for divine guidance. Please don’t just take my perspective. Read and seek for yourself. Luke 6:17-42 has much to say in this matter, although I certainly would not stop there. Read through both the Old and New Testament prayerfully, inviting God’s Spirit to give you the wisdom, courage, and ability to go where He leads you. Another excellent resource is Philip Yancey’s book, “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” May God bless you richly as you choose the right path for your life.
With Hope – Roger