Dr. Kimberly Riley
How often are we faced with moments where we question what forgiveness would look like? Sometimes we have an experience in life that really shakes us emotionally and spiritually and we are left wondering what our next step should be. “How would God want us to move on?” we wonder. “What will people think about us if we don’t forgive the way they think we should?” we ask ourselves.
We even begin to question how we could forgive someone who has caused us so much pain. We almost reject the idea of forgiveness altogether, for fear that it sends a message that is opposite of the hurt that we really feel.
What Does Forgiveness Mean to Me?Every person has their own idea of what forgiveness means. Forgiveness happens in many different ways in different family systems. Some families will express their desire to be forgiven by saying things like “I am sorry” or “I didn’t mean to,” while others may simply ask for forgiveness by saying “please forgive me.”
People generally have some type of expectation of a person after he or she takes ownership of what they did and ask to be forgiven. It is often assumed that the offender will not exhibit the same behavior again in the future, and when they do, the person who was hurt feels betrayed and confused.
Forgiveness then becomes all the more difficult to extend because we don’t understand the process of forgiveness or even the motivation behind why we should forgive. If the pattern of forgiving, getting hurt, forgiving again, and then getting hurt even more continues in a family, people come to believe that forgiveness is too difficult and they live on in unforgiveness, which may turn out to be even harder.
Anger and sadness can be the product of unforgiveness for the person who is questioning whether or not they should forgive. You may be angry that you have to forgive someone in the first place since they hurt you. You may feel sad that someone you cared deeply about did not treat you with the same care. Understanding your emotions surrounding forgiveness is helpful because it gives you some insight into areas in which you will probably need to do some work to begin healing.
There are many different ways that people decide if they should or should not forgive someone, how they should forgive them, and what they should say when they make their decision. Often times, Christians will feel a sense of obligation to forgive and experience guilt or shame when they are not immediately moved to forgiveness once something painful happens in their life.
Is there any time limit set for when a person should forgive or is there a correct way to forgive? Where would someone find the answers to what forgiveness should look like and when it should happen?
Some think that they need to be asked before they can start the forgiveness process while others feel obligated to forgive because they were once forgiven by someone for their wrongdoings. The Bible is a great guide for knowing what God asks us to do when it comes to forgiving others and even what we can expect when we are in need of forgiveness.
One teenager said “You don’t need an apology to forgive. The Bible has taught me how to forgive others and is a constant reminder that I myself am forgiven as well.” What a great reminder!
What if They Don’t Ask For Forgiveness?
As we begin to dig deeper into what forgiveness is, what it is not, when we should forgive, and who we are obligated to forgive, we will look at a few scriptures on forgiveness to help us forgive for good.
One scripture that speaks to the idea that people can hurt us without necessarily understanding the full implications is spoken by Jesus in some of His last moments on Earth in human flesh.
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” – Luke 23:34
How do we respond when someone has hurt us and we come to the conclusion that they maybe were unaware of their wrongdoing? Do we hear the words of Jesus suggesting that we forgive without ever being asked?
People around us sometimes won’t understand how we can forgive people who hurt us without acknowledging what they have done. We know that the reward of offering grace to someone who maybe didn’t know any better when they did whatever it is that they did is rewarding and it has benefits for not just us, but often for the other person as well.
In this scenario one of the criminals who was being put to death witnessed Jesus being mocked by people after asking for forgiveness for others, so he spoke to Jesus while on the cross. This man stood up for Jesus and then asked Jesus to remember him. Jesus showed compassion and love, just like we can do when forgiving someone who others may not feel is worthy of forgiveness. Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” – Luke 23:34
What if They Hurt Me Again?
Sometimes, when we forgive someone and they repeat the offense, we start to wonder how many times we should forgive them for the same thing. We question if we have truly forgiven them when we get angry again about their treatment of us.
When we forgive a person, do we need to put ourselves in the position to be hurt again or can we safeguard ourselves so that we are less likely to be hurt by staying away? It is sometimes hard to know what to do to stay emotionally safe and yet within the truthfulness of forgiveness. There is a scripture that may be helpful in understanding how many times we should forgive someone and also gives insight into what happens after forgiveness has taken place.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” – Matthew 18:21-22
It can be confusing to us to think about exposing ourselves to danger after we already know that a person or situation is dangerous, so we have to understand exactly what is being suggested by Jesus here.Jesus wants us to understand that there will be moments where we are forgiven and we need to extend that forgiveness to others, possibly even for the same thing we were forgiven for, such as in the story Jesus told after He answered Peter’s question.
When we don’t forgive others as we have been forgiven, even if the offense is committed over and over, we are not forgiving people from our heart. This scripture is not suggesting that we continue to put ourselves in a position that is harmful, but that we continue to forgive others when the time comes because that is what is expected of us.
As you think more deeply about ways to forgive someone who may continue to hurt you, ask God about ways for you to remove yourself physically so that you can remain safe while you maintain forgiveness in your heart.
What if They Hurt Me Years Ago?
There are times when we may no longer be actively involved with the person who has offended us. We might even believe that we no longer care enough about the situation to actively put effort into forgiving the person. We have decided that by not thinking about the hurt and pain we have moved on and moving on means forgiveness, right?
We might have even prayed about moving on and letting go in the way God would like us to, which would probably mean we have achieved a level of forgiveness towards another person. However, perhaps we still have a little more intentional work to do. We may need to do something that is helpful for letting go of an issue that has been keeping our mind and heart hostage.
Jesus gives us a gentle reminder that ties everything together; our prayer life, the way we forgive others, and how God forgives us:
And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. – Mark 11:25
When we move too quickly past something that maybe requires more time to fully process, we risk holding on over the long-term instead of releasing the anger or hurt in the short term. How can we take our pain and release it to God? We wonder if it is a necessary part of forgiveness and think that by letting go we are excusing the behavior of the one who wronged us.
Is that really the truth though? As you think about what forgiveness looks like for you, think about what you are seeking when you apologize to someone. The way that you want to be forgiven might give you some insight into the way you ought to forgive other people.
There may be moments in our lives where we are on the other side of forgiveness, hoping that God and others release our past and forgive us for things that we have done. What a beautiful way to experience the gift of forgiveness from God as we give the gift of forgiveness to someone else.
What if They Are Still in My Life?
As we learn to forgive people who have perhaps never asked for forgiveness or to forgive others for multiple offenses, forgiving others without holding the hurt against them, we may be curious about how we forgive someone and remain in relationship with them.Relationships work in a variety of ways when things don’t go as planned. Sometimes we do not have the communication skills or confidence to confront a person about the hurt we have felt, so we do nothing and the pain continues. Often the offender isn’t willing or doesn’t quite understand how to be accountable for their actions and they never express their sorrow.
What would it look like for us to give our love to someone who may not love themselves well enough to treat someone with care and gentleness? What do you think would happen if we offered our love through forgiveness and the person felt so loved that they changed their behavior? Is it even possible? It might be.
This passage gives us guidance on how to have a relationship with someone after we forgive them because generally, forgiveness isn’t the doorway to saying goodbye, but the entrance to something brand new.
If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you to some extent—not to put it too severely.
The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient.
Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.
I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.
Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake. – 2 Corinthians 2: 5-8, 10
Loving someone does not mean that we allow them to continue to abuse us emotionally or physically, but loving someone can be the key to opening a brand new way of experiencing life for them.
Loving someone does not mean that we have to be put our needs aside and forget about our safety, but sometimes a person is truly sorry and they want to change, so our love provides the comfort that they desire and the motivation to be a functioning person in the relationship without the damaging behaviors. Forgiveness and love may take time, but with God’s help, all things are possible.
Working Through Forgiveness: What’s Next?
If you are struggling to understand your grief, sadness, nervousness, anger, or any other emotion related to forgiveness, maybe now is a good time to come in and meet with one of our counselors here at Seattle Christian Counseling who can journey with you through the pain and hurt that you are feeling.
You don’t have to figure out how to take the next step alone. Maybe the person who has hurt you deeply is still in your life and you would like to bring them in with you. There are counselors here who are trained to work with families and would be willing to help begin the process of forgiveness.
Possibly you are the one who is in the position of feeling sorrow for the way you have treated someone else; we can help you gain freedom from the guilt or shame you may be feeling. Today is a great day to reach out and start the journey to forgiveness.
“Embrace,” courtesy of Gus Moretta, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Forgiveness”, Courtesy of Jordan Whitt, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Pals”, Courtesy of Annie Spratt, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Grief”, Courtesy of Thought Catalog, Unsplash.com, CC0 License