Sarah M. Farrell
Most of us have at least some understanding of the fact that we are supposed to forgive. But why? And more importantly… how? We have heard about forgiveness from the time we were small, hearing things like “move on,” and “just forgive him/her.” The idea has even been spouted in common phrases in our common vernacular, “Forgive and forget.”Most will recognize that the idea of forgiveness is prevalent in the Bible. It’s a great idea, right? But it can feel somewhat ambiguous. You can say you’ve forgiven someone or tried to do so, yet the thoughts keep popping back up with a new situation or with old memories.
What then? Is that forgiveness? Or are you failing at one of God’s most basic commandments? This is a grave concern, as we know God forgives those who forgive. For something that seemed like a simple idea bred out of early lessons we learned while munching on crackers in Sunday school, it certainly becomes complicated to practice.
As a Christian counselor, one of the most common questions I hear is, “How do I learn to forgive?” This is a common question because forgiveness is not simple or easy. Even when we feel we have it figured out, resentment rears its ugly head again!
So what exactly does forgiveness entail? And why is it so hard?
Let’s explore why it may be so difficult for humans to forgive and move forward.
The Complexity of Forgiveness
“Forgiveness is a virtue of the brave.” – Indira Gandhi
I’ve been asked many times and have had the same query on my own lips on numerous occasions: “I know I’m supposed to forgive, but why is it so difficult?!”
This question, frequently hurled in frustration, dimly lit by our mounting ideas of failure, implies that we cannot accomplish what seems like a simple and straightforward task.
So why is it so hard? There are quite a few different factors at play that intersect to increase the complexity of said “simple task.”
First, forgiveness means accepting reality. To forgive is to admit something has actually occurred to incite the anger or hurt you currently feel (or are trying not to feel). It requires acceptance of the fact that the past did occur, and it occurred in a way that created damage and potential suffering. It requires a stout acceptance that the past has occurred, and it cannot be changed.
In this acceptance of the past, forgiveness also means facing and accepting ourselves, who we are, and what effects the past may have had on ourselves. It can mean facing truths about who we are and what we have become.
Accepting Truths about Others
Further, it can mean accepting truths about others. It can mean you have to accept that someone you love may have inadvertently, or, worse yet, purposefully, hurt you. It means accepting that other people make mistakes. That good and bad can exist simultaneously in even those we care about. It means facing the flaws of others.Along this same vein of thinking, forgiveness can mean accepting that others are capable of hurting us, that they had a certain amount of power over us. To forgive is to admit a certain level of vulnerability. This can be immensely difficult and, sometimes, even painful.
Over time, I’ve noted that it seems most difficult to forgive when the offense is deeply personal, even if it wasn’t to the other individual(s) involved. For example, if we feel deeply insecure about intelligence, it can be much more difficult to forgive someone who has made a joke or an insensitive comment about our intellect, whether it was purposeful or not.
This is because it backs up an internalized idea we have about ourselves. It adds evidence to a negative thought we had—maybe about a negative attribute we didn’t think others had noticed. Now, someone has added evidence to that thought; inadvertent as it may be.
When our insecurities or our deeply-held beliefs about ourselves are impacted, forgiveness becomes much more of a chore. Forgiveness is difficult when we must forgive accusations we have already made toward ourselves.
Frequently, forgiveness means accepting an apology we have never received. It can mean choosing to forgive someone who has not accepted the impact of his or her actions. It can mean forgiving someone who has no clue what they did. It can also mean forgiving someone who knowingly stands by what they did or said. Sometimes it takes humbling ourselves enough to accept that even though we feel we are in the right, we must simply let it go, accepting that someone may never apologize or accept the pain they have caused.
So why is it so difficult to let go of the negative things people say? Why can’t the adage about sticks and stones be true? Quite simply, words are inherently not simple. We internalize words. They create beliefs and thoughts or evidence to back up those beliefs and thoughts. We internalize the ideas and thoughts that words provoke. They change us. In some ways, if allowed to flourish, they become part of us.
Sometimes, forgiveness can be complicated because it has more to do with us than other individuals. There are personal reasons that forgiveness can be difficult. It may help us feel we have some control or the upper-hand in a situation. It also gives us room to fill the role of victim.
Forgiveness means humbling ourselves, letting go of some of our control and power in a situation, and frequently means moving out of the role we may have inhabited for quite some time. Forgiving doesn’t mean you haven’t been a victim, but relinquishing our ideas of how a situation has caused issues in our lives can feel painful and difficult.
Forgiveness just isn’t as simple as a single, instantaneous choice. It’s difficult for a variety of aforementioned reasons. It is a consistent, ongoing choice. So… we’ve covered why it’s difficult. Now why do we have to do it?
Why Should We Forgive?
Though it’s difficult, forgiving is imperative for a couple of reasons. We’ve covered all the ways in which forgiving can be difficult. It is important for many of the same reasons.
Forgiving helps us accept reality—the reality of what the past has been, who we are, the nature of humanity, and, ultimately, the nature of God. To forgive is to choose to let go and move forward without holding on to the poison of resentment.
Choosing to forgive offers us the opportunity to view our situation, ourselves, and our circumstances more objectively as we pull back from the situation to begin the process. It allows us to evaluate the situation more clearly, without defensiveness. Emotionally and psychologically, it just makes sense that forgiveness can be a healthy process.
What God Says about Forgiveness
In addition to the fact that it’s good for us, it is also what God commands. Let’s check out what He has to say about forgiveness:
“And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heave forgive your trespasses.” – Mark 11:25, NKJV
Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. … Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.” – Luke 6:36-38 NKJV
It’s straightforward that forgiveness is necessary. Many of you will already understand the importance of such an act. Understanding that it is what we should do does not make the task any easier. In fact, sometimes it can make it more frustrating.We know we should be forgiving, but it doesn’t seem to work. We’ll think about forgiving them; we may even have some ritual for how we do it. We might tell them we forgive them. Yet, we may consistently notice the thoughts still pop up. We may feel irritable every time we have to interact with those we have forgiven. We might notice we still have strong feelings regarding what has occurred.
You’ve made a strong attempt to complete this task we call forgiveness. Yet, you may be consistently worrying you aren’t doing it correctly. After all, it is not fixing the thoughts, feelings, or reactions. This can feel so entirely frustrating.
Let’s take a look at what forgiveness looks like and check out some tips on how to forgive and see if that clears things up a bit!
Misconceptions About Forgiveness
First, let’s clear up some misconceptions about forgiveness. Often we will feel reticent about forgiveness because we feel it isn’t justified. Forgiveness never means you are pardoning someone’s actions. Quite the opposite, in fact, you are accepting that the individual has had an impact on you and that this action requires forgiveness.
Often, we feel we are giving up in a relationship when we forgive. After all, we are removing our bargaining chip by offering forgiveness. However, forgiving gives room for a relationship to move forward in a healthy way, removing power differentials.
Forgiving does not mean you are saying the other individual(s) did nothing wrong, rather that you are choosing to be emotionally healthy and move forward. Sometimes, forgiveness can be offered without a word ever being spoken. We frequently imagine a heartfelt, teary apology and then a grace-filled hug and an offering of verbal forgiveness. However, it is very common that we don’t ever need to verbalize our forgiveness.
Forgiveness does not require that we have no further feelings about a situation; it doesn’t require that we have no further hesitation with an individual. It doesn’t even require that we continue to have a relationship with an individual. It simply means doing what we are commanded to do and freeing ourselves emotionally from the bonds of resentment, anger, and a need to control. It allows us to have boundaries between ourselves and the other, removing the ties of unforgiveness.
How We Should Forgive
Let’s dive into some more verses that tell us a bit about how we should forgive:
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion. Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rathergive place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” – Romans 12:14-19, NKJV
“But if anyone has caused grief, he has not grieved me, but all of you to some extent—not to be too severe. This punishment which was inflictedby the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him. For to this end I also wrote, that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. Now whom you forgive anything, I also forgive. For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ.” – II Corinthians 2:5-11, NKJV
“Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” – II Corinthians 5:18-19, NKJV
“Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.” – Luke 17:3-4, NKJV
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” – Ephesians 4:32
Okay, we’ve learned a lot about forgiveness, including some about how God tells us to forgive. Can you think of an area in which you are holding back your forgiveness?
How to Move Forward with Forgiveness
Let’s look at some steps to moving forward into forgiveness.
1. Process the situation.
Think about it and get to know the ins and outs of it. Understanding the impacts of the situation in which you are trying to offer forgiveness can help you offer more comprehensive forgiveness. Sometimes we don’t understand all of the varied impacts a situation or offense can have on us. This leads to a less comprehensive understanding of the situation and a lessened ability to forgive and move on quickly.
If we understand the situation well, we can try to mitigate impacts and deal with them all at once, rather than the situation rising to our thoughts at different times in various settings. Think about whether or not there are others involved who may be impacted. Consider whether you would like to verbalize your forgiveness and whether this is in the best interest of all involved.
2. Consider the work God has done through the situation.
Consider all of the work God has done in you. Consider good outcomes. Consider any negative impacts so you know what you are choosing to forgive. Recognize the negative impacts that have come or may come from choosing not to forgive.
3. Consider the other individual prayerfully.
God consistently reminds us that we are to pray for our enemies, bless those who curse us, etc. in Matthew 5:43-45, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
Considering the individual(s) you are trying to forgive as a fellow, flawed human can be helpful in the process of understanding and moving forward. After all, we all make mistakes and no one is without sin.Praying for God’s mercy and a reminder of your own state of sinfulness is helpful. This process can be painful as it requires accepting our own sinful nature and the ways in which we have hurt or harmed others. Praying for God’s love to flow through you to the individual or individuals is a great way to begin.
4. Decide how you’d like to move forward.
Forgiveness can be a huge step, especially with problems or traumas that have occurred long ago. The longer we hold onto resentment or anger or hurts, the more difficult it can feel to make the choice to forgive, as time can aid these sorts of traumas by further embedding in our minds and memories.
If you choose to take a conscious step toward forgiving others, make this choice prayerfully, praying for God’s strength and nurturing in your life as you move forward. Consider building in some accountability and supportive figures, including pastors or objective friends.
If you would like to move forward in forgiveness yet feel it is too complicated to take on alone or at this time, begin to step out in prayer for assistance, knowing that forgiveness is of God and He will offer you strength. If you would like further assistance, counseling can be another great option for processing and determining how to best move forward, prayerfully, to a happier, healthier you.
As we have covered thoroughly, forgiveness can be complex. It requires understanding and humbling yourself. It requires understanding what can sometimes be complex, embedded feelings and responses to a negative situation, and it involves accepting God’s grace for us and sharing it with others.
If you have something about which God is calling you to forgive and you would like someone to partner with you toward your goals of forgiveness, the counselors at Seattle Christian Counseling would be thrilled to help you make the conscious, consistent choice of forgiveness.
Utilizing professional counseling skills, beliefs in God’s grace and goodness, and a foundation rooted in His word, we can offer a safe space to begin the process of forgiving. Give us a call when you are ready to begin taking these steps!
“On my knees,” courtesy of Ben White, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Thinking,” courtesy of Ben White, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Bible,” courtesy of Aaron Burden, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Worship,” courtesy of Zac Durant, unsplash.com, CC0 License