Forgiveness: What it isn’t and how to do it

In taking revenge, a man is equal to his enemy; in forgiving, he is superior. While vengeance may feel more satisfying to a person’s sense of justice and power, forgiveness elevates that person to a higher level of freedom, grace, maturity and healthy living.

Those who do not integrate forgiveness into their lives carry with them the heavy darkness of a wounded heart, a tight guardedness toward other people, an anger-based bitter disposition, and an indifference to the concerns and struggles of others. They have not achieved serenity. Those who know forgiveness in their experience are more socially poised, interpersonally gracious, and inwardly at peace. They have embraced a major ingredient of serenity. By first clarifying the following misunderstandings about the basic concept, many more people can initiate forgiveness more effectively in their lives.

Misunderstandings of the Concept

Forgiving means that I have to condone something that ought to be condemned. Forgiving will offend my sense of justice. It will let my offender “off the hook.” This erroneous perception puts a reasonable person in the untenable position of deeming as acceptable those abominations of human dignity that exploit, betray, violate, abuse, demean and otherwise dehumanize. Clearly, acts such as these are unacceptable and should not be condoned. But forgiveness does not make a judgment about the rightness of the act. It assumes that an offense has been committed or that a wrong has been done. Then it seeks to clarify the nature of that offense by bringing to light the issues involved. In light of the offense it simply agrees to let go of vengeance.

Forgiving requires forgetting and I cannot forget what happened to me. The ancient Greeks had the concept of forgiveness as simply “letting go.” When they forgave a debt, they would let go of it and the debt would no longer appear on the accounting ledger. Over the years we have added the distorted concept of “forgetting” to this letting go. But if a debt has been willingly erased from the books, remembering that it was there and has been forgiven should pose no problem. If we “let go” of a debt, superficially erase it from the ledger, but grudgingly hold resentment, then we have not really let go of it as we like to think we have, and in the true sense of the word we have not really forgiven.

If I forgive, I will lose my sense of power and control over the situation. It will leave me in the role of a victim. Actually, forgiveness is the way we unhook ourselves from the power and the control of the offense over us and get beyond it. When we stay focused on the negative past, our entire lives will take on an orientation around that event holding us hostages in its bondage. We can never be free to heal and creatively pursue our future if we are encumbered by the poisonous pull to the history we cannot change.

If I forgive, I will then have to trust that offender again. I cannot entrust myself to someone who is not trustworthy. This misunderstanding assumes that the offender must change his or her behavior before my forgiveness is possible. It leaves no room for caution. It is naive with regard to reality. In actuality, forgiveness simply lets go of the offense of past behaviors. If I realize that I have tried dancing with a porcupine and have gotten stuck, I am not obligated to keep dancing the same way after I have extended forgiveness! Caution is, indeed, reasonable and realistic. If I have been hurt in my attempts to establish a closer relationship with a family member, forgiveness of past offenses does not require me to continue expecting different behaviors from that person, nor does it require that I continue to take the same level of responsibility for the closeness of that relationship.

If I am going to forgive, the offender must first ask me for that forgiveness. While this would be pleasing, some people who embrace this misunderstanding are holding out so that they can continue to punish the offender by means of withholding forgiveness and maintaining their anger. The main point they are missing is that forgiveness is not for the benefit of the offender; it is for our benefit. It is in this regard that the forgiveness of one human to another is very different from God’s forgiveness of a human. While God has been offended by our sin and rebellion from Him, His character and ability to function have not in any way been diminished. He would not be in any personal bondage if He were to let His justice have its natural course, leaving us alienated from His love forever. So His forgiveness is an expression of His grace, not his need for anything. The benefits of His forgiveness enhance the well-being of only us, the offenders. When we forgive another, we are letting go of a disposition of hurt and resentment that frees us and opens our wounds to the healing balm of truth. Thus, when we forgive another person, it is we who benefit; when God forgives us, it is we who benefit!

Once I forgive someone, I will no longer be able to deal with the offense again. It will be a closed case. This is a misunderstanding of many perfectionists. Since they see forgiveness as a one-time act, they feel a need to make sure they are able to let go totally of every aspect of the offense. If they have only one shot, they want to make sure it hits a bull’s eye. In actuality, human forgiveness is very appropriately a process that can be repeated, revised, and readministered. Nothing prohibits more extensive forgiveness at a later time after there has been a more extensive awareness of an offense. We are capable of forgiving people at a deeper level after we have matured over a period of years. This is one additional point in which God’s forgiveness is different from our human forgiveness. The cross of Christ is the focus of God’s forgiveness of the offense of our sin. That took place once because He was totally aware of the offense of all our sins and in His perfection He could forgive perfectly and totally, never having to come back to it after He matured for a few more years.

Note that all these misunderstandings that hold people back from forgiving miss the clearer view that forgiveness is about the past, it is for us, it is freeing, it is consistent with human frailties, and it is realistic. The more practical question now remains, “How do we go about forgiving someone?” What are the aspects of the practice that we need to include?

STEPS IN PRACTICAL FORGIVENESS

1. We must acknowledge the hurt caused by the offense. Forgiveness must always be in light of an offense. It can be effective only to the level that the offense has been clarified and acknowledged. We need to be clear about what it is that we are letting go of. This requires honesty. Many people with good intentions say, “It was nothing” when, in fact, it hurt, it caused inconvenience, it resulted in pain or expense, or it resulted in unnecessary loss. Sweeping the offense under the rug eradicates the essence of what forgiveness is dealing with. An injustice has caused hurt and both the injustice and the hurt must be honestly appraised.

While it is sometimes advantageous to clarify the hurt to the person who offended us, it is most important to acknowledge the hurt at least to ourselves. Defense mechanisms such as denial, minimization, and rationalization may dull the pain temporarily, but they hinder our forthrightness in dealing with reality and truth. When we are honest with ourselves about what we are holding on to, then but not before, we can be effective in letting go of it. There are several disadvantages associated with assuming that we must go directly to the person with an offer of forgiveness. (1) We may appear “holier-than-thou” and come accross in a condescending tone. (2) We may be distracted by the other person’s response, particularly if it is dramatic, defensive, or negative. It can be very tempting to evaluate our own effectiveness by the responses we get from others. (3) The person who offended us may be unreachable or even deceased. We need not assume that the quality of our forgiveness is therefore limited.

Many people have difficulty seeing how they have been offended because they see themselves as having no worth or value. If something of no value has been abused, then nothing much has been lost and there is little sense of offense, they think. Many victims of physical and sexual abuse have been left with no personal dignity or sense of value. All too often they who have much to forgive, have so little base of significance from which to operate that they hold on to the pain of the past as though it is their reasonable lot. This is the point where God’s love for the victims can vitalize them, empower them, and provide for them a basis for personal dignity, that of being children the Creator. From that basis of dignity, they can more realistically see an offense for what it is.

The more clearly the offense can be specified and acknowledged, the more effective the forgiveness can be. “Your abuse upset me and made me cry” is superficial and nonsubstantial when compared to “Your abuse violated my personal boundaries, invaded my privacy, and robbed me of what was rightfully mine to possess.” Another substantial acknowledgment that is more concrete is: “Your carelessness cost me over $1,000 and required that I spend over 30 hours in recovery that took away from my pursuing my vacation plans.”

2. We must let go of the attitude of anger and vengeance in order to forgive. This stage may take years of accomplish, or it may happen more quickly. In either case, it is very difficult. We initially experience this letting go as a loss of something vital to our well-being. It involves our thoughts, our spirit, our unconscious minds, our emotions, and even our bodies.
Mentally, we need to get a broader scope of life. A natural reaction to being hurt is to focus on the pain. The more the pain, typically, the more intense and narrow the focus, until ultimately some people can see nothing but the offense and the loss. Everything is black and bleak. All is lost. All options for relief are dead end streets. Personal therapy can help see the vast realms of alternatives and opportunities that can be available for the overcomer. Friends and support systems can provide a sense of meaning and purpose in life to motivate a person toward healing. A spiritual perspective of suffering and deliverance is indispensable in that it not only broadens one’s view of life but also adds the third dimension to lift us beyond our flat, grey, two-dimensional existence of toleration and complacency. Recognizing that we ourselves have been forgiven by God is a solid starting place for our process of forgiving others. We have the opportunity to be guilt-free and shame-free before God as we attempt to extend that release of obligation called forgiveness to someone else.

Whatever pain we experienced will always be part of our history, but it need not determine our lives. We can get past any trauma. We can reframe destructive situations into growth enhancing ones. We can even turn events meant for evil into contributions for good. What once seemed to preclude any possibility of growth can turn out to be the very ingredient most responsible for the growth of our character and strength.

3. We must go on. We must continue to grow. We must get about the business of our purpose and our mission for being alive. Sometimes this may involve a renewed relationship with the person who offended us; sometimes it requires severing that relationship. Some offended people channel their positive energies into programs that help other people suffering from similar offenses. For example, some rape victims often lead local support groups for treatment of rape. Sometimes the offense, like being harshly fired from a job, can redirect a person into a new career or direction in life that is actually much more suited to effectiveness and satisfaction. The goal is to get to the place where our character is bigger than the offense; where personal growth is more central to our values than our rights; where our ability to get beyond ourselves is more important than the pseudo-security of self-containment, self-empowerment and self-satisfaction.

Forgiveness is the process of releasing our hold on an offense, recognizing the realities of the human condition, being honest with ourselves, and going on with a life that will be positively characterized by the effects of an offense healed. It lifts us from the heavy tar pit of our turbulent vengeful spirit and moves us along the road to serenity wherein we are free to discover life and live it more freely.

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