“Reaching forgiveness takes guts. It also takes wisdom, patience and imagination. It can be the most complex psychological journey you’ll ever take.”
Dare to Forgive, by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D.
Minor offenses are easy to forgive for most of us. They happen all of the time. The examples are endless; someone merges in front of you, friends show up a few minutes late, or someone borrows your book and forgets to return it. We often choose to forgive and not hold grudges for the minor things. What about the major things? They seem much harder; a neighbor steals your belongings, a loved one is killed in a careless accident, someone chooses to ruin your reputation by spreading lies, a disagreement results in insults and grudges held for years.
It’s a topic that stirs up many questions. How do we go about forgiving the big things? Why do some seem able to forgive and others proudly state they will never forgive? Is forgiveness the same as tolerating mistreatment? When is it okay to set boundaries or keep a distance? What happens when we stuff our feelings rather than truly forgive?
Choose to Forgive
Forgiveness is a complex issue filled with a wide range of potent emotions. It can be a very difficult process. It can take time to forgive even after you have chosen to. It is both a moment in time, and a lengthy process. Once forgiveness has occurred, it must continue to be chosen. A memory, a comment, a bad day can all trigger re-living the moment and going over it again and again in your head.
Forgiving just doesn’t seem fair. Justice doesn’t seem to get served. The offender walks away unscathed and unaware of the depth of pain caused. Somehow, keeping the bitterness active keeps the memory of your pain alive. The bitterness, a desire to be understood. If you forgive, doesn’t the offender walk away free?
Fantasies of revenge are common when there is bitterness. Thoughts of harm coming to the person who hurt you brings a sense of sinister satisfaction. The fantasies really don’t solve anything, but they do keep the pain alive. Possibly justice will come to them and getting to see it would be a delight. It would ease the pain. Where is the pain? In you own heart. The one who pays the price for anger and un-forgiveness is YOU.
Benefits of Forgiveness:
What are the benefits of forgiveness? There are many health benefits such as avoiding a variety of stress related health problems. Unforgiveness can cause long term psychological distress and lead to anxiety, depression, ulcers, or heart problems, to name a few.
The emotional benefits of forgiveness include peace of mind and lowered psychological distress. If you choose not to forgive, you may suffer ongoing unresolved anger that gets displaced into many other areas of your life. Some that you may not want to be affected.
I saw a woman on Oprah (Yes, I do watch her sometimes) who had forgiven the woman who had killed her child in a reckless car accident. The woman had been drunk. To the astonishment of everyone in the room she had befriended the woman who had caused her so much pain, and extended true forgiveness to her. She had shown this woman true grace and grit for choosing the path of forgiveness. Would I be able to do the same in the face of such loss? Not without a lot of prayer and help from Heaven. It always amazes me when someone forgives at that level.
How to forgive:
“It is impossible to forgive unless you first acknowledge what has hurt you.” (P. 101 The Journey Out, Anger vs. Forgiveness chapter). If you minimize your pain, or stuff your pain deep inside, then you cannot get in touch with what needs to be forgiven. We really cannot forgive, I believe, unless we truly admit to ourselves how much we are hurting and why. Writing it out, talking to a friend or counselor can help. Sometimes we feel afraid of the strength of our own emotion so we suppress it. You cannot lash out, but you can verbalize how much it hurts.
The next step involves making a decision that you want to forgive even if it is hard to do. In the words of Sarah McLeary in her book Choosing to Forgive; Learning to Love; “It’s a choice we make, and making the decision is half of the battle.” Often there is fear and uncertainty if we choose to forgive. Holding onto anger makes more sense. Forgiving doesn't feel right.
Then comes the hard part. Letting it go. Choose to lay down your grief, hurt, and fantasies of revenge, and stop wishing ill toward the person who offended you, no matter how horrible the offense. Sarah McLeary put it this way’ “Forgiving others meant that I had to give up the right I thought I had to punish those who had hurt me.”
Once you have forgiven, you need to keep laying it down. I know personally, that at any moment of any week the anger can resurface full force. You must choose to continue to lay it down and refuse to mull over resentments in your thoughts. I can feel my body’s physiology change when I start to think back on past hurts. Suddenly, I feel anxious, uneasy, my heart rate goes up and my stomach starts to turn. It is rather unpleasant.
Anyone who has truly forgiven knows that forgiveness is more for you than it is for the offender. It sets you free from the burden of carrying the pain in your heart. A burden the heart cannot handle on it's own.
I know, personally, I couldn’t do it without God’s help. I pleaded with him to help me forgive. I could not do it on my own. It was too difficult a task. I had to rely on God to help me get there. Once I had made the decision it took months before it finally clicked in. It was a moment I knew God had answered my prayers.
If you are having trouble forgiving on your own ask God to help you. Ask friends to pray for you. Talk to people who will help you along (some will help you foster resentments, so choose wisely). Keep wrestling with it until you get there. The result of freedom will be worth it.
We all need to be forgiven
"Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you." Colossians 3:12-13
We are able to truly forgive because we have been forgiven. We need to forgive so we can continue to receive the great and complete forgiveness that is a gift to us from Heaven. Do not forsake your gift by harboring resentment. Choose to forgive, no matter how difficult. I know you can, even if you think you cannot. I am not saying it is easy. I am saying that it is worthwhile.
Some books may also help you:
Choosing to Forgive; Learning to Love, by Sarah McLeary
The Journey Out (Anger vs. Forgiveness Chapter), by Gretchen Flores, LCPC