It is not uncommon for Christians to have questions about forgiveness. Forgiveness does not come easy for most of us. Our natural instinct is to recoil in self-protection when we've been injured. We don't naturally overflow with mercy, grace and forgiveness when we've been wronged.
Is forgiveness a conscious choice, a physical act involving the will, or is it a feeling, an emotional state of being? The Bible offers insight and answers to these and many more common questions about forgiveness. We'll take a look at the most common questions and find out what the Bible says about forgiveness.
This morning I stumbled across “What’s the Point of Forgiveness” on BBC1 (catch it on iPlayer if you’re in the UK) which forms part of the Easter schedule and explores the history of it including from a religious perspective and what it takes to put into practice. What I watched was really interesting particularly when it covered the period after Apartheid in South Africa where measures were taken to help huge numbers of people work through forgiveness and a moving interview with the widow of the co-pilot of the first plane to hit the Twin Towers.
Of course it got me thinking about the many readers of this site who express the struggles they have with forgiveness or the gradual process of moving forward and beyond the anger, hurt, and pain of what’s happened.
I believe that true forgiveness isn’t really that ‘easy’ to do.
Anybody can say ‘sorry’ but not actually mean it as an expression of regret and sympathy with what you’ve experienced as a result of their actions, and equally saying the words ‘I forgive you’ doesn’t automatically mean that you’ve forgiven if mentally and in the actions that follow, you haven’t.
I also believe that as humans, we’re pretty assumptive people which when we seek to be happier and authentic, we learn that we have to temper this and receive and process feedback to adjust those assumptions where appropriate.
One of the biggest areas of assumptions surrounds being sorry and forgiveness – what many of us don’t realise is that when we allow someone to, for example, press The Reset Button on us, or to come back into our lives, or to start over again, they assume you’ve forgiven them and/or even that you’re sorry.
This is maybe one of the strongest reasons for why when we seek to return to a previously painful relationship, unless you have forgiven and resolved the issues, it’s best not to go back because to restart a relationship that’s been broken does require forgiveness. If you get back together with much of the unresolved hurt and pain taking centre stage with a view to work on forgiving them in the relationship, you’ll likely find yourself being caught short.
But the question still remains of what does forgiveness mean and what does it involve?
It’s not as clear cut and simple as some would like to believe. I speak from personal experience when I say that forgiveness takes ongoing effort and commitment that gradually dissipates as the anger, resentment, hurt, and any other negative emotions about the person and events lose their hold and impact on you. Because that it was what forgiveness ultimately boils down to – letting it go.
Often we have to work with ourselves because we may not have the other person around for closure or even if they are, they may not want to be accountable or ‘debrief’.
While I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, for most people it takes more than saying ‘I forgive you’ to actually experience genuine forgiveness. It’s a start but we have to think and act in line with that forgiveness.
When people talk about working hard to forgive or working through anger, where it can become confusing is when it feels like the act of forgiveness has to be an active, dominant process in your life – like you have to devote your energies to understanding every ounce of your anger and hurt. Not only are you consumed by reliving your hurt and working on forgiving, but it means that the past overtakes your life.
Almost six years ago, while lying down in my kinesiologists office, she told me that I was full of hurt and resentment that was debilitating me. Just touching on the subject had me wanting to scream and tell her to shut up and I desperately wanted to avoid digging into my pain. I cried hard that day (and in the weeks and months afterwards) but I must admit that acknowledging and feeling my pain, while hurtful, was freeing.
As someone who wasn’t used to feeling all of her feelings and giving validity to them, to feel the good, the bad, and indifferent was mind-blowing – a habit of avoiding feelings (emotional unavailability) makes it very difficult to work through anger.
I didn’t think ‘I forgive you’ but I did consciously acknowledge that while it was OK to be angry and hurt with my father, my mother, this ex and that ex and that my feelings were valid, me not doing what I need to do for myself could only be blamed on those things for so long. I was wary of devoting much more energy to them as I felt it would distract from greater, more constructive purposes.
There’s also that ever present question of So how long will it take for me to reach forgiveness? which is much like So how long will it take for me to get over them? As I didn’t feel I was in any danger of getting any major closure with my parents, putting my eggs in that basket could have me still on their backs today. I figured that if I found myself struggling to move forward that I’d see a therapist or do a load of reading and so far that hasn’t happened.
Instead in those six years I’ve become distracted in and by my own life, where I endeavour to treat me with love, care, trust, and respect. While moving forward, I’ve reserved some space in it for understanding myself and processing what’s happened. Maybe part of the reason why I didn’t go into therapy is because I wrote out my feelings during that period (unsent letters very useful) plus writing Baggage Reclaim has inadvertently been part of that forgiveness process, particularly of myself, and especially because I’ve learned that I’m not alone in my experiences.
You can still move forward one step at a time – you don’t have to wait for a forgiveness ‘feeling’ to puck you in the head.
In fact it’s easier to work through and let go of anger if you don’t have to contend with feeling like you’ve stagnated and derailed your current life and even your future by being consumed with living in the past.
Like getting over a breakup, forgiveness, or as close to it as you’re going to get, just kinda creeps up on you.
One day you realise that you’re not as angry anymore. You haven’t forgotten but it’s not dominating your life because you’re dominating your life by occupying it literally and figuratively and devoting more positive energies to yourself, your life, and others.
Where has my anger and hurt gone? It’s gradually dissipated as my own life has improved, which admittedly wouldn’t have changed in the way that it has if I’d continued to hold onto the security blanket of my pain.
Anger is needed as part of the natural process of working your way through painful experiences. But it’s the working through bit that’s important because if you don’t, it just becomes holding on to anger. I’ve found that clarity has increased over time. If I’d broken my back trying to work out every itty bit of my feelings back then, I don’t think I’d have the clarity right now.
Forgiveness requires a level of patience, just like grieving does. You try to speed it up, you just get increasingly pissed off and stuck.
What I have learned is that you don’t have to tell anyone that you ‘forgive’ them but what’s more important is to forgive yourself because often we’re secretly most angry with ourselves, even if that anger is misplaced. We’re angry for not being able to control something, for not having the last word, for making mistakes, for not treating ourselves as we should, and for not being able to change the past. Sometimes we’re angry for still being angry.
Often when we forgive ourselves and stop trying to control the uncontrollable, the anger lessens towards others although of course we don’t forget. Personally, if I can forgive myself and work hard at getting on with my own life, that’s all I’m worried about because the truth is, most of the people we burn energy up trying to work out forgiveness for aren’t busting down our doors for it. Even if they are, most of the time, they just want you to be done with it so they can feel less discomfort. Ultimately they can wait – but you can’t.