What Forgiveness Is and IS NOT
“In order to move on, you have to let go.” I heard this one Sunday sermon and I never forgot it. Sometimes in life, you have to hear something a few times before you truly get it. I’ve heard close to 100 teachings on forgiveness. This statement was what did it for me. I realize that forgiveness is not an emotion. It’s a decision centered in the will to let go of the need to get even and to cancel the emotional debt against the person who has hurt you. It’s a gift that you give yourself for the value of a relationship or your desire to move on. Forgiveness means you won't hold things against someone and you won't treat you in light of what happened. I’ve always considered myself to be a pretty forgiving person just like I considered myself a patient person. All that went out the window when I encountered situations that tested the sincerity of that confession.
I’ve had situations in my life where the strength of my belief and conviction was tested. Let me rephrase – the weakness of the beliefs and convictions. There were offenses against me that I did not let go and the longer I waited, there were moments when I felt like I could not let them go. I held on to them for so long that the bitterness hardened my heart. It affected my language, my attitude, my trust of people, my vision and subsequently, my relationships. It also affected the ability to use my talents and our gifts freely. Unforgiveness turned me into the worst version of myself. In addition to the unforgiveness I held against others that needed to be released from my heart, the unforgiveness I held against myself needed to be relinquished as well. I’ve done some really foolish things over the course of my life. Some of those mistakes may still have effects on other people’s lives today. In order for me to move forward with a spiritual and emotional freedom, I needed to come to terms with the mistakes I made, grieve the pain I caused myself and others, and then let it go. This was and is still a process. It’s a process that’s necessary and worth it for life to be lived greatly. Forgiveness is a discipline that needs to be constantly practiced. In the same way that you go to the doctor to get a checkup, an accountant to get your taxes done, the mechanic to get oil change, the dentist to get your teeth cleaned, I believe you need to go to God to give you the strength to let go of the pain that you carry from the offense committed against you and also to forgive yourself.
The great news is that we all have a choice. No matter how long it has been since the offense, we can learn to let go. We must come to see that forgiveness is not for the offender. It's for the offended. It frees us to move on after we’ve been offended and allows us to give up victimhood. We no longer have to be held hostage by the offense. It will give us emotional freedom and aliveness because we unyoke ourselves from the burden we carry. It’s certainly not easy to do. As a matter of fact, the forgiveness and the grieving process often go hand in hand because many offenses come with a great deal of pain and sadness that can last a while. You have to pray for the strength and courage to deal with it and not run from it. Don’t run from it as many people do. See chapter 31 for tools on the grieving process. Going through the grieving process, several times if necessary, is important.
Unforgiveness is ultimately selfish because it causes you to see out of a lens of fear, anger, resentment, or even hatred, which robs you and the people you are here to help of the best version of yourself. Subsequent to that, what you create will be influenced by your emotional and spiritual state. What you see with your eyes, hear with your ears, and say with your mouth is colored by the condition of your heart. One great example of forgiveness is Nelson Mandela, one of my heroes. He was in prison for 27 years for fighting the brutal regime of apartheid in South Africa. Upon release from prison, he didn't advocate for revenge and murder. Instead he preached a gospel of forgiveness. He sought to forgive those who offended him, not just for him, but for the sake of the people of South Africa. In a way, forgiveness is cutting your losses with a losing investment and re-investing in things that matter. The next time you are tempted to hold a grudge against someone, think of someone you may possibly be hurting and what you will be losing by holding on to the grudge. Take some time to journal your thoughts at the end of this chapter. Sometimes writing helps you to better process what you’re feeling.
What Forgiveness Is Not
In talking about what forgiveness is, we need to discuss what forgiveness is not in order to clear up confusion that exists in the culture.
1. Forgiveness is not reducing the impact of the wrongdoing. “No one’s perfect.” “Worst things have happened.” These statements, though well meaning, are not truly forgiveness. They sound nice but fall short of actually being forgiveness. They can be used with frivolous matters with little consequence, but it’s not without its danger. If this becomes your normal way to dealing with offenses, you may avoid dealing with major wrongdoings with these statements as well. Be mindful of the words you use in order to deal with every situation appropriately and with the seriousness required.
2. Forgiveness is not allowing wrongdoing to continue. This is called enabling. Enabling is supporting someone in their irresponsibility or immaturity. Unfortunately, this gets confused all the time and it’s usually by the people who are really sweet and nice whom no one ever gets upset with. Not only is important to be able to be stern with people, many times, it’s necessary when confronting someone.
3. Forgiveness is an end to you feeling the pain. Sometimes an offense against you can have lasting consequences lead to ongoing pain. It doesn’t mean you haven’t forgiven. It means you need to heal.
4. Forgiveness is not restoring trust. You can forgive and not give trust. Trust should be given away based on evidence, not desire. See chapter 33 on Safe People.
5. Forgiveness is not avoiding the acknowledgment of a wrongdoing. “I just moved on.” “I didn’t let it affect me.” Not true. Some people live in a state of denial, particularly, after something really harmful was done to them. Out of fear or reluctance to face the truth, they avoid the full acknowledgment that there was something wrong done.
6. Forgiveness is not waiting for an apology. You may wait for some people to say sorry. Some people will never be mature enough to acknowledge their fault. Some people will die before they come to terms with their offense. Don’t wait until someone seeks forgiveness before you let go of their offense. I know it’s not the most comforting to hear but it’s the best thing to hear. Forgiveness is not for them. It’s for you.
7. Forgiveness is not forgetting. This might be one of the biggest myths in our culture. It’s a saying that sounds nice but really doesn’t possess much wisdom. There are simply some offenses that cannot be forgotten and some that should not be forgotten as a point of wisdom. If someone tries to kill me, you better believe I will never forget. I may forgive them but I will not forget and if we ever cross paths, wisdom will dictate that my interaction will be different than a normal relationship. We do not erase history. We free ourselves from the past but we do not erase it.
8. Forgiveness is not a one-time event. Sometimes forgiveness regularly needs to be regularly chosen, depending on the offense against you.
9. Forgiveness is not neglecting justice. Justice and forgiveness can co-exist. We must remember that what is sowed will be reaped. Actions have consequences. You can let go of the desire for revenge but ensure that there are repercussions for wrongdoing so people don’t feel that it’s safe to do wrong.
10. Forgiveness is not reconciling with the offender. Forgiveness takes one person. Reconciliation takes two people. I know people who have gone through divorces, bad business partnerships, fractured friendships, and family drama. These situations sometimes have ripple effects that, unfortunately, keep people from being close again and sadly that is the reality of our world at times. Sometimes, it’s best for people to be apart because the pain of the offense is too great and too irreparable.
Steps to Forgiveness
1. Recognition: Identify who you have unforgiveness for and how their offense or perceived offense has affected you. This may take some time. Grab a journal or sit down with a trusted friend and don’t feel the need to write it all down at one time. Forgiveness will be more complete when you acknowledge what your betrayer has done to you and this is a process that you have to engage in.
2. Release: So many of us carry feelings of unforgiveness for so long that we constantly feel it and it almost becomes normal. Give yourself permission to get release through grieving and working through the pain you’re going through whether big or small. See chapter 34 for a list of emotions.
a. The stages of grief are avoidance, rage, negotiation, melancholy, and acknowledgment. By acknowledging the difficult emotions and working through them, you will begin to develop the strength to let go and choose to give up the desire to see the other person suffer as you have. All feelings of revenge and retribution need to be purged followed by a choice to stay in a place of unforgiveness.
3. Remove: Remove any people or things that look to reinforce feelings of unforgiveness during the process. Environment is extremely important than when it comes to the type of person you want to become. (See Chapter 22 on environment.)
4. Remind: Remind yourself why forgiveness is important by looking at what you become and choose to walk in unforgiveness from this day forth.