The statement, “You have to forgive,” sounds so wise, but it isn’t always easy. How does one forgive when there is no remorse, no apology, not even an awareness or acceptance of the fact that someone has hurt you? And why is it that some pains seem to linger even when we think we have forgiven the person who caused them? I believe that both of these questions are related. Let me begin with the latter question first.
So often we have been taught to simply say the words, “I forgive you.” We think this is what it means to forgive. But this is erroneous and here is why:
1) It assumes that we must approach the other person and they must be present for forgiveness to happen. This is not always possible, nor is it advisable in all circumstances. While I am all for trying to reconcile with those who have wronged us, reconciliation and forgiveness are not identical. There are overlaps between them, but forgiveness is about my releasing of the hurt another has caused so that I don’t hold it against them any longer, while reconciliation is the process of actually repairing the damaged relationship. One can forgive and not be reconciled, and one can reconcile without ever forgiving. These are less than ideal circumstances, but we are wise to distinguish the two events from one another.
2) It fails to understand and name the hurt that was experienced. This is why some pains seem to come back over and over, even after we have uttered the phrase about forgiving. Wrongs and hurts are like fishing lines with hooks and barbs. Sometimes the line only has one hook that grips our soul, but other times they are more akin to nets that are covered in barbs and the hooks sink into many places. When we are forced to name the hooks that have beset our soul then we are in a position to recognize why some hurts come back and why some pains linger. Maybe there are other hooks, that we haven’t recognized and released. And until we do, those hooks will fester and resurface with their attendant pain.
That leads me to the former question. How can we forgive when there is no remorse in the other? This comes down to understanding that forgiveness is about our soul, not about bringing another to an awareness of their sin. Forgiveness is about taking the barb out of our life. Here is some practical advice about how to do this. Long before we ever approach a person and seek reconciliation, we need to have forgiven them. In order to effectively forgive we need to focus not on the actual act, which is what we normally do, but we need to go deeper to understand the emotional effect that act has had upon us. Our forgiveness needs to extend beyond the surface level of the action to the result it created. This result is what we need to forgive and lay before God. A good habit when forgiving is being able to articulate something like “God, I forgive person’s name for doing this thing that name the hurt.” For example, “God, I forgive Dennis for refusing to help me change after telling me about my selfishness for that made me feel judged, insignificant and unworthy of his time to help me grow.” Do you see how this apology recognizes the barbs and so releases them more than, “I forgive you” or even, “I forgive you for doing.” I can’t tell you why naming the hurt actually lessens its hold upon us, but I can tell you that it works. Counselors will all tell you that until you name the hurt specifically, your mind is unable to let it go. Forgiveness is something we do with God. Reconciliation is what we do with others and sometimes the two can be comingled, but sometimes they need to be distinct and separate processes.
So, if you find yourself in a relationship with another person, you will undoubtedly find yourself being hurt. The next time it happens, try to name the action and the cost it has incurred. Then as you give it to God, you will understand what you are releasing. This is the act of forgiveness and it is what Jesus told us to do when he taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” He wasn’t just telling us to forgive people. Debtors aren’t just people, they are people who have taken a specific thing from us. It is the combination of the person and the cost that has been incurred that is what forgiveness entails. And only when the cost incurred is understood, are we in a place to release it to God and entrust him with the proper judgment of it. Furthermore, it is once we know the cost that we are in a place to determine how reconciliation might occur. But that is for another article.