The scourge of unforgiveness is relentless and deadly if we allow it to take hold in our lives. It is like an addiction, providing a sense of satisfaction in the form of self-justification because it is based most often on a sense of injustice that we feel deep our souls.
Left unchecked, unforgiveness and the bitterness that comes with it can cause you to die inside, bitter through and through, incapable of experiencing love, good, beauty or joy. You may even live in this wretched state for decades before you die physically. For unforgiving, bitter people, Hell begins now, before they are ever in the ground.
If you have read this far it is not too late for you. If you struggle with unforgiveness, it is not too late for you. If it weren’t too many words, the rest of that title up there would be, “and what to do about it.” So, let’s begin by scoping out the problem.
What Unforgiveness Is
Unforgiveness is a willful predisposition to dehumanize another person, in such a way that we can despise them as the personification of our negative image of them. Someone wrongs us by stealing from us (a job, a car, a spouse) and we feel deeply wronged and rightly so.
Let’s look at the extremes for a moment. Steal from a mostly compassionate person, and they will most likely (after the initial hurt subsides) eventually try to understand your motivation and use that as the beginning of forgiveness. Steal from a mostly selfish person, they likely will not only label you thief (or worse) but that characterization will drive their entire view of you.
In an attempt to dehumanize you in their mind (you are evil, a bad person, don’t know love, are in fact incapable of love, hence less than human and so deserve the worst punishment imaginable), bitterness will color their every thought of you, since the constraints of the legal system prevent them from actually killing you. Most of us fall somewhere between those two extreme examples.
Unforgiveness is more or less dangerous in exact proportion to its size. Interestingly, however, it has less to do with the severity of the offense than with the size of the victim’s reaction. People have had bitter, life-long unforgiveness toward others for seemingly meaningless slights, while others have forgiven the murderer who took their spouse away from them.
Unforgiveness is not necessarily the same as distrust. Someone may harm us (like an abusive parent) and we may struggle with unforgiveness toward them. We may also decide we can’t trust them not to harm us, and so choose not to see them. This legitimate distrust is not unforgiveness, but good self-care.
Check in with your inner dialogue. If the thought of telling your criticizing, vindictive parent that they can’t come visit the grandkids anymore gives you a sense of vindication, like it’s now your chance to twist the knife (“this will show them”), then you are likely operating out of unforgiveness. If most of what you feel is sadness and you wish things were different, then it is more likely to be good, healthy self-care.
How Unforgiveness Takes Hold
As with so many things in our emotional grid, the capacity to forgive is impacted by several factors, including but not limited to:
- How our basic personality is formed
- How much trauma we have experienced (through action or inaction) by our parents
- How much innate compassion we feel for others
- What was modeled for us by our parents
- What is modeled for us by influential friends
- The demeanor of our self-talk (how internally kind we are to others and self each moment)
- What spiritual constraints we feel to be compassionate
Nearly all unforgiveness begins with an action by another person, something that wounds us, whether intentional or not. After the offense, we run the action through a did-I-deserve-that filter.
As a teenager, I once mouthed off to my mom and she slapped me, the only time she ever did. I was humiliated and angry, but I felt I had asked for it by my words and apologized on the spot. If I’d had a different disposition and relationship with my mom, the very same events might have resulted in a lifelong grudge against her. It is not the event, but what I do with it that determines whether I’m moving toward forgiveness or not.
As with addiction, we would not allow unforgiveness to take root if there wasn’t a payoff. Self-righteous vindication is a very seductive feeling. It fuels tribal thinking (where it doesn’t matter what is true, but that the other side is wrong), and a host of thoughts and actions that otherwise would have no justification. It is the social equivalent of the gruesome, satisfied grin on the face of the warrior as he delivers the coup de grace at the end of a battle. It is the antithesis of compassion.
While in the moment, it feels good to have unforgiving feelings. The offense is in the front of our mind and the self-talk goes something like this, “that (add an insulting label here), he (or she) is such a (insert insulting characterization here). I’ll bet he or she (insert imaginary negative condition here). I hope he or she (insert painful, tragic or violent outcome here).”
To our way of thinking we have rightly despised the person, and at least in the realm of our own mind, caused damage to our image of them. This is satisfying partly because those images are how we interpret the world and the people in it. What I make up about the people in my life may have little to do with reality, but it is my perception of the world and hence my reality.
If I have religious convictions that make unforgiveness unacceptable, then there are more tools at my disposal. If someone wrongs me and I know I have unforgiveness, there may be a pressing need to find a path toward forgiveness.
Self-righteousness can overrun those convictions, however, if we convince ourselves that God is on our side and despises the other person as much as we do. In that case, we are doubly justified in our hatred and stuck even deeper in the mire of unforgiveness. This is why looking at someone who has wronged us and saying, “One for whom Christ died,” is a good exercise. It not only reminds us of what’s true, it can be a good way to evaluate the extent of our unforgiveness.
Scoping Out Our Unforgiveness
Depending on how much self-awareness and capacity for introspection we have, we may not know at first how much unforgiveness we have toward someone who has wronged us. One good test, as mentioned above, when triggered by the thought or sight of someone who has wronged us, is to look at or imagine them along with the words, “One for whom Christ died.”
If the words stick in our craw, turn our stomach, or simply won’t come out, we have a pernicious root of unforgiveness deep in our heart concerning this person. We may avoid, or ignore or move away from the person, but as long as that root is there, and we don’t dig it up, it lies in wait for any physical trigger or stray thought to come along and put our stomach in a knot all over again.
Another useful tool to gauge our unforgiveness is to imagine finding the person badly beaten and lying on our porch. What do we do? What is our response? We might take them inside and bandage their wounds, or drive them to the hospital, or leave them there and call 911, or just leave them there and do nothing, or stand over them and gloat, or take a weapon out there and finish the job.
This shows a range of response from forgiveness to unforgiveness. If you are horrified by those latter options, good. If you find yourself at that end of the spectrum when you think about someone who has wronged you, know that this is the kind of poison root that eventually destroys the garden.
You can’t selectively harden your heart. Unopposed, bitterness eventually works its way into every corner of our lives. You don’t forgive the other person for their sake. You do it for yours. And for the sake of your loved ones who will eventually suffer at your hands, either by your absence as you slowly destroy yourself or your actions as your bitterness bleeds into the parts of your world that they inhabit.
A poignant line from the movie Primary Colors puts it succinctly, “It’s never the cheater who goes to hell, but the one he cheated on.” There’s a saying, “The greatest revenge is living well,” and this is certainly true in the arena of forgiveness.
The Path Toward Forgiveness
It seems the greatest battles are the internal ones. The time to think about forgiveness is not when the wound is raw. Whether it’s a physical assault or a verbal assault, we are human beings and must take some time to heal. Each person’s process will be different. The magnitude of the impact of the offense should be our guide.
Catastrophic loss caused by another might require years to move through grief and anger sufficient to forgive. Whatever the offense, there are steps we can take, in whatever order makes sense, to improve our quality of emotional life as we stay on the path toward forgiveness.
Bring It to God
Sooner rather than later. God’s arm is strong, and His compassion deep. Connecting with the One who is the origin of deep compassion can only help us get off the field of self-justification. Here we can remember that with all our flaws, we are still children of God, even the people who have wronged us.
Imagine God’s altar as a place where you can cast your anger, your desire for vindication or revenge, your grief over whatever was lost, as many times as you need to as you work through this long and difficult process.
Manage Your Anger
When you are triggered by the thought or sight of someone who has wronged you, your anger will spike. Anger and anxiety are almost identical in the body. When either is high, we lose our capacity to reason and our capacity to bond with others.
When your anger goes up, using your diaphragm to do deep breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth on a slow three count, is one way to calm it down. Another is single focus. We can literally only think of one thing at a time, so if we fix our mind on a calming word or a sound, or our breathing, we can’t be dwelling on the offense and escalate our anger.
One more technique is to locate ourselves in the moment. The offense is in the past. It’s not happening now. I am here now. I get to be here, now. All I have is now. And now is enough. All with deep breathing, in through the nose, out through the mouth, on a slow three count.
One of the great temptations with unforgiveness is the temptation to split a person out from their actual identity and imagine them as all bad, and hence intractably worthy of my contempt. Try imagining the person as a child. Imagine a vicious, angry parent terrorizing the child and making their life a living hell.
It may bear no relation to reality, but it is difficult not to have compassion for a child who is abused. It is important to keep it real, though. The injury and your feeling around it are real, and some will be tempted to slap “I chose to forgive” over the wound and beat themselves up for uncharitable feelings. This is not forgiveness, but self-abuse because we don’t think we deserve better. We get to have our feelings, but we don’t have to be ruled by them.
Get Professional Help
Finally, get professional help. A therapist can help you understand the impact of the offenses done to you, help you stay rooted in reality concerning it, and work through the emotional obstacles that might prevent you from successfully moving toward the freedom of forgiveness.
“Locked,” courtesy of Tim Mossholder, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Pondering,” courtesy of Karl Fredrickson, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Feather,” courtesy of Daiga Ellaby, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Pray,” courtesy of Ben White, unsplash.com, CC0 License