What does it mean to actually forgive someone who has wronged us in some way? It seems like such a simple concept that we are taught even at a young age. When someone says ‘I’m sorry,’ we say ‘I forgive you.’ And as Christians we are often taught to grant forgiveness even if that ‘I’m sorry’ never comes. But what is forgiveness beyond the spoken words?
What is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness is releasing the ‘right’ you may feel to be angry and resentful, laying down all claims to retribution. It is relinquishing any guilt, punishment, or debt that someone may owe you.
Forgiveness seeks pardon, not punishment of the other person. Forgiveness carries the price of surrendering revenge, but the reward is worth it. God began by forgiving us, and He invites us to forgive others.
There are many misconceptions about what it means to forgive, as well as what it means about ourselves as the forgiver. These messages can come from social media, Hollywood, or even our own friends and family.
Ultimately as Christians, we can find clarity in the Scriptures to sort out “What is forgiveness, really?”
Common Myths About Forgiveness
The following are a few myths that the world tends to portray about forgiving.
Myth: Forgiveness is letting people run all over you
When we choose to forgive someone who has sinned against us, it is not an act of condoning hurtful actions. It simply declares that we have made a choice to let go of the anger or resentment from being hurt, and move toward healing by granting mercy and leaving the rest to the Lord.
[bctt tweet=”Forgiveness does not equal permission for someone to continue to treat you poorly.” via=”no”]
Forgiveness is not permission for someone to continue to treat you poorly, nor is it a passive step to let people control you. Depending on what type of wound was experienced, forgiveness may need to be accompanied by the implementation of boundaries so as not to experience the same hurt or violation again. This can be as practical as deciding not to lend physical property or money to someone, or as nuanced as knowing how to separate your feelings from others’.
Sometimes we can feel it is unfair to forgive. When we are hurt, it can be a natural tendency to want to hurt back. It can be difficult to give forgiveness to someone who we don’t think deserves it. We can want to retaliate or get revenge.
Scripture states, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:18-19).
Things may often seem unfair when we are hurt, but vengeance is not effective. The pain given through revenge can never cancel out the pain that you had received. So then we are left with two choices: sit and hold onto our pain until it festers into bitterness, resentment, depression, and worse; or, forgive.
Just as we trust in God with our salvation, we must also trust in Him to justly deal with others as He also helps to heal our hearts and lead us to forgiveness.
Myth: Forgiveness means forgetting what someone has done
It is an unfortunate misconception that forgiveness means to forget what has happened. This simply is not so. In fact, almost the opposite must occur to begin the process of forgiveness. We must first remember what was done and how it affected us.
Instead of denying any wounds exist, we must identify and acknowledge the impact of the wound. This allows us to eventually release and free ourselves from the pain and temptation toward bitterness and resentment.
Too often as Christians we create this insurmountable issue for ourselves when we think we should be able to “forgive and forget” just as God can in His infinite capacity to forgive us our sins. But it is God who has given us memory to learn to use to our advantage and remember from where He has brought us.
Sometimes memory of past hurtful events or unpleasant emotions arise within us, but it does not mean we never forgave. It may be another layer of healing the Lord is desiring to bring to us and is giving opportunity for us to go back through the process of forgiveness that we have been through before.
Forgiveness does not mean that the memory is gone or that we never look back, but that we instead leave it in its proper place, so that the Lord can assist us in viewing the past without getting stuck in it.
Myth: Forgiveness makes you weak
Forgiveness can bring healing, restoration, and even stronger relationships. Relationships are messy and can be really difficult, especially when someone has done some that has hurt us.
Having the view that it is weak to forgive somebody implies that instead, staying in a state of resentment, anger, or bitterness somehow makes you strong. But this is false. In fact, research tells us that remaining in a state of anger and resentment can have a negative impact on a person’s mental, physical, and emotional state.
he initial feelings of anger can be helpful in the short term to assist us in a situation by being flooded with chemicals (cortisol and adrenaline) that help us be ready to fight or flight, and also be more aware. However, in the long-term, holding onto anger and resentment can lead to a build up of those stress chemicals in the body that ultimately can increase a person’s chance of developing heart disease, chronic fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, depression, and even other autoimmune diseases.
The Mayo Clinic posted an article about forgiveness that stated, “Letting go of grudges and bitterness can make way for compassion, kindness and peace. Forgiveness can lead to: healthier relationships; greater spiritual and psychological well-being; less anxiety, stress and hostility; lower blood pressure; fewer symptoms of depression; as well as lower the risk of alcohol and substance abuse.”
Can you believe that? Science tells us that it is physiologically better for us to release that bitterness and resentment rather than hold onto it. Forgiving someone has the power to release the burden and stress of holding on to how we have been wronged, and therefore keep us from being potentially more miserable.
[bctt tweet=”It is physiologically better to release bitterness and resentment rather than hold onto it.” via=”no”]
The Bible emphasizes forgiveness, and for good reason. Withholding forgiveness can keep us in isolation and hinder us from deep relation with others. The Lord intends us to be in community with one another, supporting, challenging, and growing together.
“But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” – Colossians 3:8, 12-13
Holding on to resentment creates an obstacle to going deeper in community by withholding restoration and unity that forgiveness brings to relationships. God knows this and has modeled the ultimate forgiveness for us to follow in His footsteps.
Important Thoughts to Keep in Mind About Forgiveness
Forgiveness is a process, not a ‘one and done’ event
God is perfect in His ability to simply say, “You are forgiven,” and then it is so. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).
As for us as humans, we must allow ourselves to go through the process of forgiveness that requires time, hard work, and often times repetition. The process of sorting through memories, emotions, and pain may indeed take a lot of effort. Is it easy? Nope. Is it worth it? Absolutely!
To begin with, it is important to acknowledge what it was or how we were sinned against. Allowing ourselves to then grieve what was done to us and how it affected us goes hand in hand with this. This does not mean sitting or stewing in anger or bitterness about what was done. But how can we fully forgive if we are not fully aware of what is being forgiven?
Often times, we tend to avoid the grieving step so we won’t have to feel or express the honest pain we felt. Perhaps it is awkward, uncomfortable, or even scary to acknowledge and feel those hurts. Avoiding these steps may be to sidestep any potential shame or confrontation of what happened, but the reality of what this does is to isolate us from support in community and from the freedom that comes from forgiveness.
These two steps can take awhile, and may be helpful to do with the support of a trusted friend or counselor. There are some hurts that can take longer to process through depending on the type of wound as well as the closeness and type of relationship in which the hurt took place.
For example, imagine the hurt or betrayal by an acquaintance versus a more trusted relationship in which we have a heavier investment, and you can envision how the pain of the two differs. Being hurt by a close and loved individual can weigh heavier and cut deeper in our hearts, compared to a hurt by someone that we didn’t have as close as relationship with. It makes sense that a deeper wound would take a greater amount of time and effort to process and heal. Have grace for yourself in how long this process takes.
Once the process of acknowledgement and grief has been admitted, felt, mourned within you and often with safe community, then our hearts can begin to be consoled and lightened by the Lord. Finally, we grant forgiveness and mercy, withdrawing any possession or right to the debt that is owed by the person who had wronged or sinned against us.
This can feel like an event for the person granting the forgiveness to the offender; something they have worked hard to do. And just as the process of forgiveness took time, often times there will be a similar process of finding relief. Experiencing healing can still take time. Continue to offer residual hurt feelings that may surface to the Lord, our ultimate Healer.
Forgiveness takes intentionality
Forgiveness involves a conscious and deliberate decision to not hold onto something that someone did, said, or took from you. Granting forgiveness has nothing to do with whether or not someone deserves to be forgiven. It is an act of will to grant mercy, love, and grace to someone who has wronged you.
[bctt tweet=”Granting forgiveness has nothing to do with whether or not someone deserves to be forgiven.” via=”no”]
Forgiveness is not a simple or easy thing to do; in fact it can be a difficult thing to practice, taking time, effort, and repetition. There are even times when we just don’t feel like forgiving someone who has sinned against us. It all comes down to an intentional, personal choice that we alone are responsible for making for ourselves.
“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” – Ephesians 4:31-32
By forgiving others, we can free ourselves from physical, spiritual, and emotional miseries. God provided the ultimate example of forgiveness with Christ on the cross. Our sins crucified Jesus, yet God still grants us forgiveness. He then says for us to offer the same mercy to those who would sin against us.
A Christian Counselor Can Help
If you are struggling with feelings of anger, bitterness, or resentment and would like help or support in the process toward forgiveness, please reach out. My colleagues and I are here to meet you where you are in your process.
A Christian counselor can be an objective, affirming presence where you can process any thoughts, feelings, or needs that you may be experiencing without judgment. A Christian counselor can be with you as you explore the impact of the process, grieve your wounds, and put in the work toward seeking peace and forgiveness through Christ’s example.
“Please, Lord,” courtesy of Ben White, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Forgiveness,” courtesy of David Nunez, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Upset,” courtesy of Ben White, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Embrace,” courtesy of Christiana Rivers, unsplash.com, CC0 License