We humans talk about forgiveness a lot. We know we’re supposed to do it; we even want to do it. But in spite of this, we’re not actually very good at it. We say the words, we act it out, we make our kids act it out; but often, it’s not an authentic experience. We say “sorry!” and rattle of the script like little parrots, without any real sense of remorse or reconciliation or relief.
The topic of forgiveness does the seemingly impossible in that it straddles the worlds of pop culture and ancient religion. While it’s certainly a Biblical foundation and a tenet of most religions, if you google “forgiveness,” you’ll also find posts from Psychology Today, the Mayo Clinic, Oprah and more. But it’s more than a trendy buzz word; it’s a gruelling and necessary act of will that cannot be forced on us or done for us.
Years ago, I was asked to speak on forgiveness at a women’s retreat. I carefully crafted the most beautiful teaching; a compilation of all the best resources I could find. And while it was a well-written document, because I had referenced other peoples’ ideas, adding none of my own, something was missing. It lacked authenticity. Regurgitating stories told by others allowed me a degree of separation from my own experience. My own unpolished voice and gritty examples were conspicuously absent. Forgiveness was easy to talk about when it was disembodied from my own painful examples.
A few days before I was to speak, God told me to scrap it and write from my own experience. So, I erased the whole thing and started over. Worst. Nightmare. In the aftermath, I was thankful for the pressure-cooker-experience that forced me to gather my own thoughts, thus, cementing my understanding of forgiveness.
Though it’s absurd to even attempt to capture an idea of such magnitude and meaning in a few short paragraphs, my hope, at the very least, is to convey its immense importance for those who desire to live fully.
So, what is it? Why should I forgive? What does it matter if I harbour unforgiveness (which is a neologism, not a real word, but we’re using it anyway) or resentment toward you? I’m not hurting anyone by carrying around this hurt, this grudge, this anger. Yeah, you are! You’re hurting YOU.
Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” – author unknown
No one can strong-arm us into forgiveness; we have to choose it. We don’t have to feel like it, we don’t have to like what happened, we don’t even have to be over what happened. We may not feel immediate relief as a result of speaking the words, but in the intentional choosing, we can, like Wikipedia says, “undergo a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offence, let go of negative emotions such as vengefulness…and [experience] an increased ability to wish the offender well.” The alternative—deciding to ignore, bury or just move on—while omissive, is also a choice; a choice that doesn’t bring life.
Friends, I don’t want to scare you, but zombies are real! They’re the ones who wander around in this life, dead inside. No heartbeat. No life in their eyes. They don’t experience any of the joy or fullness of life that is ours for the living. Pain and unforgiveness render us shells; shadows of the people we were created to be. I don’t know about you, but I have zero interest in being the living dead.
In my essay “The Whole House,” I wrote that every time we avoid dealing with pain and brokenness, we close doors. When we refuse to reconcile with God, others or ourselves, we essentially close off rooms in our “house” until all of a sudden, we realize we are living in a very small space. No thanks. Let’s shove open the windows and fling wide the doors. Forgiveness is a huge part of living in your whole house.
Those of us with any sort of church history can rattle off the Lord’s Prayer without even thinking about what we’re saying: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In other words, God, forgive my screw ups while I forgive others for their screw ups. The Bible says “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ, God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
If we want to experience forgiveness, we have to be able to accept it. Understanding that God truly forgives us is what enables us to extend that same grace to others. The reverse is also true. When I don’t live forgiven, it leaves me stuck and unable to forgive and receive forgiveness.
We are imperfect humans living in an imperfect world and sooner or later (probably sooner, like every. single. day.), we are going to be mistreated, hurt, left out and wounded. The pain will likely be inflicted by someone you know, respect and love; maybe a family member, a close friend, a colleague or someone who you think should know better. Sometimes we wonder how a person so close to us could hurt us like this? But it actually makes sense; we’re more vulnerable with those we love and trust. It’s almost easier to let a stranger off the hook than someone we know. Though I might feel angry in the moment when that MORON!!! cuts me off on the highway, the anger flares and then it burns out. But from someone we trust, the pain cuts deeply.
Sometimes we get selective memory when we talk about forgiveness. That is, we tend to remember only the ways in which we’ve been wronged. Instead of getting blamey and sucked down the sink hole of self pity, let’s remember that just as we’ve been hurt by others, we have also been the inflictors. It always goes both ways. And this is why we need to understand how to ask for forgiveness and how to extend forgiveness.
Forgiveness is good for us! It allows us to live fully. The purpose of forgiveness is not so that we can be nice people; or weak people who tow the line and strive to get along. The purpose of forgiveness is not that we resign ourselves to doormat-dom. Extending forgiveness to others (and ourselves) and accepting forgiveness from them (and ourselves) is what allows us to live fully and whole-heartedly.
The benefits of forgiveness are not only mental, emotional and spiritual, but physical. Karen Swartz, M.D. at The John Hopkins Hospital, says “There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed…Chronic anger puts you into a fight-or-flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and immune response. Those changes, then, increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions. Forgiveness, however, calms stress levels, leading to improved health.”
Forgiveness is an act of warfare. Those few words, whispered courageously through hurt and tears, “I forgive you,” have massive repercussions for bitterness and brokenness. We have to act offensively. We can’t wait for reciprocation, reconciliation or change of heart on the part of the person or people. It’s wonderful and validating when it happens that way, but there are no guarantees that it will.
It is much more painful and difficult to move forward when there has been an absence of process; no owning of the errors…but EVEN IF there is no movement toward reconciliation on the part of the offender, it’s still my responsibility to forgive. It is still in my best interest to let it go.
Whether spoken to an actual person or aloud to the open air, we can proclaim forgiveness. And when we do, we advance into enemy-controlled territory and we take back ground that has been stolen. The walls that have been built, the silence that has lingered, the separation and division and brokenness in relationships…this can all be healed with humble hearts and simple words. Simple, but warrior-like!! Will you forgive me? I forgive you. When we forgive, we are turning toward Jesus and darkness loses its grip.
When we forgive, we let go of the offence and decide not to punish the offender, even if they deserve it. In normal circumstances, as in, those that do not involve abuse, it means that we not only pardon the person who has wronged us, but also accept and restore them to relationship. For example, when our children have acted inappropriately and we’ve dealt with it, we don’t keep bringing it up, referencing it, reminding them about their screw-ups or rubbing their noses in it (even when we’d really like to).
Just as it’s important to understand what forgiveness is, it’s as important to understand what it is not. Many of us have been hesitant to forgive because we’ve faultily understood I forgive you to mean what you did is okay. Nope. What you did is NOT okay, but I’m letting it go. I’m not going to carry it anymore.
To help my students understand, I explain that we are all wearing backpacks. As hard things happen, it’s as though rocks are placed into our backpacks. If we don’t stop from time to time and remove the heavy rocks, we will be hindered in everything we do. Carrying around those heavy, hard things does not serve us well.
Forgiveness is not an invitation or requirement to stay in an unhealthy situation. I can completely forgive someone for a wrong done, but if there are no positive changes, it does not always mean that I continue to be in relationship with that person or people. (Hopefully it does mean that I can actually see them at the grocery store without wanting to ram my cart into their legs.)
Forgiveness is not a passive aggressive or white-washed means of informing someone that you’ve been angry or resentful; an attack cloaked in goodness. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people approach me with “I need to ask you for forgiveness because I’ve been really resenting you for…” It wasn’t about something I had done and, truly, it had nothing to do with me. We need to check our motivation. We might feel released and validated in our pain, but now we’ve slimed someone. Sometimes forgiveness doesn’t involve another person. It is worked out within yourself, because it’s actually about you.
Forgiving does not mean you are weak—it means you are strong. In our culture, people feel they need to stick up for their rights. Don’t take less than you are owed! Make them pay for what they did! We equate forgiving with being a sucker. If someone owes you and they refuse to pay, they are certainly in the wrong. They should pay. But what if you choose to let it go; not because you want to avoid conflict, but so that the debt no longer has a hold on you? This isn’t always the right thing—sometimes full reconciliation does need to happen—but sometimes it is the right thing.
I honestly don’t know if forgiveness comes naturally to humans…there are supporting arguments for both sides. Regardless, there are certain personality types that seem to have an easier time of it. More often than not, though, I believe it must be modelled and practiced; a learned behaviour.
Growing up, there was a lot of forgiving to be done in my family. Four kids, born every two years or so, can be simultaneously the best of friends and the worst of enemies. I give all credit to my mother for teaching us how to forgive. Though we balked and resisted the process, she made us walk it out as often as was needed. Which was a lot.
When an issue occurred, we weren’t allowed to simply ream off a snarky “sorry!” in our best dismissive I didn’t really do it-but I want this to be over now-so I’ll just say it voice. My mom taught us to own our part. She taught us the script “I’m sorry I _____ . Will you forgive me?” “Yes, I forgive you.” And then, the hug.
This practice, over and over and over embedded the process in my psyche. No longer a script, it became rails to run on. This process, learned almost by rote, has stayed with me. I’ve applied it my entire life and it’s helped to navigate bumps in relationships with friends, colleagues and in my marriage. It’s a gift I’ve been able to pass on to my own children, not to mention to classrooms full of students each year.
If we desire to live fully—to be healthy people, physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally—we need to lighten our backpacks. We need to let go of offences. We need to forgive. Whether it’s something done to us, like a broken confidence or unfaithfulness, or something that was not done, like the withholding of care and affirmation, we can live free. It will cost you something. But it will be worth it.
There is so much more to say on this topic, but it will need to wait. And now, I owe you an apology: I’m sorry that I can’t seem to say anything in under 2000 words. Will you forgive me?