In my 30 years of working with people in therapy, I have seen the power of forgiveness set people free. An adult child who was sexually abused, a wife betrayed by a husband, a teen whose addicted father beat him, a parent who lost a child from a drunk driver…the list goes on and on. Was it easy for these people to forgive? Not at first. It isn’t our instinctual nature. But the way forgiveness affects body, soul and spirit is powerful and leads to freedom. So even though it is hard to do sometimes, it’s still needed.
The larger culture will tell you not to forgive, rather seek revenge. In fact, think of the number of movies that have revenge in the title (let’s just say, there are a lot of them). But is revenge the choice that will heal you? Is revenge the response of a person of faith? If you follow the words of Christ, the answer is a resounding, NO.
“But I don’t want to forgive someone who hurt me!” I get it, but let’s be clear that forgiveness doesn’t mean what happened to you was OK. In fact, it is a response to the injustice you faced and is based on the real hurt and anger you feel.
Forgiveness is a choice.
Forgiveness is a moral virtue that must be cultivated like other virtues. But when it is given, it calms anger and allows you to heal. Forgiveness involves goodness in the form of mercy that is extended to others who don’t deserve it.
Also, forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Reconciliation takes two people. Forgiveness is an individual act and is not dependent on reconciliation. In fact, reconciliation might not happen even when you forgive. Still, the individual benefit to the forgiver is great. There can be a decrease in depression, anxiety, unhealthy anger, and symptoms of PTSD when forgiveness is applied.
Forgiveness is a process.
Consider this definition of forgiveness by Dr. Robert Enright, one of the leading national and international researchers on forgiveness, “Interpersonal forgiveness is a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward him or her.” Dr. Enright’s definition says you have a right to be resentful, judge that person and be indifferent. But you choose a different path, a healing path. And that healing path has four stages:
1) The uncovering stage in which you realize the impact of the offense to you. You think about what happened and gather information. Basically, who did what to whom? It helps to ask questions like, how is unforgiveness affecting my health? How much space is unforgiveness occupying in my life? Am I avoiding a necessary part of my healing?
2) Next is the decision phase. Once you have uncovered how the incident impacted you, you decide to forgive, recognizing that not doing so will cost you more pain. In that process, ask what has stopped you from letting go? What has blocked you from choosing to forgive?
3) The third phase is the working phase. The work of forgiveness requires dealing with our emotional reactions, providing empathy and compassion, and moving through difficult feelings. This is not easy and cannot be rushed or demanded. It is the hardest part of the work because you can choose to forgive without working through the emotions. When you truly work through the emotional process, deeper healing progresses.
4) Finally, there is a deepening phase in which you feel release. Forgiveness that is worked through on a deep level combats stress, hostility, and rumination. It aids the healing process even further.
Forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself. It doesn’t require reconciliation or apology. When you choose it, you move out of resentment and bitterness and the person who harmed you no longer has power over you. The offense was real, but it doesn’t steal your joy.
When forgiveness is hard to do