If you saw me walking down the sidewalk this morning, deep in thought, with a slightly dark and stormy expression on my face, it’s because I was thinking about someone I need to forgive.
Forgiveness can be HARD! It feels like people don’t talk about it enough (for my taste, anyway, but maybe not everyone feels that way!!). I wonder why – we all need to do it fairly regularly! Also, I’ve wonder why I feel so bad at it. Did I miss something I was supposed to learn about forgiveness? Is it easier for some people than for others? And how, exactly, do you do it? I get the general concept, but what is all involved in forgiveness?
I’ve been asking that question for a long time, and have basically heard two answers: you decide to forgive, and you pray for the person who has wronged you.
But as I walked along this morning, those two tidbits felt fairly inadequate for the job of forgiveness I have before me. (Can I be honest and say that prayer sometimes feels inadequate?! I know it’s not, but feelings don’t always line up with what I know in my head.)
I felt like it was this HUGE, impossible challenge, and I didn’t know where to start. (Sunday school answer: prayer. Always start with prayer. But again, that felt too vague.)
I was feeling guilty this morning, because it’s taking me a long time to forgive – too long, it seems. I still feel so sad about everything that happened in the situation.
But suddenly, the thought came to me: “Even though I feel sad, it doesn’t mean forgiveness hasn’t begun to happen.”
That word “begun” stuck out and made me curious. Have I begun to forgive? Is it a process? Are there steps to take, and have I been trying to make a really big leap, when I need to acknowledge the many parts to something as huge as forgiveness?
Have I been trying to swallow the whole thing at once, instead of taking it in smaller, manageable chunks?
I began to look back on other painful experiences in my life to see if there were steps that consistently happened. If I could determine those steps, I would know how to walk through a tough situation once more, finding my way to forgiveness as I have in the past.
Here are the steps I’ve determined:
In the beginning, I couldn’t even think about forgiveness for a while, because I was so bogged down with emotions. I felt hurt, angry, betrayed. For a couple of days, the urge to cry kept hitting me unexpectedly, and I’d have to hurry away to the bathroom so my kids wouldn’t see me losing it again.
I tried to just let it all come out. It was hard, because everything in me wanted to skip that part. I didn’t want to face my hurt and anger, but I didn’t want to stuff it down inside myself, either, so I just let it flow.
After a few days, things calmed down. It would hit again when I thought it was finished, but eventually, it felt like I had cried it out.
This felt important, because I needed to acknowledge that what happened was hard and very disappointing. It’s right to grieve when something like that happens.
It makes me think of a wound – it needs to be cleaned out before healing can happen. Healing actually won’t happen properly if junk stays inside.
When we grieve, we can release the emotions that are clogging up our ability to think clearly, and then let the healing begin.
*This is absolutely harder for some people than for others. My challenge has always been holding things in, not letting stuff out. But I’ve seen how difficult it is for some people to face emotions. This doesn’t make it less necessary. It may mean getting some help – from a friend, from a counselor, whoever. But find a way to let it out. Christine Hassler (“Over It and On With It” podcast) suggests a pool noodle temper tantrum – find a safe, private place and whack it out. I’ve never tried this, but the point is, there are options. It’s better out than in – emotional constipation is no joke.
Once I had spent a few days grieving and letting my emotions calm down, I began to get glimpses of perspective. In the beginning, I was too upset to be able to see the other person’s point of view, but after awhile, I began to think about what they might have been thinking or feeling, and imagining what the situation must have been like for them.
It’s something to be careful with, because we can’t read people’s minds, and we don’t want to assume things which may not be true. But to think about what the other person might be going through and think beyond ourselves is a sign of emotional health.
Another painfully honest confession: It took me awhile to get to the point where I actually wanted to forgive.
I’ve been down this road enough times in the past to know immediately this time around that I wanted to want to forgive. I know it’s Christlike, and the right thing to do, and all-around healthy to forgive, so I wanted to reach the point where I would sincerely want to forgive, right from the beginning, but it took awhile before I could sincerely say I felt like forgiving.
I think the process of forgiveness can start before our feelings line up with our decision to forgive. It’s what people mean when they say forgiveness is a choice.
It’s totally a choice, and I want to act in obedience, but I always pray really hard for God to give me the desire to forgive. I want to have a heart of forgiveness, in all possible ways, including my feelings.
But even when I’m not feeling forgiving, I still need to…
This is the idea of “Fake it till you make it.” Sometimes this has felt insincere to me, but I try to see it as an act of obedience, and trust that as I act out kindness, forgiveness, and grace, the Holy Spirit will change me and fill in my gaps.
This is when I pray for the person who hurt or wronged me, whether I feel like it or not.
I’m very honest in my prayers. If I can’t pray, “Please bless so-and-so,” I pray, “Please give me the desire to pray that You will bless so-and-so.” God knows! Sometimes I just choke out the words until I can actually mean them sincerely!
So I may want to forgive, but if the feelings aren’t all there yet, I can still act out forgiveness, and at some point, the feelings follow.
At some point in this process, forgiveness has usually meant sitting down with the other person and working things out. Sometimes that doesn’t work – it can be someone who it’s not possible sit down with, because the offence is indirect, the other person isn’t willing or sometimes forgiveness even needs to happen towards someone who has passed away. In those cases, writing a letter to the person (but not delivering) it can be extremely helpful.
Sometimes writing a letter before actually talking to the person has helped me to clarify my feelings and what I want to say. I’m a big fan of letters.
Talking it out can be really hard, uncomfortable, and awkward, or it can go much better than what I imagined. Either way, I’ve learned that pushing through the discomfort is worth it. Even when the conversation goes badly, I’ve seen the value of saying what needs to be said, even just for my own sake. They may not respond the way I hope they will – I can only control my own actions, and I need to let go of expectations on their part. (That’s a hard one for me!)
Another idea I heard recently is to make a list of all the ways in which the person has wronged you, and pray through each item on the list.
Sometimes I feel like it’s tricky to know when the work of forgiveness needs to be done with the other person, or when it’s between me and God. I start with God, and try to discern His leading as I work it out with Him.
It is such a testimony of God’s goodness and grace to be able to look back at restored relationships in my life. What a gift to be able to meet people who have caused pain (or who have experienced pain because of my mistakes), and greet them in a true spirit of forgiveness, without lingering hurt or bitterness.
It has always been worth it.
After I finished that list, I sat back and made two important observations:
Forgiveness can be a long, hard process.
There are a lot of points on that list, and none of them are easy. Forgiveness is the hard work of becoming more Christlike, and it shouldn’t be easy.
I need to let it be a process, and let it be hard. It takes time, and doesn’t need to happen quickly, because deep work is worth doing well.
Whatever step I’m on, I want to stop worrying about the whole, humongous task, and simply focus on what’s before me. Take one step at a time. Healing is the goal, but there are many steps along the way, and that’s okay. I want to take bite-sized chunks so I don’t choke on the whole thing.
I need a lot of grace, as I work on extending grace.
Who am I to feel all offended and wronged, tempted to withhold grace, when I am so badly in need of it myself? I’m not even good at forgiving on my own, and who knows how much grace my actions require from others when I may not always be aware of it?
Basically, we’re all desperately in need of grace, and we should splash that around liberally, until we all get enough.
Do you have any good forgiveness tips to share? What do you do when you want to forgive, but it just feels hard?