Human beings are capable of amazing feats. We can scale mountains, dive deep into the dark depths of the ocean, leave the earth’s orbit, create awe-inspiring pieces of art, imagine, and bring engineering marvels into being. Indeed, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, as the Psalm says. Though not as celebrated, one of the other feats that everyday people carry out, struggle with, and stumble over is how to forgive someone who has wronged them.
Learning How to Forgive
Forgiveness is complex and challenging. We know that there are a variety of consequences when we hold onto unforgiveness. Unforgiveness can give birth to resentment that ends up killing our relationships. It lodges itself in our hearts and makes us bitter people – our physical and mental health can be affected considerably by unforgiveness.
It can increase stress, hypertension, high blood pressure, the risk of heart attack, and other health conditions such as anxiety and depression. So, we know that forgiveness is a good idea for our overall well-being, but learning how to forgive is still a difficult thing to do.
Learning how to forgive someone can take time, but it is possible, with God’s help. Knowing what forgiveness is and is not, as well as what comes after it is granted may help you on your journey toward forgiving the people who have harmed you in one way or another.
Seeing the situation for what it is
Learning how to forgive someone firstly requires that we be clear-eyed about what happened. Sometimes we think we are forgiving someone when what we are doing is excusing them, and there is a significant difference between these two ideas. Excusing someone is about the factors that can explain or exonerate the person. This can happen in a few ways.
Say someone knocks you over and you sprain your wrist when you try and catch your fall. If they were pushed by someone else and they had no choice but to bump into you, they did not do anything wrong. Though they might say, “I’m sorry,” and you respond, “It’s okay” or “I forgive you,” this is not really forgiveness – you are excusing them, not forgiving them.
In the same scenario, if that person wanted you to fall, and they pushed you deliberately, there is probably no excuse for what they did. Forgiveness is aimed at people’s inexcusable actions and words. They have done something wrong, and beneath it all, there is nothing that exonerates them. This, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, is the difference between forgiving and excusing.
When we forgive someone, we are not turning a blind eye to what they did or pretending that they did not do something wrong. It is quite the opposite – forgiveness is about seeing quite clearly that someone has done or said something wrong that has no extenuating circumstances surrounding it. It is seeing their act in all its inexcusable ugliness for what it is.
Consciously letting go
Having seen clearly that someone has wronged you, to forgive someone means to then let consciously go of the negative feelings that arose because of the wrongs committed against you. When someone wrongs us, we may have feelings of betrayal, anger, frustration, hurt, disappointment, and a desire for revenge.
Forgiveness is a conscious act of letting go of the desire to pay them back, and not holding their past action against them. It does not happen by itself, but it is a decision one must make.
For Christians, part of forgiveness means letting go of our desire to pay them back or wishing misfortune upon them and leaving them in God’s hands. It requires us to trust that God is just and will deal with them in his time and his way.
This is one of the challenges Paul puts to believers when he says, “Bless those who persecute you… Do not repay anyone evil for evil… Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath… ‘If your enemy is hungry, fed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink’… Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:14-21). In handing it all over to God and trusting that God will do what is right you no longer must bear the burden.
Additionally, when it comes to forgiveness, the person who wronged you does not have to ask for forgiveness for you to grant it. Sometimes we hold onto unforgiveness because the other person has not sought our forgiveness, and we may feel like forgiving them lets them off the hook without taking responsibility.
However, forgiveness is primarily about your own heart, and not theirs. You are letting go of your negative feelings, whether they deserve it or not. Forgiving others is about you guarding your peace of mind and ensuring that you are not consumed by anger or the desire for revenge.
When someone does or says something that requires forgiveness, there is a possibility that a relationship may be at least affected or even broken. Forgiveness allows you to reset and creates space to re-engage in the relationship. Instead of letting resentment build and potentially destroy the relationship, forgiveness allows you to reopen the lines of communication and look for a way forward.
While forgiveness in many ways affords a reset in the relationship, in some cases, such as when a person breaks their word. Forgiveness does not mean you necessarily should trust the person again. Trust may need to be rebuilt, and that will take time.
When trust is breached repeatedly, and transgressions are forgiven in turn, that can undermine the relationship. Some relationships cannot withstand such breaches, and it may, unfortunately, mean the end of the relationship. The ending of relationships may be one of several consequences that result from what the person did.
Forgiveness does not mean consequences won’t ensue from a person’s actions, even if they are forgiven. Those consequences will play themselves out even while the person has been forgiven. If someone commits a crime, they may be forgiven, but the law may still take its course, so they are held accountable for their actions. Forgiveness does not erase the consequences that flow from an action.
Learning how to forgive is a process
Forgiveness is more than just a single event. Sometimes, it does happen that you make the conscious decision to forgive someone, and you let it go at once without looking back again. In many other situations – for instance, where deep wounds were inflicted upon you, the offender is a person that you live with or see every day, or with offenses that are repeated – forgiveness may take more than a single conscious decision to let go of the desire to pay them back or see them suffer.
Some days, you may feel feelings of resentment bubbling up. It can take conscious effort to set aside those feelings, especially if it is someone you see regularly, or if they have not asked for forgiveness. While you do not have to wait for the person to ask for forgiveness before you forgive them, our hearts do find it a little easier to let go of resentment if the other person feels bad about what they did, and they have taken the step to ask for forgiveness.
However, what makes forgiveness difficult is that it does not rest on the other person, on whether they have turned over a new leaf. That is partly why forgiveness is a process, something that goes beyond a single moment.
Forgiveness is also a process because our feelings do not just go away. It often takes time for us to work through our emotions and heal. It can take months, years, or even a lifetime to forgive someone. Forgiveness is thus a commitment and a choice that requires a lot of strength.
Because of that reality, ask God to help you with the strength you need to offer forgiveness and walk in forgiveness toward others. When we are weak, God is strong and can give us the grace to meet our challenges (2 Corinthians 12:9).
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