Forgiveness is such a heavy word. There are feelings of pain that come up for some, feelings of release that come up for others. It is complicated and hard to understand and even harder to do.
But as Christians, people are commanded to forgive just as Christ forgave them (Ephesians 4:32). So if this is this important, then what is it? How do you forgive others? How do you ask for forgiveness? Why it is so important?
What is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a major theme in the Bible, if not the theme. It is a part of the whole narrative of scripture, describing the process of the fall of man in sin and God’s forgiveness of sin through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
God’s forgiveness is radical, even to the point of completely forgetting sin (Hebrews 8:12, 10:17; Jeremiah 31:34). Jesus talks of forgiving “seventy-seven” times, and Paul says that you “should forgive just as the Lord has forgiven you” (Matthew 18:21; Colossians 3:13).
To know God’s forgiveness, simply ask for it. He freely gives it when you ask for forgiveness. To really know it, read and study it in the word. It is beautiful and rich and undeserved. It is given freely to anyone to turns from his sin, turns to God, and asks Him to forgive him.
Those in the world of secular Psychology have also found the value of practicing forgiveness. They see it a little differently than how the Bible discusses it. This is how most seem to define it:
“Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.” (https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/forgiveness/definition).
Many in the world of psychology have also focused on what forgiveness is not because it such a complicated and heavy concept.
What Forgiveness is NOT
In Anger Management for Everyone, the authors define forgiveness like this:
“A process that allows you to untangle the relationship among your thoughts, your actions, and the responses of your body. As you’ll see, forgiving people for what they did doesn’t mean forgetting what they did. It also doesn’t mean accepting it, excusing it, defending it, or being neutral about their nasty actions. It doesn’t mean becoming passive and taking no action to make things better. Rather, forgiving requires developing a better understanding of the actions of others and taking steps to improve your family life, work life, and overall happiness. Forgiveness means letting go of the anger.”
The authors then list what forgiveness is not:
- Forgetting: Though forgetting what another has done to you is possible, it is not necessary for the forgiveness process. “Forgive and forget” is near impossible in some hurtful situations, but it is possible to not dwell on them as much in your thoughts.
- Accepting: To forgive does not mean to passively accept or be indifferent to some injustice done to you or another. For example, a teacher sees a student cheating on a test. While the teacher does forgive the student when the student asks, she still will not accept the behavior. The student receives a failing grade.
- Excusing: Similar to accepting, forgiveness is not saying what happened was OK as long as there was a reason for it. For example, he is only mean when he is drunk, but he has a drinking problem. He is not mean when sober. This is an excuse for his mean behavior.
- Neutrality: This suggests that no sides are taken in a conflict. Forgiveness does not have to mean this. One can forgive and still “choose a side.” For example, someone drinks and drives and crashes into your daughter’s car. You can choose to forgive the driver, but you remain loyal to your daughter in the legal battle that follows.
- Justifying:Forgiving does not mean acting as if nothing wrong happened, or as if all is right. Though Christ’s forgiveness does this for those who believe in Him, it does not seem to look like this in relationships. For example, a friend says something unkind that attacks your character and does not apologize or think he is wrong. You are hurt, choose to go through a process of forgiveness, but you still share with him that it is not OK for him to treat you that way.
- A One-time Thing:Forgiveness is a long process. It is not usually a one-time decision, but a long road of decisions to daily forgive. It occurs over time. This is possibly what Jesus meant when He said to forgive seventy-seven times. He knew it was a process of choosing to forgive over and over again.
- Seeking justice and compensation: At times, people think they will only feel better if justice is served or they get some sort of compensation for the wrong done to them. Forgiveness is an act of understanding, not demanding something in return. In fact, many times forgiveness is one-sided, meaning that they receive nothing in return, except freedom from the burden of their own anger.
- Condemning: There is no condemnation with true forgiveness. There is no attack on the person or their character.
Why should someone choose to forgive?
“By minimizing your anger, resentment, bitterness, and desire for revenge, you become stronger and more able to live with greater joy. Forgiveness involves letting go of negative attitudes and anger and adopting a perspective of understanding, compassion, and goodwill toward the person who triggered your anger.” (from Anger Management for Everyone)
When you choose forgiveness, you choose to release the hold that bitterness has on you. Unforgiveness does not hurt the other person as much as it hurts you. It plants anger in you that grows and simmers into resentment and mistrust of others. It is often what keeps you from entering into new meaningful relationships in the present and future.
More than the relational and psychological benefits, forgiveness is an act of obedience to God. It is not easy to do, and it requires full dependence on God to be able to do it in a way that honors Him. Though it may not be humanly possible to forgive each other as radically as Christ forgives, His model is a great place to start. However, some have worked to demonstrate what this process of forgiveness could look like.
How do you forgive someone? (from Anger Management for Everyone)
Step 1: Uncover anger
The process of forgiveness really begins when you can acknowledge the wrong done to you and the effect it had on you. What happened that hurt you or triggered your anger? How did you feel about it? How did you react? When anger subsides from a situation that led to anger, what feelings are below the surface?
Step 2: Decide to forgive
Continuing to focus on the triggering event and unhelpful thoughts associated with it will only lead to more anger and bitterness. Forgiveness is a choice to let go of those feelings and thoughts. Ask yourself, “What is my anger toward this person doing to me?”
Step 3:Know what forgiveness is/not (see above)
Step 4:Work to understand why others behave badly
It is important to find some compassion and understanding for the one who harmed you. This does not mean you are justifying their actions or release them from their responsibilities. It just simply means that you attempt to understand their actions.
Why did they do what they did? No matter the situation, human beings are imperfect and inevitably hurt and disappoint one another. There always will be more to the story, but that is one thing to remember.
Step 5: Give
Offer forgiveness to them, even if (when) they do not deserve it. It could be as simple as stating, “I am choosing to forgive you.” This is an act of grace and mercy toward another. It demonstrates to them that you are letting it go, and it gives them a picture of the way Christ forgives them, too.
Forgiveness is challenging, but it is possible. When you choose this road less traveled, you will experience freedom from the burden of bitterness, and Christ promises that you will be forgiven, too.
Bible Verses from the English Standard Version
Tafrate, Raymond C., Ph.D. and Kassinove, Howard, Ph.D. Anger Management for Everyone: Seven Proven Ways to Control Anger and Live a Happier Life. 2009.
“Hands and Flower”, Courtesy of Lina Trochez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Forgiveness”, Courtesy of Gus Moretta, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Forgiveness”, Courtesy of Felix Koutchinski, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Broken Heart”, Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.com, CC0 License