Content warning: rape, abuse, church harm
I was stuck. I have forgiven a lot of things over the years. Big things. Really big things. Things like rape, abandonment, abuse, and betrayal. I’ve also forgiven smaller things and many in-between-sized things. But this had me stumped, and I didn’t know what to do.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to forgive. Having been raised Christian, I know all the “correct” reasons I should forgive. I can quote several Bible verses about extending forgiveness to others and seeking forgiveness when I’ve done wrong, and I know I’ve been forgiven for some pretty big things, too.
However, like many things in my life, my decision to forgive often has more to do with pragmatism than my ideals. The reality is, at least my reality is, that self-righteous anger feels great until it grows into the bitterness that takes root in resentment. My desire not to suffer greatly motivates me to forgive. And I was suffering. I had done everything I knew how to do – I literally forgave my rapist by praying for him while on the toilet, but not even that was working this time.
What forgiveness isn’t
I often hear from people, “I can’t forgive them, because what they did wasn’t ok.” Well, I have great news! Forgiving doesn’t mean condoning or rationalizing or ignoring wrongs. On the contrary, if no wrong was committed, there is nothing to forgive. In order to forgive, we must acknowledge the harm done.
Fast and furious
As Christians, we sometimes feel as if the need to forgive is so immediate that we shouldn’t even experience the difficult emotions of being hurt—anger being the main one. After all, the Bible says “In your anger, do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). However, it doesn’t say that being angry itself is sinful, just not to act badly in it.
It is wise counsel to take a beat, a breath, or several, before responding when emotions are high. While it is also wise not to let anger linger so long that it becomes resentment, we need to experience the hurt as hurt before we can let it go. That includes anger and other less-pleasant feelings. Sometimes that takes more than one sundown. It may take many.
When I was a teenager struggling to forgive a loved one who had deeply hurt me, my uncle told me that forgiveness is like cutting onions—there are layers, and you always cry. I love a pithy one-liner, and it stands true to my experience. There have been many times over the years that I forgave some person or institution, only to understand more later and find that I needed to continue to forgive. Forgiveness is not one and done, especially when we’re still in relationship with what hurt us.
In Matthew 18:21-22 Jesus tells Peter that he’s to forgive “seventy times seven” times, he is not making the concept of grace into a math formula. He is saying we should forgive an infinite amount of times. As usual, I agree with Jesus. However, abusers and their enablers love to quote this verse to justify being allowed to continue their hurtful behavior. Sometimes, they even mean to change and just don’t have the capacity to do so. It is vitally important to understand that forgiveness doesn’t always mean restored relationship with the person(s) who caused harm.
We can forgive someone and not be willing to have contact with them. In the example of an abuser, not being in contact with them may actually be a very loving thing to do. By not allowing them to continue to abuse, we are aiding their recovery and restoration. Likewise, a victim can still pursue legal action even after forgiving. That may also be the most loving thing they can do. This is also true of institutions and systems that cause harm—we can forgive a church, organization, country, etc. and still hold them accountable as an act of love.
Forgive them, they know not what they do!
Of course, it’s easier to forgive someone when we believe the offense was done in ignorance. However, some are intentional. Sometimes people mean to hurt people. Are we supposed to forgive them, too? Yes. Whether they deserve forgiveness is irrelevant—we deserve not to suffer any more than we already have.
It isn’t always them we need to forgive
By some incredible stroke of fortune, I am an alcoholic—I had no choice but to embrace a way of living on spiritual terms if I wanted to save my life. I often feel sorry for “normal” people who aren’t cornered into spirituality. Part of that spiritual way of living is having people who are wiser and have more life experience to go to when I’m stuck. A smarter person would probably use those resources before they had spent several years (yes, years) nursing a resentment that was making them spiritually sick, but I still have a lot of opportunities for growth.
When I did finally go to my people, I was shocked by their advice. I talked to a therapist, a spiritual director, and a 12-step recovery sponsor, none of whom know each other, and not one person told me to pray more or “just let it go” (things I’d been saying to myself). None of them thought my idea to try to reconcile with the person was a good one either. They all said the same thing, which I thought was ridiculous until the last one, my recovery sponsor, said it. “You can’t let this go, because you aren’t angry at them, you’re angry at yourself for letting it happen. You need the compassion that you are trying to will yourself to extend to others. Forgive yourself.”
Just as soon as I let Christ’s compassion for me sink into my spirit, I felt the weight of my resentment lift. I have slept a lot better since then.
When it really is them we need to forgive
Sometimes it really is someone else and not ourselves we need to forgive. We have felt our feelings, processed our pain, looked at our part in the matter, and it is time to move on. For that, I’ll share a few practices that have helped me along the way.
Pray for them
Pray for the person you want to forgive to have all the blessings you would like for yourself, such as happiness, health, and security. If this is especially hard, you may want to do it while you’re in the restroom. Think of it as eliminating waste from your life.
Talk to them (don’t do this if it’s not safe)
We sometimes forget that those who have hurt us are just fallible humans, too. It can be easy to paint them as villains in our minds. Going to someone who has hurt me, and beginning by confessing to them the ways that I have hurt them (even when they were very slight in comparison), has sometimes opened doors for authentic and healing communication. It sometimes also has just cleared my side of the street so I can walk away with a clear conscience and no question as to whether there was any way to save the relationship.
Talk to others
I do try to keep my “venting” (gossip) to a minimum these days, but sometimes I am stuck and need an outside or wiser perspective. When I do this sooner than later, I save myself a lot of suffering.
- What types of harms do you find it most difficult to forgive? (financial, relational, systemic, etc.)
- What part of you do those harms impact? (security, relationships, community standing, freedom, etc.)
- Do you play a part in your suffering?
- How can Jesus’ compassion for you help you to forgive?