Four Steps to Forgiveness

A few years ago I was doing some research intended to help one of my counseling clients who was a victim of childhood sexual abuse. Anyone who has ever experienced such abuse – or knows someone who has – knows just how painful and heartbreaking it is. The offense often has long lasting effects on the individual’s life and relationships. Initially, I was appalled to discover the research overwhelmingly indicated that the first issue to address was “forgiveness.” As I conducted more research, it became clear that forgiveness is an important part of healing from any offense.

Being “sinned against,” as the Bible puts it, is a universal human experience. Who among us has not experienced a loved one’s words spoken in anger. Some of us have been victims of a deliberate act of betrayal. Some have suffered injury because of someone’s negligence. Others among us have been wrongfully accused. While the offense may differ, the pain runs deep and long.  

Many well-intentioned people commonly offer a simple solution – just forgive. The implication is that forgiveness ought to be easy. What’s more, it implies that as an upstanding, righteous and mature individual you should find it in your heart to forgive because it’s “the right thing to do.” I cringe at these remarks because they often add a load of guilt to the burden of those weighed down by the pain. 

Forgiveness is not easy, but it is necessary to find the healing and freedom you deserve.

I’d like to offer four things about forgiveness to help you on the road to freedom.

1. Recognize that forgiveness is a process. 

When I hear some well-meaning soul encourage someone to “just forgive,” it tells me that the one offering the advice is either out of touch, or more likely, uncomfortable with hearing from the one who’s offended. Instead of extolling someone in their sorrow and pain to simply forgive, I prefer a different phrase: “Work toward forgiveness.”

Something worth having is seldom achieved quickly or easily. Understanding forgives as a process helps relieve some of the guilt. Here are a few ways you can begin the process of forgiveness.

  • Honestly acknowledge that you are still holding on to unforgiveness. It’s true that “Acknowledging you have a problem is the first step in healing.” 
  • Describe the offense again. Write it in a journal or make a list on your smartphone.
  • Determine why the offense was so painful. Did it harm you physically? Did it cause you embarrassment? Did it seek to undermine a belief or opinion you feel strongly about?
  • Let yourself feel the magnitude of the offence. 
  • Acknowledge the effect it’s having on you. Are you losing sleep? Having trouble concentrating? Feeling angry or depressed? Seeking revenge?
  • Find a way to make some adjustments for these. Practice some relaxation or deep breathing. Take a walk while you allow these feelings to come up in you. Share what you’ve come up with, with a trusted friend. 

You will need to carve out some time over the next several days to work on detailing these items. 

2. Practice letting go. 

Some people mistakenly believe that forgiveness is only a religious term. Yes, forgiveness is an essential doctrine of many religions, but it’s actually a banking term specific to loans and repayment that dates back to ancient times. I’ll guess it’s safe to assume that when you signed the paperwork on your last auto or home loan, you didn’t read every word of the fine print. If you had, you would have discovered a statement buried deep within stating there is “no forgiveness,” meaning of course, that you are legally obligated to pay back the money you borrowed. If there were such a clause, it would mean the bank would release you (the borrower) from any obligation of repayment. 

Accordingly, it is important to understand that forgiveness, in its simplest form, is about letting go.  Offering forgiveness means that in the wake of the offense, I release the offender from having to make things right. It has nothing to do with whether the offender offers an apology, or shows genuine remorse. Forgiveness, or letting go, is something I do in my heart toward that other person, regardless of their behavior or attitude. 

How, then, do I let go? Remember, it’s a process.  

  • Practice some deep breathing and relaxation. Take your list or your journal entries from step one and as you review them, allow the tension to rise within you and do some deep breathing. In through your nose and out through your mouth. Exhaling is physical letting go. It facilitates the release of muscle tension. The more you engage in this practice of physically letting go, the more you will be able to equate it with emotional letting go.
  • Engage spiritual disciplines.  If you are a person of prayer, talk to God about your pain with the same familiarity as if you are talking with a good friend. Explain in great detail, what you are thinking and feeling. If you prefer mediation, practice emptying yourself of the items and offenses on your list. Both prayer and meditation are methods of getting out of yourself.
  • Make a “burnt offering.” Build a fire — literally, or imaginatively — put your list of offenses into a fire, watch them be consumed, and observe how the smoke from the fire drifts upward and away.  This visualization helps your mind and heart practice letting go of the offenses. 
  • Stay within yourself.  Realize that you cannot control another, you can only control your own thoughts, feelings and behaviors. 

3. Agree in your heart that forgiveness is not the same as trust.

Forgiveness is a process. It’s a process that involves letting go, but don’t be confused, it is not the same as trust. Some argue that forgiveness means that we deal with the other person as if the offense never happened – in some respects, this may be the desired result. Yet I believe we have an obligation not to allow the offender to continue to cause harm.  This, I argue, is not the same as forgiveness. 

It’s important to remember that forgiveness is something I offer; trust is something that must be earned.

I am old enough to remember the end of the Cold War Period in world history, when U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, engaged in peace talks. President Reagan used the English version of the rhyming Russian proverb, doveryai, no proveryai – “trust, but verify.” It expresses the belief that a responsible person always verifies things before entering into an agreement, and continues to verify as long as the agreement is in place. Some would say this has no place in consideration of forgiveness, but I argue it does. Again, forgiveness is something I do in my heart, where trust is something that must be earned. 

When an offense comes my way, it is painful because something very important to me was harmed, encroached upon, violated, or disregarded. It is unhealthy, and arguably irresponsible, to allow someone access to those deeply personal places within, without the other person having earned – or re-earned – the right to go there. 

Forgiveness is a process of learning to let go. It is also a process of introspection and protection.  

Once I’ve been harmed by the actions of words of another, it is important to protect myself from further harm.  In other words, it is healthy for me to forgive – to let go of the burden I carry in my heart – but it is just as healthy to protect those vulnerable places from the ones who have not earned my trust. 

4. Imagine the freedom forgiveness offers.

When we fail to let go, and allow un-forgiveness to take up residence in our hearts, we enter into bondage. When the memory of the offense, or the one who committed the offense continues to occupy our thoughts.  When we cannot think clearly, engage in relationships or focus on our daily obligations, we have become enslaved to the memory of the offense.  We may find ourselves experiencing again the pain and anger.  This occupation can give way to anger and resentment, which can give birth to a hardness of heart and cynicism. We can spend a great deal of time and energy on something from the past, but our energy is better spent on more positive and productive concerns.  When unforgiveness gets a hold on us, and we are in bondage to it, and we don’t fully experience the freedom we deserve. 

The offenses of the ones who have offended us are not weights we desire to carry around with us. Yet, by not giving ourselves time and space to process the offense, by failing to acquire tools to let go of the obligation for the offender to make it right, and by not separating forgiveness from trust, we can allow those who have committed the offense to rule over us as the task-master does to the slave. 

The struggle with forgiveness is a common one. These four points offer only a brief description of the process. If someone’s offense is still taking up residence in your head and heart, perhaps it’s time to invite someone to come alongside and help you to find a healthy place of freedom. You deserve to live a life free from the burden of guilt and unforgiveness.  We are here to help you.

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