I’ve been there. Knowing I need to forgive someone, when what I really want to do is pummel them, then crawl into a hole, or at least walk far away from them never to return. As Christians we “know better.” Anne Lamott and Nelson Mandela have referenced this powerful truth, hanging on to “resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.”
Nobody will argue with the fact that forgiving others is important. Christians are bound by the commands of Christ to forgive others, warned even, that if we don’t forgive others, how can we ourselves be forgiven? However, have you noticed how empty it feels when we forgive out of that internal sense of obligation? Yes we desire to forgive, yes we know we must forgive, and so we let those words roll off of our tongues “I forgive you.” Then we think to ourselves, “there I said the magical incantation. Whenever anyone asks me ‘have I forgiven so and so?’ my answer is a resounding ‘of course!’”
But beneath the surface, a sense of being cheated, of selling out our true feelings, and of powerlessness still lurks. What do we do when forgiveness isn’t as powerful as the pastor says it is supposed to be? Here are the 4 points Christians often overlook that cause us to make huge mistakes when trying to forgive others.
1. We must feel and process the complete pain in order to forgive completely. If we haven’t stepped into the anger and sat with the heaviness of grief, then we have not worked through the hurt enough to truly forgive. If we have avoided our own emotions around the offense when we are saying, “I forgive you,” we are not actually forgiving people for their full infraction. That’s why it feels so incomplete and even cheap after the fact. Why do we still feel a bitter root beneath the surface? Because it might still be there. Wring out the anger and grief in a healthy way (not directed at or directly with that other person) then we will be free from holding on to anything and can fully release the other person with forgiveness.
2. Forgiveness does not mean reconciliation. Christians often confuse the two. Yes we want to make every effort to be at peace with everyone. But it is possible and sometimes necessary to fully forgive someone and not have them back in our life, or to give them only limited return access back to our friendship. Forgiveness is necessary for reconciliation but not vice versa.
3. Forgiveness is an individual sport. Forgiveness does not require a single conversation between us and the person whom has caused the offense. No interchange needs to happen. Forgiveness is a choice we make alone in our heart between God and us.
4. Forgiveness means letting go of deserving anything in return. If we still feel entitled to an apology or repayment or the wrongs being made right, then we have not forgiven. Forgiving means emptying ourselves of needing anything in return from another person. Acknowledging that Christ has paid the price, covered the cost of even that other person’s wrong, even though they have not. If we feel entitled to anything in return, then we need to go back to point number one on this list and repeat. There is still some unprocessed pain causing our forgiveness to be incomplete, which is why we are still holding on to resentment and a feeling of being owed something in return. (The fine print: an apology, repayment, and righting a wrong will be absolutely necessary for relational reconciliation, but remember we separated that out from forgiveness…so let’s start with complete forgiveness and then explore what level of reconciliation might be possible).
Christ does not invite us to bite our tongue and force out the empty words ”I forgive you” (I need to be careful of asking for this / forcing this out of my kids when they hurt each other!) Christ invites you and me to go into the pain that we are carrying with Him. Once through that pain, we can release the other person completely and deserve and need nothing from them in return; that’s where we find forgiveness free of lingering resentment.