Los Angeles Christian Counseling
In every relationship, between neighbors, friends, colleagues, lovers, siblings, strangers even, or parents and their children, there comes a time when things go awry, and amends need to be made. Forgiving others is one of the more important social exchanges that helps relationships recover and heal from breaches of trust, broken promises, unmet expectations, and more.
But let’s be honest – forgiving others isn’t always easy. If we’re being doubly honest, sometimes in our anger and hurt it feels better to hold onto and nurse those feelings than relinquishing them. Forgiveness is a hard decision to take, make no mistake about it.
Without it though, our relationships may become consumed with bitterness and deteriorate. This applies not only to the relationship in which the hurt is centered but to others as well since we are the common denominator in both situations and our hearts aren’t hermetically sealed in such a neat way.
So, it matters whether forgiveness is a practice (dare we say a virtue?) that we carry with us in daily life. How and why should we go about taking this difficult step in the right direction?
What forgiveness is and isn’t
The first thing is to understand what forgiveness is and is not. Forgiveness, as we already said, is a choice, a decision that a person must make. It’s not predicated on whether the person who offended you has apologized first. As an act of the will, it’s something that depends on you and your desire to grant it.
No one can coerce, shame, or guilt you into truly forgiving someone from your heart. That’s something only you can do, strengthened by the Holy Spirit. When we forgive someone, we choose to relinquish the feelings of anger and resentment we may have toward them. That may also include and feelings of wanting revenge or wishing evil upon them and their loved ones.
Beyond this, forgiving someone is also choosing to empathize with the offender and showing compassion toward them. Sometimes, this is something we can do only after a lot of prayer and the intercession and empowerment from the Spirit. In our own strength, forgiving those that have wronged or harmed us may seem, and it often is, an impossible task.
Forgiveness is also not the same thing as justice or reconciliation. Those are separate processes from forgiveness – a person may be forgiven, but that doesn’t mean that the repercussions and consequences of their actions won’t still flow out to them. If someone has committed a crime, for example, being forgiven doesn’t mean they don’t serve jail time.
Reconciliation is the process by which two people who have been estranged are brought back into a relationship with one another. Forgiveness is often the precursor to reconciliation, but they are different things. In some cases, reconciliation may not possible or appropriate, as with someone who may have died or with someone like an abuser.
Why is forgiving others so hard to do?
Forgiving someone who has hurt you, especially if they are a repeat offender, is hard to do. There are several reasons why forgiveness is a difficult thing for us, and these may include the following:
Offering forgiveness feels like letting the person off the hook. Often, we may feel like forgiving the other person is letting them off the hook and releasing them from the consequences that should flow from their actions. We want to see justice done, and it can seem like offering forgiveness could get in the way of that.
But remember, forgiveness and justice are not the same, and one does not preclude the other. If someone has broken their word one too many times, forgiving them isn’t incompatible with refusing to believe them the next time they make a promise.
Holding onto resentment feels easier than letting it go. As we pointed out earlier, sometimes we hold onto feelings of resentment and anger because they are familiar and, in some ways, it feels easier to hold onto them than to let go to offer forgiveness.
Some people are naturally more forgiving than others. Whether it’s a natural grace, a part of their personality or temperament, or something they learned from their parents or caregivers, some people are more inclined towards being forgiving than others.
Past hurts. When we’ve been hurt before, whether by the person in front of us or in the past by someone else, our fear of exposing ourselves to further hurt, of potentially making ourselves vulnerable to future hurt, is a reason we may struggle to forgive. This can happen especially in close relationships like a marriage or between friends.
If you’ve been hurt, offered forgiveness, and then been hurt again, it can make you reluctant to forgive again. To be in relationship with others is, in very profound ways, to choose to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable opens you up to being hurt. This is likely one of the larger obstacles to forgiveness and one without a ready-made workaround if we want meaningful relationships with others.
They haven’t expressed remorse. Another reason it’s hard to forgive is that the person who has wronged us may show no remorse about their actions, and they haven’t apologized or even recognized what they’ve done. It feels like offering forgiveness to someone who doesn’t even think they want or need it is throwing pearls before swine.
But remember, forgiveness isn’t about the person or their worthiness. Forgiveness is about you choosing to release your negative feelings toward them. They may or may not accept it, but that isn’t the point. The point is for you to release yourself from the toxic anger and other negative emotions you harbor in your heart on account of them.
What impact does unforgiveness have on us?
If we choose not to forgive someone, that is a choice we can freely make. But it is a choice that comes with consequences, relationally, mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Physically, unforgiveness can result in poorer health outcomes such as high blood pressure, higher risk of heart disease, lowered immune response, and stress. Emotionally and mentally, unforgiveness is linked to a higher incidence of anxiety and depression.
Unforgiveness affects your current relationships. When you don’t forgive the person who has harmed you, that resentment and anger can spill over into other relationships. Holding something against an ex often spills over into your current relationship and manifests as trust issues or arguments that are really about your previous partner and their behavior.
Unforgiveness may even interrupt your enjoyment of the present and the people you’re with. Have you ever walked into a party and realized that a person you have an issue with is there? Was the rest of the party enjoyable? Or was it stressful and you had to put in conscious effort to ignore them and have fun?
Unforgiveness affects your relationship with God. When we don’t forgive others, that can unsettle our connection with God, especially if we know that God cares about whether we are forgiving toward others or not. Jesus challenges us, saying that God will forgive us just as we forgive others who sin against us (Matthew 6). This is a hard-hitting verse, and we may feel unsettled if we are holding onto resentment and anger toward someone.
What do I do when I’m struggling with forgiving others?
Forgiving someone is about choosing not to hold what they did against them. It’s a process that can last from the moment you make the choice to even years afterward. On some days, the feelings of resentment may resurface, and you must recommit to letting them go. When you are struggling to forgive someone a few steps you can take include:
Show empathy and compassion. Consider that the other person is a frail human being just as you are and try to understand what may have motivated their actions. There is an enormous difference between understanding and justifying – in showing empathy you are trying to walk in their shoes for a little while to understand them. By humanizing them, it’s easier to show them compassion.
Remember times when you’ve needed forgiveness. We too have needed forgiveness from others. Recalling that fact may allow us to see another person’s faults in a more compassionate light. Paul wrote, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). As forgiven people, Christians are called to forgive others.
Pray. Bring your burden to God because he loves you (see 1 Peter 5:7). Let God know about your struggle to forgive and ask for the strength to do it. Forgiveness is a process, and you should allow yourself time to forgive, and allow God time to heal you of your hurt.
“Beach Fire,” Courtesy of Ball Park Brand, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sisters,” Courtesy of Hannah Busing, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Buddies,” Courtesy of DocuSign, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Outstretched Hands,” Courtesy of Hanna Morris, Unsplash.com, CC0 License