“What is forgiveness?”
“Is it truly helpful in my life?”
“How do I forgive someone?”
“Why do I still feel hurt or angry after I have forgiven someone?”
“Is forgiveness even worth it?”
I have heard these questions from many people, and I have asked them myself. I think we wrestle with forgiveness because we are human beings who continue to have emotional responses to the individuals who hurt us. We continue to carry the emotional pain of the offence we experienced. This can cause us to question if we have truly forgiven the person for what they did.
The common apology exchange taught to children creates an inaccurate picture of forgiveness. Do you remember when your parents told you to say “sorry” to your friend or sibling for something you did wrong, then after you said the words, they would tell the other person to say, “I forgive you”? Then, upon completion of the exchange, they sent you on your merry way to continue to play with your friend/sibling. Often, situations like this are considered finished and not discussed again.
This teaches that as long as we say those words, life can go back to normal, with no further discussion of lingering hurt. This exchange suggests we are to forget that anything happened. We may approve the mantra, “forgive and forget” if we are the ones who did the hurting, but maybe not if we are reeling from an offence. It is hard to extend forgiveness as we wrestle through our feelings of hurt, betrayal, resentment, and anger (just to name a few).
Forgiveness is a process. It is not just a one-time conversation between two people. The process of forgiveness starts with making a choice to forgive, then continues to work through all the related emotions as they surface. Choosing to forgive does not guarantee our feelings have aligned with our decision. Working through the feelings caused by the hurt or offence can take time.
As Lysa Terkeurst shares in her book, Forgiving What You Can’t Forget, “We forgive for the offence and we continue to forgive for the impact the offence had.” She explains that the impact is what our feelings are mostly connected to and the impact can last long after the initial choice to forgive. We can be triggered by words or feelings associated with the offence. Certain thoughts, sounds, or even smells can bring us back to that place of hurt, betrayal, disappointment, and anger caused by the offence.
It can be confusing to believe we have forgiven someone, but continue to have strong negative feelings about the offence. This is where the forgiveness of the impact comes in. When God speaks about forgiveness in Matthew 18, He says to forgive not seven times, but seventy-seven times. I wonder if what He was alluding to was forgiving the impact. Perhaps He knew we would need this instruction to persist in forgiving the impact of the hurt for as long as it takes the feelings to subside.
Forgiveness gives us the ability to choose to start healing from pain caused by others. We do not have a choice of how others treat us, but we do have the choice of how we will respond. Will we hold on to the pain, hurt, betrayal and anger and allow it to fester and harden our hearts? Or will we allow forgiveness to soften our hearts and propel us on the road to healing and freedom?
Through forgiveness, we can move toward freedom. We can take control of how we respond to pain and allow God to work in our lives. Forgiveness is an intentional journey toward Christ-likeness, not only because God instructs us to be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you (Eph 4:32), but also because forgiveness is an integral part of our healing process.