By Elizabeth Jane Hall and Poliana V. Vale, MD,
As we look into the incredible ability to forgive, we first need to be clear about what forgiveness is, and what it is not. When we have unrealistic expectations of what forgiveness is, we may become frustrated in trying to achieve the unachievable, suffer unnecessary guilt, or experience crushed hopes for future meaningful relationships.
What forgiveness is not: Forgiveness is not a superficial acceptance of a superficial apology in order to make peace and escape a painful confrontation of serious, recurring issues. Forgiveness is not reconciliation. It’s a prelude to reconciliation, but does not necessarily guarantee it. In healthy forgiveness, we take unilateral action regardless of the response of the offender. I can choose to forgive even if a heartfelt apology is not offered. Conversely, it takes two for reconciliation to take place. The offender must, to some extent, recognize the damage his offense has done, be genuinely sorry, confess his offense, and seek to make restitution for it. I also must see what I have done to contribute to the problem.
Forgiveness does not require us to forgo wise boundary-setting, either. Careful boundary-setting helps others know where we stand. If we fail to set appropriate relational boundaries, our emotional resources can be quickly overwhelmed.
Forgiveness also does not free us from accountability or necessarily cancel out consequences. Accountability belongs to both the offender and the offended. For example: I am driving to town in the correct lane and respecting the speed limits and the stop lights. A drunk driver hits me, and I become paralyzed from the waist down. Because he broke the law, he is responsible for the injury and appropriate restitution of medical expenses and disability. However, I am responsible for processing my anger and the depression that may result from the accident.
What forgiveness is: Forgiveness includes a conscious refusal to let past hurts negatively shape our present and future course of action and sink us into bitterness. Awareness of harmful actions done to us will not preoccupy our mind. Although we still may hold the offender accountable for his action, we do not seek revenge. We choose to let go of the anger we have towards those who have injured us.
Extending forgiveness for life’s painful experiences is a process requiring constant and persistent effort. It is not always a one-time act. Often, as God works in our lives and uncovers more damage done to us, another layer of anger surfaces, and we are confronted with the choice to forgive again, this time more deeply.
Recognize the damage done by the offender. We hate pain. We unconsciously repress it and consciously suppress it until it insidiously depresses our very being. We become obsessed with seeking comfort rather than grappling with truth and grace through which we can be healed. Comfort then becomes our god in the place of truth. However, Scripture tells us that God is a God of truth and graciousness. John 1:14. Genuine comfort can develop only in the context of these attributes freely extended to us by our loving Creator. We can forgive only when we progress honestly and purposefully into the domain of truth. This requires a recognition and acceptance of our personal experience.
When we deny the pain from life’s hurts, we set ourselves up for more pain. Many, many years ago, after I delivered a lecture on stress, a patient asked to see me. I will call her Rosalyn. Rosalyn was an attractive, street-smart, middle-aged European lady. She told me how as a child she had lived in a Nazi-occupied country.
Now in her fifties and enjoying financial prosperity, she had nevertheless been in several abusive relationships with men. During this time, she met her brother whom she had not seen since soon after the war. They reminisced about old times, and finally she remarked, “Hans, there is one thing I do not understand. I remember waking up black and blue on several occasions. Mother said it was because I fell out of the bed. But I don’t remember falling out of the bed at all.”
“You don’t remember Dad beating you? Mom just told you that. Dad really beat you!” Her brother couldn’t believe she didn’t remember.
As she told me her story, I looked into Rosalyn’s eyes: there were no tears. Her experience was told very matter-of-factly; I was the one with tears. She remarked, “But my dad wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t been captured by the Nazis and placed in a concentration camp.” Probably true. Maybe it was a wise reflection from a mature lady and a legitimate groping toward forgiving.
However, at the time of the abuse, the little girl didn’t understand. It was such a painful affront to her young soul that her consciousness would not tolerate it. Did her dad’s abuse set her up for her future relationships with abusive men? As I listened to the rest of her story, I concluded that it probably had contributed to it. I realized that her persistence and indomitable spirit had deteriorated into a toughness that would not consciously allow her childhood memories to cry and be validated. Without that validation her forgiveness would only be superficial, and it would be difficult (if not impossible) for her to grow. Only as we acknowledge our pain can we begin to understand some of the ungodly strategies we have devised to numb the pain and choose a more godly approach.
While forgiveness includes the recognition of hurt and injury with its accompanying pain, it refuses to dwell upon and nourish the injury. A proverb counsels, “You can’t prevent birds from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from nesting in your hair.” Anger and the ensuing bitterness lead us to engage in selective filtering. We become absorbed with a person’s or situation’s problems to the exclusion of the good and the possible benefits that could be derived from them. Might it not help us to think of a person’s good qualities as well as their offensive ones? Perhaps we could learn to triumph in a difficult situation. Perhaps we could benefit from counsel that sees the larger picture.
True forgiveness involves a commitment to work through to the roots of bitterness so they don’t contaminate others. Heb. 12:14, 15. Wendy was a highly efficient surgical technician, and she had a good heart at times. But whenever there were misunderstandings at work with any man, she would go home and explode with volatility. She had a lot of bitterness and shame from being sexually abused as a child which had evolved into contempt for all men. This distorted thought pattern, called generalization, makes forgiveness impossible and contaminates all that come into its sphere.
Conscientiously choose not to allow past hurts, abuses, or injuries to motivate you in a negative, stinted, or suspicious way. (Caution, however, can be a valuable asset.)
Without forgiving, our anger and bitterness are projected onto others. By contaminating our relationships, they rob us of peace, goodwill, and a meaningful and blessed involvement with others. The relationships we do have become self-focused, and more bitterness ensues. In order to bless others, we must recognize and avoid generalizations and determine to open our hearts and lives in order to become the person God wants us to be. Eph. 4:31, 32.
We must reject the value the offender placed upon us at the time of the injury. Often a child will internalize the value his parents or others in his life have placed upon him. For example, early sexual abuse appraises the child’s worth as cheap. Another example would be that sometimes a parent’s indifference toward their child can be mirrored later on in their adolescent’s indifference to opportunities.
Consider the following scenario. The parents of eight-year-old Jim are divorced. His dad promises to see him on Saturdays, but seldom comes. The child thinks, “I must not be worth anything, or else Dad would surely come.” In later years, he sinks into deep dejection whenever his preoccupied boss does not acknowledge him. The indifference Jim received from his dad is now projected onto his boss, and if he doesn’t take time to process his hurt and heal his wound, it will compromise his relationships with others and his job performance in the future.
Consciously rejecting the negative value that the abuser or indifferent parent has placed on our lives, and replacing it with God’s love, speeds forgiveness and healing. Jer. 31:3. A true story illustrates this profound point. Dorie was conceived out of wedlock, but her parents later married. She was not a cute child. With disgust her mother often hid her in a drawer or a closet. Finally, her mother couldn’t stand her anymore and sent her to an orphanage. Tragically, the director would take some of the girls down to a basement room and rape them. Dorie was one of them. She was slammed against the walls until she cooperated.
When she was 12 years old, a group of college students came and spoke about a loving God. Her hungry heart responded and clung to Him the best it could. More rejection and abuse followed throughout her teenage years. Nonetheless, in spite of all these experiences, Dorie has still found life worth living and rewarding because of God’s love. She now engages in helping wounded souls find healing. 2 Cor. 1:3, 4.
Recognize that real forgiveness trusts God’s justice instead of our own vengeance. God is love, but He is just and fair as well. Indeed, justice is an aspect of His love. A close study of the Psalms and the Old Testament prophets reveals a God who hates violence, deceit, unkindness, and oppression and will respond with justice in the last judgment. Psalm 11:5; Rom. 2:5, 6. In addition, He is now in the process of delivering those who trust Him from every trace of these attributes so that when He comes again, He can apply the finishing touch of immortality that will remove the scars these have caused.
As Dorie found, fellowship today with our Creator and Redeemer will truly sustain us through each day of suffering that we may experience during our brief lives here. His gentleness and grace are sufficient for each day’s need until that blessed tomorrow when the sweet promise will at last be realized: “There will be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” Rev. 21:4.
Condensed from “Free At Last! The Healing Process of Forgiveness” by Elizabeth Jane Hall and Poliana V. Vale, MD, Journal of Health and Healing, Jan. 2, 2018.
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