For many pastoral counseling clients, forgiveness is essential to their healing, even though they may not know it when they begin counseling. Forgiving her father who brutally abused her may free a young woman to experience joy. Forgiving his former wife who betrayed him may enable a single father to love another woman. Forgiving God for taking a child too young may allow a grieving mother to return to church. My own journeys of forgiveness have brought relief from anger and resentment.
Forgiveness is a central theme in both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus asks us not to be stingy with forgiveness but to forgive one another over and over, seventy times seven times. God’s forgiveness of us is intimately connected to our forgiveness of others. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” For some of us, forgiving may seem like an obligation, a pre-requisite for receiving God’s forgiveness. But the blessing of forgiving others is that it can free us from the burdens of anger, alienation and desire for revenge.
For centuries, forgiveness has been treated as a religious or spiritual matter. Only in the 1980s did forgiveness become a topic for psychological research and self-help books. Studies have focused on the benefits that forgiveness can have for our emotional and physical health. Even secular therapists have begun to explore questions of forgiveness with their clients.
Knowing that God wants us to forgive and that it might even be good for us doesn’t make it easy. In my own journey, learning what forgiveness is not encouraged me take the first steps toward forgiveness. Lewis Smedes’ book, The Art of Forgiving was tremendously helpful to me in this process. Smedes emphasized that forgiveness is not minimizing or denying the hurt we have experienced. Only by acknowledging and experiencing the depth of the pain we feel can we know the true nature of the wound we are forgiving.
Forgiveness is not dependent on the other person’s repentance. Sometimes the offender has died, disappeared or is unwilling to apologize. Waiting for an apology makes our healing dependent on the very person who hurt us in the first place. Forgiveness does not always mean reconciliation. The injured person does not have to submit to repeated wounding. Smedes wrote, “It takes one person to forgive. It takes two to be reunited.”
So what does constitute forgiveness? Again, Smedes has been helpful to me. Forgiving is a process; it usually takes time. A first step is to recognize the full humanity of the person who hurt us. Without excusing the behavior, we try to see the person as God might, with good qualities as well as faults. Forgiving also means letting go of our fantasies of revenge and our desire to get even, though not of our claim on justice. And we can know we are on the path to forgiveness when we discover that we have new, kinder feelings toward the person that hurt us.
Of great comfort to me was the realization that, although God challenges us to forgive each other, God doesn’t insist we do it on our own. When we are really stuck, we can pray, “God, I’m really hurt and angry. Right now, I can’t imagine feeling any other way. Please instill in me the desire to forgive and guide me along the way.” The healing that forgiveness brings is God’s gift to us.
In addition to Smedes’ book, I recommend Don’t Forgive Too Soon, by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn and Matthew Linn. For pastors and counselors, I recommend Robert Enright’s Helping Clients to Forgive.