What does it mean to forgive?
One of the first things we typically think when we hear the word “forgive” is that it is a spiritual concept that is mostly out of reach for us mortal human beings. The bible talks about it, pastors implore us to forgive, we might believe that it is something that we “should” do but for the most part, most of us find it very difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish.
Not only do we not forgive, but we often turn situations of hurt or offense into justifications for attack or punishment.
But consider this. Forgiveness is not just a spiritual concept. It is a psychological process as well. In my view, forgiveness is an oft misunderstood process that sometimes gets lost in religious meaning.
If we can look at forgiveness in its pure and simple terms, I believe that we can find a way to accomplish forgiveness very simply, not always easy, but simply. Let’s talk about how we typically define forgiveness. Someone does something or commits an act that is offensive to us and we might feel a range of certain emotions in response to that act ranging from anger and resentment to hurt and rejection. The person has committed a transgression or crossed a boundary of what we might believe is right or acceptable. Or we might even transgress our own boundaries or standard of what we believe is right or acceptable and so we might hold a grudge even against ourselves which may result in guilt or shame.
That amounts to an unforgiven situation. We end up holding a grudge against another person or ourselves. And so to forgive means that we would no longer hold a grudge and we think that we are somehow doing this for the other’s benefit. Like I am doing this for you. When an unforgiven situation arises I submit there are three major obstacles to the accomplishment of forgiveness. One, if we talk about forgiving someone else, we say in effect, “If I forgive that person for what they did, somehow I might be seen as approving of what they did.” And so if the other did something terrible, I might say in so many ways that that person doesn’t deserve forgiveness. And not only do they not deserve forgiveness but they deserve punishment and retribution and in some situations maybe even death. So we would not want to be seen as approving of someone’s negative actions and so we don’t forgive.
A second obstacle to forgiveness is that we might get hurt again and so we say in so many ways, “What if I forgive and the other does something to hurt me again, so I better not forgive because I don’t want to get hurt again.” And so we hold on to our grudges or negative emotions as an unconscious way of protecting ourselves from hurt again. “I am going to hold on to these feelings so they won’t ever do that to me again” as if holding on is going to control another’s actions. And so we don’t forgive.
A third major obstacle is that we tell ourselves that we “should” forgive. We might think it is the spiritual thing to do, our religion might say that it is the right thing to do. And so when we find it difficult or impossible to forgive because of the reason’s just mentioned, we end up in conflict either feeling guilty because we are not forgiving or pretending to be forgiving but all along still hanging on to the negative emotions. And so we don’t forgive.
So with that said, I would like to offer a simple definition of forgiveness. Forgiveness is learning to let go or release negative emotions that impact our happiness and well-being. Why would we want to forgive? What do we gain by forgiving? What do we get out of it? Very simply we get our happiness and well-being back because when we really look at it, when we are angry, upset, holding a grudge or are bitter, we are not very happy campers. We may be right in our feelings and even self-righteous in our need to punish someone for their wrong doing, but the simple fact is that we are not happy. How can we be resentful and happy at the same time? I submit that it is impossible. So what do we have to gain by forgiveness? Very simply, we get our lives back and we return to happiness and well-being. When we can see that forgiveness is really for our own benefit then we have a motivation to forgive because we want to be happy. And when we can see that it is impossible to control another’s behavior then we can let go of our justification for hanging on to the negative emotions. So forgiveness can be simple but not always easy. The question always arises, “How do I respond to another’s trangressions?” Do I pretend that I don’t see it? Do I turn away from it? Do I ignore it? These are questions that we can’t ignore and there are no simple answers. But if we find ourselves hanging on to negative emotions we can always make the choice to let them go.