I was blow-drying my hair when her face popped into my mind. With it came the swirl of emotions–anger, hurt, frustration, guilt. I started rehearsing my list of I-should-have-said and litany of next-time-I’m-gonna’s. Then I stopped.
God, what gives? I already forgave her, didn’t I? Why can’t I just let this go?
Anyone else been there? We know we’re supposed to forgive. Jesus said so. If we take the Word of God seriously, we can’t escape the scriptural injunction that we are supposed to forgive those who sin against us.
So when we are wounded, we try to forgive. We try to forget about it, push it down, move on as if nothing happened, and just let it go. Seventy times seven and all that. But it’s hard. And when we’re tired, stressed, or that same person spreads their mess over our lives again, we find ourselves back at square one.
We know we’re supposed to forgive. We just don’t always know how.
What we have to understand is that forgiveness is a work of the Spirit. Real forgiveness–the kind that heals us and sets us free–is a matter of relying on God’s power and not our own. We struggle to forgive because we think it’s something we have to do. It’s not. Forgiveness is a matter of letting God’s power work in us.
As I see it, there are five steps to forgiveness.
- Acknowledge the pain.
- Invite Jesus in to heal.
- Ask God to help us see this situation and this person as he does.
- Relinquish our right to revenge and trust God to deal rightly.
- Pray blessings over the person who has hurt us.
Forgiveness Begins by Acknowledging the Pain
We know the steps of the dance by heart.
I’m sorry. Oh, no big deal. It didn’t matter.
I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. What? It’s fine, really. It didn’t bother me.
We have the misconception that forgiving means what happened didn’t hurt or didn’t matter. That’s wrong. We don’t need forgiveness because it didn’t matter. We need to forgive because it does. Forgiveness is not saying “no worries–it didn’t matter.” Forgiveness is saying “Yes, that was wrong and it hurt. But I choose to forgive you and through God’s grace we can move on.”
If we’re going to forgive, we have to forgive something and we have to know what that something is. That’s why forgiveness has to begin with acknowledging and defining the pain. We need to be able to run our hands around the edges of the hole and identify it for what it is. Betrayal. Fear. Grief. Loss. We can do that by asking ourselves three questions.
- What happened?
- How do I feel about what happened?
Our process of forgiveness starts by being able to describe what happened. It might look something like this:
She gossiped about me.
He lied to me.
They stole from me.
He insulted me.
She embarrassed me.
What happened? Forgiveness starts by identifying the wound. If you want to forgive someone, you need to know what you’re forgiving them for.
But what happened is only part of the equation. Forgiveness doesn’t just take into account what happened. It also encompasses how we responded emotionally. What they did matters, but how you felt about it also matters. To forgive, we need to be able to identify what we felt and why we felt it. It might be expressed like this:
I felt betrayed because I thought she was my friend and she spread lies about me.
I felt hurt because his actions made it seem like our relationship didn’t matter.
I felt powerless because I couldn’t do anything to stop it from happening.
I felt foolish because everyone was laughing at me.
I felt sad because I realized he was only using me.
The “why” question is important because it forces us to dig down into our emotional responses. For example, anger is really a secondary emotion. If I’m angry at an event, it’s because of something has happened to trigger my anger. Maybe I was hurt, embarrassed, threatened, or accused, and now I’m angry because of what I felt in the first place. That “why” question may also help us identify that the real issue is not this particular inciting incident but past experiences or situations that were emotionally triggered by the current situation. If part of my emotional response is that the arrogant guy at work reminds me of a junior high bully or that a church conflict reminds me of things that happened in my family of origin, I need to deal with that deeper unresolved pain so that it doesn’t keep leeching into my present experiences.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean what happened doesn’t matter. Forgiveness means that it does, but we are looking to God as the healer of our hearts and trusting him to bring justice where it is needed. We begin by acknowledging the pain. We move on by inviting Jesus in to heal.
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