“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.”

~Louis Smedes

For years I had been consumed with venom towards a special enemy. To protect the person involved I won’t go into the specific details. Our family had been generous to a woman, Jane, who was going through a hard time. After a long period it began to feel like our generosity was being abused. We sensed the woman wasn’t moving on with her life and began taking advantage of our offer. When I confronted her she laughed and scoffed. Then she moved on. For years I held onto my resentment. I was full of rage and hate, wishing we had never shown kindness to this woman.

I had hoped I would never see this person again but after many years of not seeing her, she was working at an establishment where I would see her several times a week. I knew that it wasn’t a coincidence — of all the places she could be, God had placed her there. I hated having to see her and dreaded going near the office. I had a knot in the pit in my stomach whenever I thought about her. But then I began dreaming of forgiveness, weird dreams that filled me with peace. Though I didn’t want to forgive her, I began to hope that I would want to forgive; but I knew I could not do this in my human power, so I started to pray. After several painful weeks, we were camping with some friends, one of whom was our pastor. Surely, he of all people would empathize with my pain. Instead, he said, “Lucille, I think God is leading you to a place of forgiveness.”

I continued to pray. One afternoon I walked into the office across from my enemy, and there sat an old acquaintance. We began catching up and he mentioned that he was learning what a blessing it was to suffer for the name of Christ. I thought of Jane (whom I had just seen) and laughed. Rather than continuing on with his story, he stopped short, looked at me and asked what was so funny. I ended up telling him the whole story. He said, “Lucille, do you believe God can speak to us in our dreams?” “Sure,” I responded.

He pulled a small Bible out of his pocket and turned to a few passages about dreams. Suddenly, in that moment, I felt God had been compelling me to seek reconciliation in my dreams, and I told this friend so. I truly wanted to forgive but didn’t know how, and in this moment I realized I had the support to do it. He said he would stay there and pray. His supportive presence and God’s Spirit gave me courage as I rushed across the hall towards my offender, fearful that I might change my mind.

Shaking, I walked up to Jane and asked if I could speak with her privately. She looked around nervously and moved to the leather couch. I got on my knees, took her hands, and said, “I’m sorry for the trouble between us.” I didn’t ask her to forgive me—that would be manipulative. This wasn’t about her; this was about getting my heart right; whatever she chose to do was between her and God. “Jane, I want to know you are doing well. Are you happy?” Newly married, she said she was very happy. Then she asked about my children and apologized for the way things had turned out.

After that incident, I was able to release my all my anger at her and dread of seeing her. If I crossed her path, I could simply smile and wave, wishing her well and meaning it. God set me free from consuming thoughts of hate, vengeance, and retaliation. I’ve heard it said that in ancient Roman times, if you murdered someone, the dead person’s body was strapped to you until it rotted away. Imagine the relief that would come if that putrid carcass were cut free. That’s a picture of how I felt after forgiving this person. It was over.

Emotional and Physical Impact of Unforgiveness

In clinical literature, unforgiveness is conceptualized as a stress reaction that has dire mental and physical consequences for the one who is offended and stuck in a place of unforgiveness. This kind of stress involves decreases in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. Under stress our ability to think weakens. The body also reacts by increasing respiration, blood pressure, and heart rate. It decreases digestion, growth, and sexual hormones. In addition, unforgiveness and anger have been linked to a weakened immune system.

When people are hurt they are likely to react with anger, resentment, hostility, bitterness, hatred, anger, and/or fear. They try to find ways to narrow the gap by demanding apologies or restitution, renarrating (telling a different story or finding a different meaning), trying self-soothing or avoidance techniques, seeking personal or divine revenge or legal or political justice. Creative people find many ways to move forward—one of the most powerful ways does seem to be the act of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a complex topic and may involve unique steps for the individuals involved. As I examined my own forgiveness history, I noticed I arrived at forgiveness and moved forward in various ways. One time I had to seek legal restitution, in another I had to seek counseling, and in another I had to have someone stand in the gap while I did the forgiving behavior.

One of my friends had a wonderful way of arriving at forgiveness. She describes an incident that happened to her and her response: “Once when we got ripped off by an unscrupulous business, I could not let it go until I found out when the employees and boss had their weekly meeting and showed up with a homemade platter of cookies and a gracious note. They never apologized, and now I couldn’t even tell you the name of that business. I did something nice for them and walked away.”

Rush to Forgive

Unfortunately, in the church we often rush people to forgive before they do the critical emotional work. This is spiritual abuse. Hurt people must tell their story in a safe place. They need a place to express anger, for anger is the alarm that shows a boundary was crossed. Hurt people need to be allowed to say, “This was not okay!” They need a witness, a stand-in for Christ, to say, “I’m so sorry this happened to you.” They need someone who will hurt with and maybe even cry for them. They don’t need an explanation or a platitude at this point. In fact, I believe those further wound people. We have all heard people who were clobbered with Romans 8:28 or told, “God must have a reason.” It is only after this work is done that people should be encouraged to forgive, for it is the release valve for those who’ve been hurt. In forgiving they are canceling the debt, essentially saying, “You don’t owe me anymore.”

Benefits of Forgiveness

The Bible implores us to forgive, but even science supports the idea that forgiveness is a strategy for reducing the ill effects of unforgiveness. Forgiveness has been defined as a reduction in negative emotion toward an offender. It is conceptualized as replacing the negative emotions with positive ones such as empathy, sympathy, compassion, or love.

If a pharmaceutical company developed a pill that could lower heart rate and blood pressure, decrease stress, improve sleep, decrease fatigue, strengthen spirituality, reduce depression symptoms, decrease medication usage, and decrease physical symptoms, we would all buy stock in that company. With the advent of brain imaging, researchers are able to see various parts of the brain light up when people forgive, especially areas that regulate emotional responses, moral judgments, perceptions of physical pain, and decision-making.

Forgiveness is that drug, and the benefits are much more than what I just listed. In addition to the list above, forgiveness has been shown to promote positive thoughts, feelings, and behavior toward the offender. The benefits of forgiveness spill over to positive behaviors toward others outside of the relationship. Forgiveness is associated with more volunteerism, donating to charity, and other altruistic behaviors.

When people are able to forgive, they are empowered. Viktor Frankl, Corrie Ten Boom, and Anne Frank showed they were stronger than the most unimaginable evil. No one could take away his or her capacity for hope, kindness, and faith. Forgiveness is ultimately a matter of choice. Better health, less stress, more power, happier relationships. Don’t think about your enemy, think about you. This is a matter of self-care.

Myths Related to Forgiveness

There are so many myths about forgiveness. For instance, some people believe that if you forgive, you are saying that you have to be involved in the offender’s life. Forgiveness is about the past, but reconciliation is about the future. Keep the time sequence separate. You may not be able to reconcile with someone until they own their transgression, but you can always forgive someone. Forgiveness is not necessarily about the other person. It is about moving towards your own healing

At this point you may be saying, “Well it’s not fair. How can someone be allowed to hurt me and then I have to be the one to forgive?” My answer is, you’re right, it’s not fair; but the painful words or events already happened. You can’t undo them. What’s not fair is for you to suffer even more physical and emotional pain than you have to. The only thing that will fix it is for you to forgive. Some have said that harboring bitterness and unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. When you forgive, you are the one who benefits.

Maybe you believe the other person has to say sorry in order you to forgive. This is another myth. The perpetrator may be gloating or unrepentant. Forgiveness is still the goal and still possible. Obviously the greater the offense, the longer and more difficult the journey to forgiveness seems to be. I don’t want to sound insensitive, but the people who move forward seem to ask the question, “How?” rather than, “Why?” They pour their energy into something that makes the world better rather than surrendering to bitterness.

Another myth says we should say the words and move on. Yet, forgiveness is a journey. I picture forgiveness like an onion. We pray for and move through it one layer at a time. You can see how my forgiveness happened in the story I began this chapter with: first, the angst created in my life; then the presence of dreams; then the help of others that became a scaffold as I moved closer to the task. Even when you think you’ve forgiven, there will most likely be times of recurring hurt or anger; but it will lessen each time, and you will move through it more quickly.

Another myth is that forgiveness is for sissies. If you’ve ever accomplished the task of forgiveness, you know nothing could be further from the truth. Forgiveness is one of the most difficult task humans can do. In fact, I believe that in many cases we cannot do it without divine help. Sometimes we don’t even have the ability to pray for the desire to ask God to help us want to forgive. But we can pray like this: “God, soften my heart, and make me want to begin asking you how to begin forgiving this person.” Sometimes, we just submit the smallest amount in prayer, and God creates opportunities for the rest to happen.

Forgiving Yourself

Like many people, I could accept God’s forgiveness but I could not forgive myself. My pastor and I recently had a conversation about this, and he said he believes the church is filled with people who can’t forgive themselves. Remember, being unforgiving, even to yourself, takes a huge toll on your physical and emotional health. Though I had committed my life to God, I was stuck with the inability to forgive myself for my past. I told my pastor that what helped me finally forgive myself was being able to tell my story and have insight into why I did the things I did. Understanding my reactions to life’s pain wasn’t a way to minimize my sin but to say, “I can see why I chose that route. I hadn’t learned a better way to cope.” I could begin to offer myself the grace I tried to extend to others.

Another reason I couldn’t forgive myself is that I had the perfection bar set high. When I didn’t reach the bar, I saw myself as all bad. When I did reach it, I saw myself as all good. By talking about my dark side, I began to realize every person has a good and a bad side. Just because we don’t show the dark side to others or ourselves doesn’t mean it’s not there. My definition of mental health is when people can easily admit to their strengths and deficits; pathology is when people can only see one side: all good or all bad. Now I am able to goof up, own my mistakes, admit to them, even laugh about some of them. I also talk gracefully to myself: “You are a human being having a human experience.”

Finally, I can reflect on my family of origin. I see now that I made a lot of unconscious leaps and filled in a lot of blanks when I didn’t have enough information to process what was happening to me. My mom’s death caused me to believe that people who loved me would always leave. Because I couldn’t get my dad’s loving nurture, I told myself it was because I was bad. When life hurt I told myself it was because I was evil to my core. Those were summations I concluded and that I daily scanned my world to confirm.

In the safety of a good counselor’s office, I had a corrective emotional experience. What was reflected back to me was, “You are worthy of love.” “I am so sorry for your losses,” and “You are not the sum of your mistakes.” As God’s kind of love flowed towards me, I began to love and forgive myself. I could not have forgiven myself alone—it had to be in relationship with others.

One time my counselor said, “Lucille, the only one who can throw stones doesn’t (referring to Christ). He said, “You daily pick up the biggest rock and beat yourself with it.” Later that afternoon, I picked up the biggest, most jagged rock I could find and launched it into the lake. As the water splashed back over me, I let self-forgiveness begin to wash over me.

I want to add a caution here. If you sense in any way that the person you are telling your story to is shaming towards you, find another counselor immediately. There is a type of counseling that uses shaming as a technique for helping people grow. I interacted with two supervisors who followed this practice. I can tell you, shaming does not help shame-based people; it makes them want to crawl back into the dark. I’m not saying you won’t feel shame as you tell your story, but I think it is extremely abusive for your counselor to purposely make you feel ashamed. (Shaming is different from confrontation – sometimes counselors do confront clients who are causing harm to themselves or others.)

Having psychological knowledge and insight helps me to help others to forgive. For instance, children are born with one job: they need to attach to their caregivers. If caregivers are less than perfect they still need to find a way to attach. So, they take the badness onto themselves because it is easier to believe they can try to behave better than it is to consider that the world (or Mom and Dad) might not be all good. Children honestly believe they can make Mom and Dad love them if they keep their rooms clean and promise to be better. One of the ways I help clients forgive themselves is to show that maybe they took on badness and shame that was never theirs in the first place. I help them gain insight to the fact that even though parents didn’t do the job of loving and nurturing, maybe they weren’t bad after all. I don’t want clients to stay in blame towards parents but to instead see that their parents, too, may not have gotten the love and nurturance they should have.

I also teach people that the brain in crises reacts one of two ways: fight or flight. The brain makes people run or stay, but it doesn’t give them the option or time to think it over. People will beat themselves up for not doing something heroic like standing up to an abusive father or letting go of their friend in the water after the helicopter crash. I teach them that the brain literally short-circuits the prefrontal cortex – the thinking part of the brain – and loops into the limbic (emotional), reacting part of the brain. I tell them, “Whatever your brain did in that moment was what it knew to do. It couldn’t have done anything else.”

Reframing is another tool counselors use to help people forgive themselves and others. For instance, I might say something like, “Your coping technique at that time probably kept you alive. But now you don’t need it any more.” Or, “You say your parents only gave you fifty cents for your birthday…but in 1930 that was a lot of money.” Of course, I’m not going to reframe something that isn’t true or is not helpful to the client.

I hope I’ve convinced you that forgiveness towards yourself and others is a powerful self-care tool. Forgiveness frees you to live your life well.

Tips for Forgiving:

*Find someone to help you process your story. I believe anger and grief are necessary ingredients before forgiveness happens.

*Read books about forgiveness. Lewis Smedes, Henry Cloud, John Townsend, and Dave Stoop all have written books dealing with the psychological side of forgiveness

*Realize forgiveness takes time, and it comes in layers.

*Do tangible rituals: write out a list and burn it; write a letter to yourself or your offender. Read them out loud to someone safe, but don’t send them.

*If you are not ready to forgive, offer yourself grace.

*Continue telling yourself that forgiveness is the gift you will give yourself.

*Remind yourself you cannot undo what happened. Instead of asking yourself “why” ask yourself, “How” (How can I use this experience….?)

*Consider what Christ has done for your own sin.

*Ask God to begin helping you want to forgive.

*Speak gracefully to yourself and others.

*Read the list of affirmations from the chapter on Emotional Self-Care

*Watch movies about forgiveness: Heaven’s Rain, Amazing Grace, Les Miserables, An Unfinished Life, End of the Spear