I’ve been pondering a lot about forgiveness and what that actually looks like.
Of course, there’s the old adage “forgive and forget.” But that’s kind of hard, isn’t it? It’s really hard to uphold forgiveness and then pretend like the hurt never happened. It’s a nice goal, mind you, but in reality, it’s a lot easier said than done.
I think we often consider forgiveness to be a one and done kind of deal. The person who did you wrong apologizes, you say “I forgive you,” and that’s it. You’re done. You’ve forgiven them! Go you.
Or, maybe they never apologize, but you decide to forgive them anyway. In your heart, you whisper “I forgive you,” and that’s it. You’re done. You’ve forgiven them! Go you.
What if it’s more of a process than that?
… the finality of our forgiveness is rarely one and done. Instead, it’s often one and undone, because as hard as it is to forgive, it’s even harder to remain forgiving.T.W.S. hunt, the way of faith
Yes, you can have that moment of “I forgive you,” but what follows is a series of other forgivings as the bubbling of pain rises to the surface again. Sometimes, even after forgiving, it’s easy to slip back into the comfort of our pains and to unravel the forgiveness we’ve already given.
Because when we feel that forgiveness slip, we think we must have done forgiveness wrong. We might bring it up again: “I’m still upset about how you wronged me!” We may let it fester as bitterness: “I’ll never truly forgive them.” And so we are stuck in the cycle of unforgiveness and, well, more pain.
(Remember the difference between pain and suffering? Read a previous post about that here).
It’s important to probe our pain. Feel it. Experience it. Acknowledge it. Embrace it and then let it go. This is not something that can always happen in the span of a few moments. Or even days. It could takes weeks, months, even years.
It is so easy for me to cling to bitterness. Sometimes forgiveness feels like the absolute weakest thing you can do. Forgiving seems like letting them off easy or pretending that how you were wronged doesn’t matter.
It does matter. But bitterness doesn’t hurt the other person: it hurts you.
I know this all too well. I cling to my bitterness and let the venom come out in my words and my ranting, and the only person it affects is, well, me and the people who have to listen to me. I can never seem to fully move on when I hold tight to that bitterness.
I was talking to my counselor some time ago about all this and how hard it is for me to forgive. Sometimes forgiveness leads to grief because you can forgive someone but that doesn’t mean the relationship is restored. You can forgive someone without letting them back into your life. You grieve the relationship that was once there or that you wish was ever there. We all know about the stages of grief, but what stuck out to me in talking with her is she described two states in this scenario: grief and acceptance. And in the middle is a wide, deep chasm. This is where bitterness can live. This is where I find myself stuck, looking for a way to the other side. It’s so easy to get trapped in that chasm, somewhere between grief and acceptance.
I keep telling myself: “I can’t change that it happened. I can only change how much it will continue to affect my life and my future.”
So I say, “I accept you and I cannot change you. I accept the past and I cannot change the past. I accept that this is how things are and I accept that sometime that may change.”
The healing process requires us to grieve but also make our way to acceptance: acceptance of the other person, acceptance of your lack of control over their actions. Part of healing is accepting that the relationship may never change. Part of healing is letting go of our feeble sense of control and accepting it for what it is.
This applies to forgiving yourself, too: it’s so easy to beat ourselves up for all of our real or perceived failures, the ways we don’t measure up. But practice forgiveness of yourself. Say it out loud. I forgive myself for yelling at my child. I forgive myself for gaining the weight back. I forgive myself for being a lazy employee, a bad boyfriend, a lousy sister.
And then stay forgiving.
Forgiveness is the bravest thing we can do. To feel our pain instead of ignoring it, to forgive someone, and to remain forgiving.