Thursday, July 5, 2012

Forgiveness

Q. I am feeling very angry and hurt.  I am struggling with forgiving someone in my life whom I trusted and never thought would do something so terrible to me. I am a believer and know that I should forgive this person, but how can I forgive someone who has really hurt me?

A.  I am so sorry to hear about your hurt. When someone that we trusted and put faith in lets us down and then goes even further to hurt us, it is a terrible amount of pain.  Thinking about forgiveness can be very difficult and can seem almost impossible.  But there is hope, and there are steps you can take to help yourself heal and arrive at a place of forgiveness.

Dr. Everett Worthington, a popular Christian writer on forgiveness, offers some very practical step-by-step guidelines when attempting to work through forgiveness.  Something important to note about Dr. Worthington is that he is not just writing from a clinical or research perspective.  This is a man who endured a great deal of hurt and trauma from the murder of his mother one New Year's Day.  He not only writes as a very gifted clinician, but also as someone who has experienced a horrific hurt that he had to process.  Ultimately, to his credit, he experienced forgiveness toward the man who brutally killed his mother.

First, let's explore what forgiveness is not.  Forgiveness is not saying that what the person did is okay.  It also does not have to include reconciling with the person (however, if that is the end result and it is safe, that is a much  better outcome).  Remind yourself of these truths when you make the choice to forgive.  Oftentimes, we think that by forgiving someone we are saying what they did is okay or we are condoning their behavior.  That is simply not true.  Think about God's forgiveness towards us as believers.  If by forgiving us God was saying our sin was okay, that would not measure up with the character of God.  We know that God does forgive us but does not condone our sin.  We, as children of God, are called to do the same.  Remember the Lord's Prayer, "...forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12).

Next, let's look at our motivation to forgive.  Oftentimes when we are experiencing hurt, we need to remember why we are choosing to forgive this person.  I want to offer you two motivations for forgiveness: 1) The Lord requires it of us, and 2) it is a much healthier choice to forgive than to stay angry.  Dr. Worthington says in his book Forgiveness and Justice, "Christians do  not forgive because it is easy -- it isn't.  Christians forgive because it is right and because we are responding to God's love and forgiveness to us."  We forgive because we first were forgiven by our Heavenly Father.  "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32). There is also research that shows if you hold on to resentment, it actually makes you physically more sick than if you were to let go of the resentment and hurt you are experiencing.  So not only are we commanded -- and that is motivation enough -- but there is actual, physical benefit to forgiveness. 

Lastly, is it important to note that forgiveness is a choice.  I like to say there are two types of forgiveness: positional and progressive.  Dr. Worthington calls these types decisional and emotional.  Positional forgiveness is the choice that you make to forgive who hurt you.  This is a cognitive decision.  This is you making up your mind that you do not want to hold on to the hurt this person has caused you to experience.  You are giving up any right to exact revenge or hold on to resentment. Progressive forgiveness is the letting go and working toward the emotional healing of the hurt.  This is actually letting go of the negative feelings you have toward that person and replacing them with neutral nor positive feelings.  

Dr. Worthington employs an acronym in his work toward forgiveness.  He uses the word REACH to show us a five step approach on how to work toward forgiveness: (Taken from Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope by Dr. Everett Worthington)
  • Recall the hurt -- You must work on becoming familiar with your story and work on lowering your anxiety when you are retelling the story.  Once you can retell the story without it overtaking you emotionally, it no longer has power over you. 
  • Empathize -- This one is hard.  He is asking you to see the wrongdoing from the other person's perspective.  Dr. Worthington encourages you to think about why someone might do what they did to you.  Again, remember, it is not about condoning, but about understanding the person who hurt you.
  • Altruistic gift of forgiveness -- You make the choice to forgive the person without an expectation of anything in return.  Remember, you can only change yourself, not someone else.  Forgiveness is more about you than it about the other person.  You are freely offering your forgiveness to them no matter what their response might be. 
  • Commit publicly to forgive -- This can include telling a group of friends about your decision, writing a letter to the offender, or telling a close, trusted friend that you are choosing to forgive and move on. 
  • Hold onto forgiveness -- There will be times when your hurt resurfaces.  Remind yourself that you have worked through this in the past and you have made a choice to forgive.  Continue to leave the hurt and walk away from it.  
If you find that you are not able to work through the above steps or that you are feeling stuck in unforgiveness,  you might need to seek out some additional help.  Sometimes, we need a neutral person to help us sort out our feelings.  This could be a pastor, trusted friend or a counselor.  Whomever you choose, make sure they are a safe person that you can trust and can depend on to help you through your hurt.

Good luck on your journey toward forgiveness.  It is a hard road with many bumps, but it is a road worth traveling for your emotional health.