(This article is based on the work of Fred Luskin, author of Forgive for Good.)Many of you may be familiar with the idea of forgiveness, but when you really stop to think about how to forgive, you are at a loss.
Why should you even consider this topic of forgiveness?
- It sounds too difficult.
- I don’t think my offender deserves my forgiveness.
- I would be letting my offender off the hook or somehow condoning what occurred.
Common Myths about Forgiveness
Let’s first dispel some common myths about forgiveness:
- If I choose to forgive my offender, I am communicating that the wrong did not hurt me or that the words or actions were okay.
- If I choose to forgive my offender, I will have to be in a continued relationship with him or her.
- Forgiving means I have to forget something that was very painful.
- If I have truly forgiven, I will no longer have sad or angry feelings.
Forgiveness is not really about the offender, it is about you. It is about you taking back your power and the responsibility for how you feel. Forgiveness is a choice. You can actually learn how to forgive – it’s a trainable skill. Everyone can learn to forgive.
Benefits of Forgiveness
What are the benefits of forgiving?
- It gives you a feeling of peace.
- It promotes your healing.
- It can improve your physical health.
- It can improve your mental health.
- It will open up new possibilities for your life.
- It will allow you to direct energy once used by unforgiveness into areas of your life that will be more rewarding.
- It is very pleasing to your Heavenly Father.
The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
The following parable is from Matthew 18:21-35 and sheds light on the Bible’s perspective on how to forgive:
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“At this, the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger, his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” — Matthew 18:21-35
3 Elements of Resentment
There are three core elements that undergird any long-lasting hurt or resentment:
- An inflated sense of being personally wronged.
- Blaming another person for your intense feelings.
- An accompanying story of the offense that you often rehearse over and over in your mind. As you ruminate on that story, it fuels your resentment and hurt.
When a person’s expectations are dashed, or they do not get what they want, they may not deal well with this. Then they take this offense or disappointment and start to give it mental space to grow. Every time you rehearse the thoughts in your mind, you actually strengthen them and make these thought patterns harder to break.
Every time you retell the story of the offense, you are actually harming yourself physically.
People who refuse to forgive experience more stress. Stress is associated with many of the worst health issues that are common in our world. Unforgiveness and the associated stress can increase your chances of having a heart attack or cancer.
It can negatively impact blood pressure, your immune system and cause muscle tension. Scientific studies have confirmed that feeling more positive emotions such as care, compassion, faith, and gratitude have a positive impact on the cardiovascular system. People who are hopeful are able to deal better with pain and some types of illness.
When people just imagine forgiving – improvements are evident in their cardiovascular, muscular and nervous systems. As people learn to forgive, they begin to notice improvements in their emotional and psychological health.
A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. – Proverbs 17:22
Questions to Ask Yourself
Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if you are hanging on to an offense:
- Do I spend a lot of time talking about what happened to me?
- Do I dwell on thoughts of what happened?
- Do I spend more time focusing on what I lost or how I was hurt rather than on who and what is good in my life?
- When I think of the offense, do I have intense feelings about it?
- Do I feel that intensity anywhere in my body?
As humans, you have an amazing ability to think about your thinking. This ability is called metacognition. This is a great ability to have as it means that you can choose what you focus your attention on.
Most of you would agree that every thought that our mind generates is not worthy of your attention. Many thoughts are, at a minimum, not helpful and often are harmful and destructive. You can shift attention off a negative thought much in the same way you change our car radio to another station or close a tab on our computer.
The process of forgiveness can be learned. It involves undoing each part of your offense or grievance story. Forgiveness brings a feeling of peace as you learn to take the offense less personally. Instead of being a victim of the offense, you actually become the hero of a new story – the forgiveness story. The new forgiveness story does not change the past, but it does change the present. Even though you have been hurt or wounded in the past, you are choosing to let go of the hurt and suffer less.
9 Steps for How to Forgive
Based on Fred Luskin’s research, here are nine steps to help you learn how to forgive:
- Know exactly how you feel about what happened and be able to articulate what about the situation is not okay. Then, tell a trusted couple of people about your experience.
- Make a commitment to yourself to do what you have to do to feel better. Forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else.
- Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation with the person that hurt you or condoning of their action. What you are after is to find peace. Forgiveness can be defined as the “peace and understanding that come from blaming that which has hurt you less, taking the life experience less personally, and changing your grievance story.”
- Get the right perspective on what is happening. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts and physical upset you are suffering now, not what offended you or hurt you two minutes – or ten years – ago. Forgiveness helps to heal those hurt feelings.
- At the moment you feel upset practice a simple stress management technique to soothe your body’s flight or fight response.
- Give up expecting things from other people, or your life, that they do not choose to give you. Recognize the “unenforceable rules” you have for your health or how you or other people must behave. Remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, peace, and prosperity and work hard to get them.
- Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met than through the experience that has hurt you. Instead of mentally replaying your hurt seek out new ways to get what you want.
- Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, and thereby giving the person who caused you pain power over you, learn to look for the love, beauty, and kindness around you. Forgiveness is about personal power.
- Amend your grievance story to remind you of the heroic choice to forgive.
A True Story of Forgiveness
Here is one of the most remarkable stories of forgiveness I have ever read. It’s an account of Corrie Ten Boom facing one of the guards in the concentration camp where she and her sister were held:
The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.
And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones.
It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!
Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbrück concentration camp where we were sent.
Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”
And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course – how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women? But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me. “But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein” – again the hand came out – “will you forgive me?”
And I stood there – I whose sins had every day to be forgiven – and could not. Betsie had died in that place – could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me, it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do. For I had to do it – I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”
I knew it not only as a commandment of God but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war, I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
And still, I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion – I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.
“Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart.”
If you find you are struggling to move past hurt and resentment, please consider reaching out to a Christian therapist who can help guide you through the process. You really can find peace.
Get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. – Ephesians 4:31-32
“Forgiveness”, Courtesy of Felix Koutchinski, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sad Man”, Courtesy of Ben White, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Love at All Costs”, Courtesy of Gus Moretta, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Dandelion”, Courtesy of Dawid Zawila, Unsplash.com, CC0 License