In my previous article, we learned that unforgiveness results from an emotional wound that becomes infected with feelings of bitterness, resentment, and revenge because of a delayed response in forgiving the wrongdoer. We also discussed the emotional, spiritual, mental, relational, and behavioral toll of unforgiveness. Forgiveness is not easy and many people find themselves stuck, unable to let go of the offense. This second article in this three part-series on forgiveness, discusses some of the obstacles to forgiveness.
Why Hold onto Unforgiveness?
People spend years trying to forgive, yet bitterness and offense keep resurfacing. Imagine someone with clenched fists holding onto pain, determined not to let it go. Why do people want to keep holding onto hurt? They do so because of the perceived “advantages.” People would not hold onto hurt if it did not somehow “benefit” them. For example, increased social attention might deter someone from seeking treatment for an illness. Here are a few reasons why people are unwilling to let go of unforgiveness:
- Unforgiveness is Payback
When you feel hurt, unforgiveness can be your way of hurting back. You have made yourself judge and have personally decided on the punishment that the wrongdoer deserves. You feel justified as you burn with anger while retelling your story to a friend, or when you are alone rehashing the offense. Every thought or word is like a piercing dagger that is thrust towards the person who wronged you. You may punish the offender with a cold attitude or distance, or you may use more overt threats, ridicule, accusations, and criticism to hurt back. But, in sum, unforgiveness is mankind’s way of trying to squeeze out of a person what is owed.
- Unforgiveness Makes Us Feel Powerful
A debt was created when you were wronged and an expectation of payment therefore emerges. Here we are at risk of developing a self-righteous attitude and a spirit of entitlement. You start to believe that the world owes you. The debt positions you in a “superior” role because you now have something to hold over the offender’s head. In other words, you can use the mistake in order to control and overpower the offender.
- Unforgiveness is a Weapon
You use people’s failures against them as ammo in order to win an argument, proving how bad they are and how good you are. You continue to count the wrongs done against you, storing them in your arsenal and ready to attack at any time. Each strike against you builds your case and is proof that they have no regard for your feelings.
- Unforgiveness is a Protective Mechanism
When we get hurt, we feel vulnerable and out of control. At the core of unforgiveness lies fear. We fear getting hurt again and the solution of unforgiveness is to harden the heart in order to escape pain. We start to build walls around the heart in anticipation of another attack. You might think to yourself, “I will not be duped again into thinking this person is nice, so I am writing them off. I will not be trampled upon again.”
Using unforgiveness as payback, power, weaponry, and protection might make you feel stronger and more in control, but these so-called “benefits” are only an illusion. Agreeing with unforgiveness will only lead to imprisonment because you are allowing the offender to control you.
Another obstacle to healing is misunderstanding what forgiveness truly means. Well intentioned people have misrepresented forgiveness in their efforts to try to help their hurting loved ones to forgive. Hurrying someone, or forcing people to forgive because “it’s the right thing to do” only creates more pain, resistance, and confusion. Here are some important clarifications of what forgiveness is not:
- Forgiveness does not minimize or deny your pain.
- Forgiveness does not condone the offense.
- Forgiveness does not mean that the offender deserves it.
- Forgiveness does not diminish the seriousness of the offense. Forgiveness does not necessitate forgetting. To forgive you actually need to be cognizant of what has happened to you in order to be able to make a choice to forgive. You know that you have forgiven when you remember what occurred but do not feel revenge or bitterness. However, over time you might find yourself forgetting.
- Forgiveness does not mean reconciliation. Reconciliation might be a by-product of forgiveness, but reconciliation requires the cooperation of two people, whereas forgiveness relies entirely upon you. Reconciliation might not be possible because the other person is unwilling or deceased, or because you have chosen to break off a toxic relationship.
- Forgiveness does not forgo boundaries. You are not to be a “door mat.” For example, forgiveness does not mean that you put yourself back into a position where you can be harmed again.
- Forgiveness does not mean that there are no consequences.
- Forgiveness does not mean that you do not report abuses or crimes. The Bible teaches that all governing authorities are instituted by God and are to be used to carry out his peace, order, and justice.
- Forgiveness is not a feeling. Forgiveness can be an emotional experience, but this is not a prerequisite for forgiveness.
- Forgiveness does not necessitate trust. You are not required to trust the person who has wronged you. Trust is an earned privileged and not a demand.
- Forgiveness is different to processing pain. Just because you forgave does not mean that the pain will go away instantly. However, forgiveness is a start on the road to healing.
- Forgiveness is not conditional. For example, it is not dependent on the other person’s apology.
We need to remember that those who struggle with unforgiveness are hurting and should not be ordered to forgive. Forgiveness is an intensely personal choice and can be an emotionally-charged topic. We must speak the truth in love and approach people with sensitivity, honor, and respect.
Christian Counseling to Break the Shackles of Unforgiveness
An offense can threaten our identity, making us feel weak, small, and insignificant when someone hurts us. As a result, people may use the “benefits” of unforgiveness to make them feel strong. Unforgiveness deceives people into thinking that forgiveness will also make them weak and will wreck their self-respect. However, choosing to forgive is a sign of great strength and confidence. Forgiveness empowers you. This choice takes you out of the role of a victim. By forgiving you are making the choice to no longer let the offender control you. As a Christian counselor, I have seen people discovering how the “benefits” of unforgiveness are no longer needed when they embrace forgiveness and discover their identity in Christ. The forgiving person realizes that no man can take your value away from you unless you let them do so. Christian counseling is a place where you can gain perspective and be intentional about your healing.
“Thoughtfulness” by lampelina, freeimages.com, Image ID 1196111; “woman, dscn0140.jpg,” courtesy of openphoto, morgueFile.com;