When we think about forgiving someone who has wronged us, quite often we find it difficult not to dwell on the offense or our negative sense of the person. Consequently, we may also find it hard to let go of what they have done and finish the work of forgiveness. But what if the real work of forgiveness is about us and not them? What if the primary issue is not how to fix what went wrong, or how to make them see what they did, but how to repair what is going on inside our own soul as a result of what happened?
When we ruminate on the offense, or harbor anger and resentment, or treat the offender with contempt, we unwittingly give in to things that have a corrosive effect on our own soul. We effectively spend energy and effort practicing things that are actually harmful to us. For those reasons alone, forgiving someone is not so much about “letting them off the hook” as it is about getting free of the impact of the event and the toxic imaginations in our mind.
But what does that look like? How do we proceed? I think the most important thing we can do is slow down the process and break it into smaller pieces, because forgiveness is a work of grace in our own heart, and only when that is done does it become something we can offer the other person. So let’s slow this down as much as we can (without reaching the point of tedium!).
1. Notice the Rupture
First, we must be careful about ‘forgiving too soon’ as it were. When we trivialize how we were injured, we practice a form of denial that will eventually come back to bite us. It is like sweeping things under the carpet to keep from noticing how much we are hurt, and then waking up one day to realize we have accumulated too many resentments to deal with. We also do not want to merely say the words “I forgive you” simply because that is the “right” thing to do. That is actually an imitation of forgiveness, and not the real thing at all. It is truly alright to notice what went wrong. The psalmists did it all the time!
2. Intend to Restore
Without needing to have any portion of this resolved, we need to stop and intend to find a way to eliminate all ill will from our mind and heart. This means we will seek God for His help, and do the necessary work with Him in order to be free at last from anything that might linger on and become toxic within us because of this injury. Above all we want to be sure that we intend to move toward peace, both inward and outward, and not toward an escalation of the rupture.
3. Seek God’s Frame of Reference
How do you see this God? How do you see the other person involved? What can I count on from You? What am I missing? The more we see what God sees, the more our heart will move toward His heart for them.
4. Work Toward Full Release
This means letting go of any desire for revenge, our need to make them see what they did, our demands for restitution, and so on. In some cases, this might even mean bearing the cost of what they have done, such as replacing things that were broken, or suffering the loss of reputation. Of course, we may need God’s help at this point, because He is the expert at bearing the cost for what others have done.
5. Discern What This Means for the Relationship
While restoration of the relationship is ideal, I do not believe that all forgiveness will lead to reconciliations. We can hope that most might find their way to that place, and especially when those relationships have been significant in our life. But there is one important aspect of relationships in general that will be of great help here, namely, that forgiveness and reconciliation are entirely compatible with boundaries. In any case, if reconciliation is your goal, then we must begin that process as well.
Forgiveness is a work of grace, both for myself and for the person with whom I am seeking to resolve something. But as you can see from the above steps, the hard work has not so much to do with the other person as it does with coming to terms within our own heart and soul about what has happened and how we are to proceed.
One final word. There is also a time and place for us to fight for what is good and right. Nothing about our intentions to forgive or live in peace with others negates that fact. But this is a topic for another time (and a difficult one at that).