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Of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is tough subject to tackle.  When one hears of the word, it conjures all kinds of feelings and thoughts.  Mostly, for those who struggle with it, it may bring feelings of stuck-ness, anger, agitation and defensiveness.  Forgiveness is a complex process that has baffled many for centuries.  Even in the days of Jesus his disciples struggled with the idea of forgiveness and asked him how many times one was to forgive an offender.  Jesus’ answer to the question was difficult to take even for those who choose to follow his teachings today.  In essence, Jesus answered the question by saying that we are to forgive liberally.  His answer seems unfair to the offended who may have suffered offenses over and over again.  So, people stop following the instruction of Jesus and hold in feelings of anger towards the offender which in turn become bitterness and can lead to all types of physical and psychological distress.

So, what is forgiveness?  I believe that forgiveness has been misunderstood and thus shunned by many because it seems to let the offender off the hook and the offended feels there is no recourse for the wrongs done to him/her.  According to the New Oxford English Dictionary (1998), forgiveness is to “stop feeling angry or resentful towards someone for an offense, flaw, or mistake.”  In my own words, forgiveness is choosing to let go of the need to punish a person for the wrongs they have done.  It is giving up the need to hold on to those feelings and understanding that choosing to let go of the feelings is not excusing the offender’s behavior.  The big phrase here is ‘to let go.’  It is a conscious choice one makes to give up the need to punish or wish punishment on the offender.             

Let me state what forgiveness is not.  Forgiveness is not a one time event but rather a process that continues to be a part of our daily lives.  It is not excusing offender’s behavior but consciously acknowledging wrongs done, cost paid for the wrong and then consciously deciding to let go feelings of hurt, anger, resentment and bitterness.  It is a skill that many of us have not mastered and one that is only mastered through practice.  Forgiveness is not a feeling but rather a conscious choice.  Therefore, it requires some hard work and commitment to the process.  Since we already said it is a skill, it requires that we practice it regularly in order to master it.  Forgiveness does not mean that one will forget the wrong done to him/her.  Contrary to what people say, it is possible for one to continue to remember the wrongs, even to feel some degree pain or hurt or anger, long after forgiveness has happened.  However, because by forgiving they decided to “let go” of the need to punish the offender, the remembering of the wrong does not bring with it strong negative feelings.            

In order for one to experience forgiveness, one  needs to realize that forgiving wrongs done to one is not for the offender’s benefit but for the benefit of the offended.  Forgiveness brings about the freedom to exercise Christian charity and to offer kindness to those who do not deserve it.  Many who have gone down the forgiveness road would agree that this feeling is priceless.  One of the consequences of un-forgiveness is projected anger or other negativity towards a person who has done nothing to deserve it.  Psychologists call this projection or displacement.  This is where one directs his/her anger towards a person who is not the offender.  For instance, the story is told of the man who is angry with his boss and comes home to beat up his wife.  His wife in response beats up the kid, the kid kicks the dog and the dog goes after the cat.  This is an exaggerated progression of anger that is displaced.  Of course we could deduce that this family is not going to keep standing for long.  Another example of displaced anger or blame is a man or woman who has a bad break-up in a romantic relationship and vows never to trust any other person of the opposite sex.  Unless one goes through the process of forgiving the wrongs perceived, their subsequent relationships will, more often than not, be unhealthy with blaming and mistrust.  If this person decides to seek to forgive the offenses towards him/her, he/she can experience freedom to love again.  The cost on their part would be to let go of the past and embrace the possibilities of tomorrow. 

In conclusion, I have put together simple steps to begin the process of forgiveness:  first, acknowledge the wrongs that were done to you.  Find a piece of paper and outline each of the wrongs you perceive this person did against you no matter how insignificant they may seem to you.  Be as specific as possible.  Secondly, identify how each wrong affected you emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually.  Also of importance is to identify what you lost due to the offenses.  At this point, you can also identify how the hurt, anger or pain caused by the offense keeps you from experiencing a fulfilling life.  This is what I term counting the cost of the offense.  Thirdly, identify your part, if any, in the offenses.  This step with help with personal growth, and ensure that you do not fall into the same negative behavior in the future.  Fourthly, read through the list and spend time allowing yourself to experience the negative feelings and mentally and verbally commit to let go of them.  If you are a religious person, the best way to do this is to pray through each of the wrongs and ask God to help you to forgive the offender.  Another way is to write a letter to the offender outlining each wrong and how each made you feel.  Then at the end of the letter, offer forgiveness to the person.  You do not have to mail the letter.  Actually, I suggest that you do not send the letter but keep it and read it again in a couple of days.  The idea here is to begin the process.  Finally, seek the help of your religious leader or professional counselor if your situation is difficult to handle by yourself or if the negative feelings are too intense.