We’ve all been hurt before. It’s an inevitable part of living in a broken world with broken people. Maybe our spouse disappointed us, our friend rejected us, our boss underappreciates us, or our family members mistreated us. Whatever the particular situation, when these injuries occur, it’s natural to feel frustrated, angry, and even vengeful. Our minds replay the offense over and over. We may try to ignore it or slough it off and tell ourselves it’s not a big deal even though it is. We may think about what we could have said or what we wish we had done. We judge the person who hurt us, wishing we could get them back so they could understand our pain. Even though we know we ought to forgive, it’s often the last thing we want to do. To make matters worse, our culture has skewed our understanding of forgiveness, making it seem much more like an oppressive obligation rather than a transformational opportunity. Here are five common misconceptions that keep us trapped in an emotionally draining state of unforgiveness.
1. Forgiveness is Unnecessary
When I bring up the topic of forgiveness with people, I commonly get the response, “Why should I? They’re the ones that did something wrong!” It seems unjust that the “victim” is the one who has to do the work of forgiving, right? However, even more unfair are the physical, emotional, and spiritual costs of living with unforgiveness in addition to the pain of the initial offense.
There’s a growing body of research that describes the many negative effects of chronic anger and resentment. For instance, one study found that people who only forgive conditionally (when offenders are sorry for what they’ve done) are likely to die sooner than people who practice unconditional forgiveness (Toussaint, Owen, & Cheadle, 2011). Another study found that unforgiveness tends to produce higher activation of your fight-or-flight system, which negatively affects one’s sleep quality (Lawler et al., 2005), memory (Toussaint et al., 2014), and immune response (Harrison, 2011). In fact, holding onto a grudge has been shown to put people at higher risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and chronic fatigue (Lawler et al., 2003).
Harboring resentment and unforgiveness in our hearts also takes a toll on our spiritual lives. Jesus taught his disciples, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mk. 11:25). Have you ever noticed that it feels really difficult to feel connected and intimate with God when there’s anger in your heart towards another person? The Apostle John wrote that it’s impossible for someone to love God and hate another person because people are made in God’s image and likeness (1 Jn. 4:20). Therefore, holding onto unforgiveness robs people of being able to experience the fullness of God’s love and deep intimacy with him.
2. Forgiveness is Approval
Growing up, whenever someone did something to hurt my feelings, I remember my teacher/parent pulling us aside and walking us through a forced interaction in which the offender is instructed to mutter an apology, to which I am to reply, “It’s okay.” It didn’t really matter whether either of us meant what we said, as long as we made it sound genuine enough to end the conversation and move on.
Forgiveness is not as simple and easy as my teachers made it seem. It’s common to think: But what if it’s not okay? What if I don’t think the other person really understands what they’ve done wrong? What if the other person doesn’t see how their actions have affected me? If I forgive the person, they are going to think that I approve of what they’ve done!
The good news is that forgiveness is not approval. The word that the New Testament uses for forgiveness is the word, aphiemi, which means to “release” or “set free”. This means that when you forgive, you are really releasing the other person from your right to judge them and hurt them back. Far from saying, “It’s okay,” what you’re really saying is, “What they did was wrong and it has really hurt me. However, instead of holding onto my right to punish them, I will allow God to judge them justly.”
While it is true that when you forgive you are setting the other person free, it’s ironic that the person you’re really setting free is yourself. Unforgiveness is like an emotional boulder that you carry around, waiting for the opportunity to hurl it at the person you resent. However, while you’re dragging that weight around, it’s really only draining you of your own vitality and joy. So when you “release” someone, you’re really releasing yourself from the bondage of bitterness.
3. Forgiveness is Forgetting
“Forgive and forget,” people often say, as though forgiving means that we just need to “forget about it.” However, forgiveness is not selective amnesia. Many people try to “forget about it” or “get past it” by minimizing, avoiding, or numbing their pain. These attempts may come in many forms, including using substances to relax, pretending that everything’s just fine, or keeping yourself busy with work or entertainment. Pretending the injury didn’t happen would be like having a physical wound and just trying to move on without slowing down and addressing it – it only leads to more damage and pain in the long run.
The truth is that recalling the hurt is an essential step to healing it. You can’t forgive someone for something that you’re not acknowledging. Therefore, in order to forgive, you shouldn’t try to forget. Rather, you should actually take time to remember what happened and reflect on that experience so that God can use it to transform your heart. Ask yourself questions like:
- What, specifically, did the person do that bothered/hurt me?
- What did their actions or words mean to me? What thoughts did it trigger for me? Are there other possible ways to think about what happened?
- How did I feel as a result? When naming the feeling, try to identify the softer emotions (ie. hurt, afraid, ashamed, etc.) underneath the harder emotions (ie. anger, frustration, etc.).
Then, when you are ready to take a really big step in the forgiveness process, ask the Holy Spirit to help you cultivate compassion for your offender. A principle in recovery that helps us see people with greater compassion is “hurt people hurt people”. This means that, if someone acted in a hurtful way towards you, they probably have some deficit or pain in their own lives because healthy, whole, happy people usually aren’t intentionally hurtful. For example, I once resented a person for some shaming and critical comments he made towards me. However, when I thought more about his story, I realized that he was deeply wounded in childhood, which probably makes him feel ashamed and self-critical. He was living with a lot of his own pain. It’s no wonder he reacted towards me the way he did! It doesn’t excuse what he did, but it helps me see him with greater compassion and empathy. This is what Jesus called us to do when he taught us to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44).
4. Forgiveness is Reconciliation
Another fear people often experience when considering forgiveness is having to be in relationship with the offender again. They are afraid that if they forgive someone, then it means that they have to be friends again and go back to how things were before. This is a common misunderstanding that confuses forgiveness with reconciliation.
Sometimes, the person who has hurt us is actually an unsafe person who really should not be trusted. Trusting someone who is untrustworthy would only make you open to further abuse or injury, which would be foolish for you and enabling (and unloving) for the offender. Forgiving someone does not mean that you have to automatically trust them again. Trust is something that must be earned back.
Remember, forgiveness is an altruistic choice to release the offender from your right to seek revenge and judge them. However, reconciliation, or restoration of relationship, only happens when the offender truly repents for what they’ve done and can be trusted again. More simply, you could say the formula for reconciliation looks like this:
Forgiveness (from the offended) + Repentance (from the offender) = Reconciliation
This is true of how God relates with us as well. From the moment we hurt God by sinfully forsaking him, God offered his forgiveness to us. God, because of his loving character, gave us his forgiveness. However, God’s forgiveness didn’t restore our relationship with him until we were ready to truly repent, and turn from our sinful ways. As soon as God’s forgiveness was met with our repentance, our relationship was restored and reconciled. In other words, in order for reconciliation to happen, you need both forgiveness and repentance.
Therefore, if the offender who hurt you is not ready to acknowledge their wrongs and change, the relationship cannot return to how it once was. You can still do your part, and forgive, thus reaping all the spiritual and psychological benefits of it, but you may want to exercise some boundaries to guard your heart and provide consequences for the offender’s unsafe behavior until he/she is ready to repent.
5. Forgiveness is Instant
Many people think that forgiveness is a one-time event or decision. Maybe they have a moment of inspiration and choose to forgive someone. Then later on, they notice that feelings of bitterness seem to resurface and wonder if they ever truly forgave. The reality is that forgiveness is a process; it’s a practice that we must continually hold onto. In Mark 11:25, Jesus taught his disciples about forgiveness, saying, “When you are praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” In Greek, the word forgive is a present-active command, which means that it’s describing a continuous or habitual action. Therefore, when Jesus gave the command to forgive, he is really saying something more like “keep on continually forgiving.” He seemed to understand that the choice to forgive is something that needs to be exercised repeatedly and continuously in order for it to truly set us free.
If there’s some grievance or bitterness that’s been dwelling in your heart, we would love to walk alongside you and help you through the process. Forgiveness is a process, but if you’re patient and willing, God can use these conflicts to deepen his life in you and cultivate a greater sense of freedom, love, and joy.