There is no true freedom from a hurtful situation without forgiveness. It may not happen right away – and indeed often the righteous anger is needed as fuel to bring about change – but after awhile it becomes the most important step to moving on.
Once we have worked hard to establish healthy boundaries and put an end to the injustice, we are then met with the temptation to sit around and lick our wounds, to justify our hurt feelings by reiterating how bad it was and all the messed-up things that they did to us.
I saw this week after week in a divorce group. People who couldn’t wait to share the horrible thing that the other person had done, almost competing to outdo each other with stories of terrible exes and their terrible no-good treatment towards them. And there is a place to share these wrongs – don’t misunderstand me. We need to bring it up to the surface, but only IN ORDER TO RELEASE IT.
Let me ask you this: if they treated you so badly, why on earth would you want to relive that everyday? It was bad enough that it happened the first time. But why wake up, day after day, and relive it in your mind, your conversation, and your emotions? This is what unforgiveness causes – the reliving of the wrong.
It’s like it is happening to you all over again, except that this time, YOU are the one inflicting it on yourself.
When my son was about 6 years old, one of his friends hurt his feelings. They wronged him, and he was upset about it and we talked it over at bedtime. After validating his pain, I agreed with him that what they did wasn’t right. But then I introduced the concept of forgiving them. This seemed to him like we were suddenly saying it was all ok…the hurt was ok.
I explained it this way: when someone hurts us, it’s as if they shoot an arrow into our heart. It’s a real wound and it hurts! We can’t change that. We’ve been shot. They did it – whether intentionally or not – and the damage is done.
The question is what happens next?
If I leave the arrow in, and go about pointing it out to people – look at this arrow sticking out of me, this painful wound, the wrong that rotten person did to me – then it cannot heal. And it continues to hurt. It becomes sensitive, and may even get infected.
(For those of you with repeat offenders – picture all of the arrows that would be sticking out of you! At one point I would have looked like a porcupine!)
But I explained to my son how our job – the one thing we can do – is pull the arrow out. And that is forgiveness. We remove it from ourselves so it cannot do any more hurt than it already has – truly it has very little to do with the other person. We do it for our own healing and our own good. Will we have a scar? Yes, but it will fade.
The hurt is real.
The damage is painful.
But forgiveness will minimize the damage and allow healing to begin sooner rather than later.
Richard Rohr puts it this way:
“Unforgiveness lives in a repetitive past, which it cannot let go of. But forgiveness is a largeness of soul, without which there is no future or creative action – only the repetition of old story lines, remembered hurts, and ever-increasing claims of victimhood for all concerned.”
The last thing you want is endless repetition of the event…it’s bad enough that it happened the first time!
Michael Bernard Beckwith calls unforgiveness the highest form of self-abuse. Picture taking the arrow out – and then putting it right back in the wound! And then wiggling it around a little…OUCH! What if you did this on a daily basis??? I cringe as I picture it but I am a visual learner and a slow one at that, so having such an image in my mind helps make the lesson much more memorable.
Don’t reinsert the dang arrow! It’s self-abuse.
On to the practical part of forgiving. While we can agree that forgiveness is a necessary step to freedom and fullness of life, there are as many ways of forgiving as there are of loving. There is no formula. Release happens in a myriad of manners, so there are no magic 1-2-3 steps to follow. But however you do it, it must be intentional, and it will never be instantaneous.
One way that has proven to be effective for me is to pray for the offending party. I pray to see them the way God sees them, instead of with my limited view. Then I pray for their healing and wholeness, since the fact that they struck out and wounded me is proof of something inside of them that is broken and lashing out. Somewhere there is pain. I pray for that. And I pray for growth and healthy relationships for them. I have found that this mindset helps me to see them as a person, a fellow human, a brother or sister in the grand scheme of things, instead of simply seeing the little role that they played in our messed up scenario.
Please understand that there are outrageous and grievous wrongs that reek of injustice and cruelty. I’m not pretending like this is easy – it is HARD. Crazy hard. And it can take a long time to finally feel free of the anger and hatred. Oftentimes it will be an act of sheer will until your feelings finally start to fall in line.
Ironically enough, my now adult son has no recollection of that little talk about forgiveness so many years ago. Yet that visual stayed with me and helped me through the years as my relationship with their father became increasingly difficult, and especially during the separation when it was just one angry arrow flying after another. Even while I felt the white hot hatred at what my ex was doing to me (and the boys) I still tried to pull out the arrows as soon as I recognized them.
I honestly believe it helped me to get through it all with more of a sense of peace and hope and empowerment than I would have otherwise been able to do. Forgiveness is a powerful weapon against bitterness and hopelessness!
As a more poignant example, there was the 2006 incident of the Amish families who forgave the school shooter after shooting 8 of their daughters, killing 5 of them before committing suicide. In a response that shocked the nation, they immediately reached out to comfort the widow of the shooter as well as his parents and parents-in-law, holding the sobbing father for over an hour and even setting up a fund for them. No bitterness, no need for revenge, only beautiful, heart wrenching release.
And we would be amiss to neglect to mention the ULTIMATE example of releasing people of their wrongdoing which is found in (surprise) Jesus – even while they were crucifying him, he prayed “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He released it AS IT WAS HAPPENING. Later, he didn’t rise from the grave to seek retribution and punishment for his killers. He moved on – he had better things to do with his new life.
So do you.
Unforgiveness will keep you bound to the past, reliving the pain and wrongdoing until you risk becoming a bitter, angry person, poisoned by the arrows you have left in your heart.
Move on. Release. Freedom awaits you – living a healed and whole life doesn’t mean you have never been hurt or broken. It just means you didn’t stay there.
[Caveat: Forgiveness does NOT mean putting yourself back in the same exact position with the likelihood of receiving the same exact type of hurt. Release what happened in the past but don’t invite it back into your future. Respect yourself by protecting yourself when needed! Avoiding the arrow in the first place is much preferable to having to pull it out…]