Forgiveness is one of those stubborn things that is much easier said than done. It is impossible to go through life without being wronged by someone, and without, knowingly or not, hurting others.
We can choose to handle these experiences by holding on to bitterness, regret and shame, or choosing to forgive. But, in order to do so in a way that is healthy and freeing requires a paradigm shift in the way we define the term and experience it in our every day lives.
First, it is important to recognize that forgiveness isn’t just a “nice” concept. Extending forgiveness is incredibly hard, especially when the offense or harm done by another is severe, but it is imperative for healing. Why? Because not forgiving is like drinking a poison meant for someone else. It does nothing to avenge a wrongdoing, correct an injustice, or soothe a distressing emotion; it does the opposite. It hurts us. It can be hard to see this when we are in the midst of incredible pain, but holding on to hurts and withholding forgiveness only hardens our own heart and keeps us from truly feeling negative emotions and then working through them with a professional therapist or counselor.
What is forgiveness then? It may be helpful to describe what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not excusing the wrong or removing the consequences of someone’s actions. Forgiveness is not ignoring the pain or insisting that “everything is fine.” Also, forgiveness is not immediate. Wounds and healing take time to process, and so choosing to forgive is not a decision taken lightly or made quickly. Additionally, forgiveness sometimes needs to be chosen more than once, as resentment can come back to rear its ugly head years later. Forgiveness is not “one and done,” rather, it is a journey.
Sometimes, we must also choose to forgive ourselves. We fail, we fall short, we don’t do recovery perfectly, we disappoint others and we disappoint ourselves. Just as not forgiving others only hurts us, so does withholding self-compassion when we do something wrong. Forgiving ourselves means admitting where we may have fallen short, and rather than dwelling on it or punishing ourselves, choose to treat ourselves with compassion instead. Choosing forgiveness when we have failed helps us learn from our mistakes and move forward, rather than getting stuck in a rut that only leads to despair.
Choosing to forgive is choosing freedom. It is an act done for our own self-care and healing, rather than for anyone else.
Forgiveness is the process of declaring freedom from the tyrannical monsters of bitterness and shame. It is recognizing the wrong done to us, naming it, and daily declaring it has no power to define us, our attitude, our abilities, or our actions.
Forgiveness is an act of acknowledgement and a subsequent act of liberation. It is choosing to define ourselves not by what has happened to us, but by how we choose to move forward.
Watch Bethany Casson, LCPC, Timberline Knolls’ Christian Program Coordinator, discuss more on forgiveness and grace with Kirsten Haglund of Weekly Hope here: