Q. The Bible repeatedly mentions forgiveness. I would like to know exactly what that is, because lately it’s been impossible for me to know whether I’ve really managed to forgive somebody. I’m still angry with them and feel bitter towards them. I think dark thoughts about them. When I pray the Lord’s Prayer, the line “forgive us for our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us” really sticks out. I worry that God will not forgive me if I cannot let this go. So what qualifies as forgiveness?
Thank you for this excellent and heartfelt question. It’s one that I’m sure many other readers have as well. To respond to it, let me share some principles of forgiveness that I developed over the years in pastoral ministry, which I believe reflect the Bible’s teaching.
• Forgiveness is an act of the will that must be completed by emotional work.
Forgiveness is something that we choose to do because we know God expects it of us. In other words, it’s fundamentally an act of obedience. It’s true that the Lord’s Prayer implies that we should forgive if we want to be forgiven. But Jesus also taught that we should forgive because we have been forgiven. He told the parable of the unforgiving debtor, for example, to illustrate that because God has freely and graciously forgiven us in His great mercy, we should similarly show mercy to others. So choosing to forgive, in obedience, as an act of the will, is what qualifies as forgiveness. Once we make this choice and stick with it, God is satisfied, no matter how we feel afterwards.
I say that because as soon as we do choose to forgive, we often begin to struggle emotionally. For one thing, we need to deal with the hurt that another person has caused in our own lives. We may also have to come to terms with what feels like the unfairness of it all—”They’re getting away with everything, without so much as an apology!” But as we work through these emotions, choosing not to indulge in things like anger, bitterness, or dark thoughts, disciplining our minds, we can count on God’s grace to bring healing to our hearts and the recognition to our minds that by forgiving, we are being true “children of our Father in heaven, who causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
That is, we will find this healing if the same old wounds don’t keep getting re-opened. Which brings me to the next principle:
• Forgiveness does not mean letting the other person hurt you all over again.
Forgiveness is a decision about a specific, one-time wrong or injury, to “let it go” and not seek revenge in any form (whether openly and actively, or in the form of indulged resentment, dark thoughts, etc.). When another person has established a pattern of hurting you, however, the process of forgiveness—which always takes time—will not be able to keep up with the repeated injuries, and you will feel defeated spiritually. What you need to do instead is break the pattern. That will likely mean, initially, putting some safe space between you and the other person, until the old pattern dies off and a new one can possibly be established, once it’s safe to re-engage. Put another way:
• Forgiveness is not a substitute for establishing personal boundaries.
We need to do both of these things in our lives. We can’t do one without the other. We won’t be able to establish healthy boundaries if “unfinished business” in the form of resentment is tying us to the old shape of the relationship. And we won’t be able to forgive if we keep allowing the other person to hurt us.
So when might it be safe to re-engage? This is my last point:
• Forgiveness takes one, reconciliation takes two.
Forgiveness is something you choose to do that sets you free on the inside. Reconciliation is something that two people have to agree to work on together. And before you try to reconcile with a person who has hurt you, before you let them back into your life where they might hurt you again, you need credible evidence that they have recognized their wrong, they are sorry for it, they will not repeat it, and they are committed to doing whatever they can to make things right with you. This is not something we can credibly believe about a person the first time they want to re-engage with us. Instead, we should identify safe confidence-building measures that we can try out a little at a time until we are assured that reconciliation can legitimately begin.
For example, it might be necessary for a while to have no direct contact with a person who has hurt you. Once you’ve had time for healing and strengthening by God’s grace, you might visit with them for a couple of hours in a coffee shop—not go and spend a weekend in their home! But things need to begin with the creation of some space and time for healing. It might not be possible to explain fully to the other person that you’re pursuing this, and why; if the relationship is already difficult, you may be blamed for being the problem, and this would only add to the hurt. But it should be possible to creatively and plausibly structure much more time away from the relationship, and if the other person seems to be catching on, you can simply say, “Yes, I feel as if I need some space right now.” You can’t predict how they’ll respond, but you shouldn’t worry about how they respond, either.
One qualifier: Everything I’ve said applies to relationships where you have some flexibility in how much time you spend with the other person. If it’s a toxic workplace relationship, however, and you have to be there many hours every week, you may actually need to find another job for the sake of your physical, emotional, and spiritual health. (Forgiveness doesn’t mean staying in an unhealthy situation that you are free to leave.) And if it’s a relationship with someone you live with—a spouse, parent, or child—and it’s much more than the regular wear and tear of people living under the same roof, it’s repeated serious hurts without any recognition of the harm being done, then I would strongly advise going for counseling about the dynamics in your immediate family, even if you have to start by going to a counselor alone. The issues at play in such a situation go far beyond a willingness to forgive. They require at least pastoral, and likely professional, counseling.