Growing up, I saw a lot of counselors who talked a lot about forgiveness. I read about forgiveness, I thought about forgiveness, I prayed about it… I still could not understand how to apply it practically. I felt like no one could tell me HOW to do it. What does it look like in daily life? What does it feel like? I just kept being told the same thing over and over, “Forgiveness isn’t about the other person, its something you do for you. You’re releasing yourself from the burden of the poor choices of others.” I understood that aspect of it, but it still felt very empty and impractical to me. I practiced forgiving in every way I could think of- telling the person who wronged me that I forgive them, writing them a letter and the destroying it, praying about it and giving it to God, saying it aloud to myself- but never once did I feel any different or any better.
I have been blessed with the opportunity to serve as a Service Missionary for my church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) and I work with the Women’s Addiction Recovery Program. All of these women are working on healing wounds inflicted by loved one’s addictions, and several are recovering from their own addictions. The Spirit in these meetings is unlike anything I’ve felt before, and these women are some of the very best I’ve ever met. They are SO loved by our Father in Heaven. Somewhere between their courageous sharing, the teaching of the Spirit, and my own experience with addicts and abuse, I’ve come to view forgiveness a little differently. I think I’m only just beginning to understand it, but the little treasures of understanding I’ve been given are beautiful, scared, and powerful to me.
Forgiveness Not Acceptance of Wrongdoing
True forgiveness does not send the message that the sin is okay. It does not give permission for it to continue. It does not put the person forgiving in danger of being hurt again. In fact, true forgiveness ONLY occurs from within the safety of personal boundaries. It is only within the safety zone we set up for ourselves that we can be vulnerable enough to forgive.
Forgiveness Flips Perspective Upside Down
When we are unforgiving we are clinging to anger, resentment, sorrow, frustration, feelings of abandonment, etc. Our perspective is that we trusted someone and they hurt us. They took advantage of us. They damaged our heart, and now we are forced to put up walls of protection. We want them to understand what they have done to us, we want them to taste our pain. These are completely normal human emotions, and they are the only emotions we are likely to feel if we’re viewing the situation from a human perspective. We can broaden our perspective by recalling the reason we are each here- to receive a body, to be tried, tested, and to return to our Heavenly Father. Can we do it alone? No, you might say, we need Christ. I would add that we also need EACH OTHER. Are we working to return only to our Heavenly Father? No. We are returning to our Heavenly FAMILY. If I am the only one who shows up, that will be a very sad day. I want all of my family together. If that is the case, then I need to look around me stop viewing flawed people with contempt. After all, I am one of them. I make mistakes. I hurt people. I am no different or better than anyone. I need to look around me and see people who are struggling. People who have been hurt. Life is a rough journey. I am so busy trying to understand myself, I don’t have time to worry about judging why other people make the choices they do. All I need to know is that people fall off course. They make decisions that often hurt other people. People who I am very close to have made decisions that have hurt me deeply. I feel a responsibility to mentally remove myself from my human place in their life (wife, mother, daughter) and view my fellow beings as exactly what they are- my brothers and sisters. In this light, it is my responsibility and my joy to feel for them, to understand that I can’t understand, to not judge or shame, to stop accusing them of hurting me and ask what I can do to help them in the struggle that has led them to harmful choices. We do not get back to our Heavenly Family without each other’s loving support.
Forgiveness Does Not Neglect the Self
Ultimately we are only responsible for ourselves. I don’t mean to imply that we set ourselves aside and concern ourselves only with our brothers and sisters- NO! We set up boundaries and we do what we can for them within the safety of those boundaries. We work on our own healing and progression. Gandhi had it right, we must be the change we wish to see in the world. We can only effect change in those around us by changing ourselves. That is no small thing, it is VERY powerful. We all learn by example, that is why Christ came to show us what to aim for. He was the ideal example of being the change. That leads me to my next point…
Forgiveness Utilizes the Atonement in Our Own Lives
We need to be forgiven ourselves, and we need to forgive ourselves, before we can forgive others. When we feel deeply the gift and power of the atonement in our own lives we witness God’s love in a very real way. When we begin to see how strong God’s love for us is, we will also see it in other people. We become humbled. We experience gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice and for having our own sins removed, and so we want those we love to feel the same relief. It comes naturally, then, for us to be forgiving, because we are passing on the gift that has been given to us. If God is willing to forgive me of all the wrong I do every day, surely I can be forgiving of others.
Forgiveness Creates Safety
Often we hold on to anger as a protection. Sadly, holding on to anger is extremely damaging to us spiritually, mentally, and even physically. Anger can cause all kinds of disease. Anger is a defense, but it does not create safety. Love cannot grow in the presence of anger, and relationships break down and we are left alone. This is not protection! All holding on to anger does is hurt us more, by holding on we allow the wrong doing to go on hurting us day in and day out for as long as we hold on to it. That doesn’t mean anger is entirely bad, its the hanging on that is harmful. Anger does an important job, it shows us what we value. If my husband commits adultery, I will be angry because I value my marriage and my family above anything on earth. I can go through a grieving process and express that anger (without shaming or judging, I need to own my anger), but I then have a choice of holding on to it, or healing. My boundaries involve making space for bad to pass out and good to pass in. When bad invades my boundaries, I remove myself and let it out. That is the choice I make. I can then safely forgive.
Forgiveness is a Process
It would be great if we could just say “I forgive you” and be done with it, but forgiveness doesn’t work that way. It is a process, especially with people who are in our lives for the long haul. There will be triggers, and there will likely even be new hurts and repeated ones. No one is perfect, we certainly aren’t and we can’t expect others to be either. We will need to forgive in little measures over and over and over, maybe for as long as we live. That doesn’t mean that we never reap the reward of the relief of forgiveness. Our reward comes through not holding on to all that pain and anger and carrying the weight of it with us through life. It comes from setting up safe and healthy boundaries and the ease that comes into our lives as a result of that. It comes from giving love space to grow. It comes from enabling the formation of deep and meaningful connections with other people. It comes from learning all the time to become more Christ-like. If comes from deepening understanding of what the atonement is and does. It comes from widening our spiritual perception (which is reality). It comes from strengthening our testimonies. It comes from enabling healing in our lives. And it comes from obtaining forgiveness from and for ourselves.
As with all things, we can gain a deeper understanding of forgiveness by pondering how our Father forgives us. When we don’t know how to act or be, we can always look to Him. He gave us Christ and Christ gave us the ultimate example of forgiveness at the moment of his agonizing death, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (See Luke 23:34) His life was all about love and forgiveness and He left a legacy of examples of how and why forgiveness is essential.
I hope this post got you thinking and I’m sure there is much more to forgiveness than I have shared here. As always, please feel free to add your thoughts!