Forgiveness lies at the heart of what it means to be a person of faith. We know that we are forgiven by God, but the process of forgiveness does not stop there. Because God has forgiven us, we are called to witness to that gift by being people who forgive. God places a “new heart” within us, removing our hearts of stone and giving us hearts capable of forgiveness (Ez. 11:14-21). As people of faith, we share this gift of forgiveness.
But forgiveness is not easy. This “new heart” we are given unfolds over the course of our life of faith. Forgiveness takes work. It is an act of the will; a decision to let go of the desire to get even with someone who has hurt us.
During a recent retreat, we discussed 12 steps to forgiveness (paraphrased from http://www.wikihow.com/Forgive). These are not “magic”; but they can be helpful tools as we work to grow in our ability to embrace God’s forgiveness and spread forgiveness to those around us. These twelve steps, with the help of God’s grace, can help us heal from the pain and resentment that often gets in the way of forgiveness.
- Remember that holding a grudge only hurts yourself. As Nelson Mandela said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for it to kill your enemy.”
- “Getting even” is not as important as “moving on.” Sometimes the best revenge on an “enemy” is to move beyond the pain they have helped cause and live a happy, successful life.
- Remember God brings good out of evil (Cf. Rom. 8:28). If we live through the pain there is no need to “get even.” Instead, we can use the experience to become people of profound character and compassion.
- Look at the situation from a positive perspective. There is good to be found in even the worst experience or situation. It can be helpful to make a list of 10 positive outcomes that came out of the experience.
- Look for helpers. Who were the people who helped you in the painful situation? Sometimes naming them and offering a prayer of thanks to God for putting them in your life can help healing occur. Write them a note or tell them how grateful you are for their support. These simple actions can open your heart to the power of forgiveness. They can also empower you to be a helper when you see someone else hurting.
- Be gentle with yourself. Sometimes forgiving ourselves can be the most difficult part of forgiveness. If we recognize that we are wounded and need healing, we can allow God’s grace to begin to heal us. “Eat well. Rest. Focus on the natural beauty in the world. Give yourself permission to feel the emotions and process them. Don’t bottle up the pain” (http://www.wikihow.com/Forgive).
- Recognize that forgiveness frees you. The Aramaic word for forgiveness means to “untie.” By forgiving, you become free to love in new and deeper ways.
- Being forgiving doesn’t mean being foolish. Forgiving someone does not mean that you should trust them or allow them to hurt you again. If the person who harmed you is truly repentant then reconciliation is possible. “An offender who wants reconciliation must do his or her part: offer a sincere apology, promise not to repeat the offense (or similar ones), make amends, and give it time. If you don’t see repentance, understand that according forgiveness to that person is a benefit to yourself, not to the offender” (http://www.wikihow.com/Forgive).
- Stop repeating “the story” to yourself and others. While it is important to be able to share your feelings with trusted friends, there comes a time when repeating the story is just binding yourself more and more to the pain and resentment. Break the cycle of negativity and stop repeating the story.
- Tell “the story” from the other person’s point of view. While this may seem to contradict #9 above, in reality it can help build empathy for the other person and aid in the process of forgiveness.
- Retrain your heart and mind. The goal of forgiveness is to respond to Jesus’ teaching to “Love your enemies” (Mt. 5:44). When negative thoughts or feelings come to your mind about the person who hurt you, offer them to God. Try something like, “God, if it was up to me, I would like to see this person fall under a bus; I would like to want to leave it in your hands though.”
- Trust in God. When we are hurt or in pain, we can lose our perspective and feel like the whole world is falling apart. It is important to realize that God is still God. God loves us more than we can imagine. No matter how bad an experience has been we can trust in God’s promise. “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God’s promise can be trusted.