This time of year has a way of making me think about forgiveness, what it really means, why it's so hard, and why we need it.
There are plenty of inspiring memes floating around teaching us about forgiveness, and some of them are more or less on the mark. "It's not really for them, it's for you", and so on. But really stepping into forgiveness means asking ourselves some pretty tough questions.
Like, what is unforgiveness doing for you? What are you getting out of the resentment? These may seem like harsh inquiries, especially when you're hurting, but the reality is that we never choose something unless we perceive a benefit. Without exploring these things, we can end up unwittingly paying a much higher price than necessary.
In my own life, and not uncommonly among my clients too, I've come to see that unforgiveness--or, it's more accurate name, resentment--offers us protection. It protects us from a part of forgiveness the memes don't tell you about--the grief.
Grieving is one of the hardest and most painful things to do, and it's therefore something we instinctively and passionately avoid. It's especially hard to lean in to the grieving journey when we were put there by another's actions. Someone made a choice in their own interest and you lost a relationship, an opportunity, your safety--your innocence. You were made to feel pain, humiliation, or helplessness, and the instigator suffered none.
Grief is the grave invitation to face the new reality, to accept it and loose the tears that need to flow. It feels awful. And it's so tempting to defer the cost. Put it off by fostering resentment, by settling down in the comforting anger that, quite honestly, is absolutely your right. Anger is not wrong. It's the natural response to injustice and abuse. It must be listened to. But building a home there, or rather a fort engineered to ward off the looming grief, is an expense with very high interest.
Almost everybody in our culture knows, to some degree, the bait and switch of the credit industry. You went through some hard times, maybe went to school, you just needed help with the necessities--and heck, some of the comforts too (why not?). You even get little rewards for swiping so often. Then one day the minimum payments are all you can handle. You look at the statement which kindly informs you that if you continue doing the best you can you'll be out from under that difficult season in--20 years or so.
Resentment's interest comes in the form of bitterness--and it's far more confining than any financial burden. Just as a mountain of debt prohibits you from getting the car you want, going on the vacation you crave, or upgrading your whatever, so bitterness cuts off avenues to healing, relationship, and inner potential. It swallows up our capacity for serving and showing compassion. Wonderful things can come our way, but we'll have no ability to really enjoy them.
Forgiveness really does set you free. It doesn't do any of the things resentment tells you it will; it doesn't make their choice okay, doesn't make your pain meaningless, and it doesn't deny you the escape resentment promises (because that escape doesn't exist). Forgiveness moves you out of a place of powerlessness and lets your heart breathe and heal.
The grief part is so hard, but it's necessary. And it's easier than realizing one day down the road that bitterness has consumed so much more than you really had to lose.
Choose to begin your journey of healing today.
Mike Ensley is a professional counselor in Loveland, CO.