What does it take to really forgive someone? It's understandable that there is confusion around what this really means. We're already talking about something emotionally-charged; after all, if I'm tossing around the idea of forgiveness, it's because I've been hurt.
Let's start by getting clarity on what it's not, because there are a couple things that can be confused with forgiveness. Yes, they're related, and there can be some overlap, but they are still different.
Absolution is when we recognize that someone who has been blamed for causing hurt really never did anything wrong. The responsibility assigned to them was wrongly applied.
Absolution is deserved. It's a recognition of innocence. It's not forgiveness.
Here's a more complex one--which still can contain forgiveness. In fact, forgiveness is often a necessary element for reconciliation to take place, but that doesn't mean they're the same.
Reconciling means we are re-entering the relationship, and it is not unconditional. It requires both people involved to do work, to recognize their part in whatever rift has occurred, and to address it honestly. It involves everyone showing willingness to open up and to hear the other. It's a mutual rebuilding.
What Makes Forgiveness Different
Forgiveness is something that happens just in you--the one who's been wounded. It isn't contingent on the other person's words or actions. It is work you do when you recognize that nothing they can say or do will heal you, anyway.
Yes, they are the one who caused your pain. You are the one who has to feel it. They have caused harm or damage to your life. You are the only one who can seek its healing. Forgiveness is the acceptance of these hard facts. In a sense, we are owning the repair work required by someone else's careless or ill-intentioned acts--but we are not saying it was our fault.
Forgiveness still names the offense. Forgiveness still identifies the offender. But it ceases all efforts to make them feel the suffering. It cancels any attempt to collect the debt. And it can leave us with a lot of hurting and grieving to do. It feels incredibly unfair because it is.
This is not the same as reconciliation, and it doesn't require reconnection. When you forgive you do not unilaterally take responsibility for restoring the relationship, only for doing the work to heal the harm done to you. And that's why we do it--not because it feels good, but because it's the painful and exclusive path toward healing.
Save Some Grace for You
This is the messy, zero-curb-appeal truth about forgiveness. It makes a kind of sense that so many people choose to hang on to resentment instead. But forgiveness does not involve self-betrayal; it doesn't expect us to lie or downplay what was done. And the cost of bitterness is higher and longer than the pain of taking up the reconstruction that we didn't earn.
So don't be surprised that you'll need some time. There will be stages to it. It won't always go in a straight line. The anger, mourning, confusion--they all must be welcome and have their say.
The work is all in you because the forgiveness really is for you. And it will suck.
Get Healthy Help - A friend who absorbs & reflects the animosity for your perpetrator can feel comforting, but ultimately keeps you mired in resentment. Learn to spot the difference between someone who empathizes with hurt & anger and those who only amplify hostility.
Accept that You'll Get it 'Wrong' - You will likely discover over time ways that you did not completely or authentically engage the task of forgiveness. This is because the hurt is multilayered and complex. The right pieces of grace fall into place at the right time. Don't condemn yourself over it. Lean into the messiness of the process.
Cultivate Your Inner Comforter - The wounded part will complain, it may rage, it may hate nearly every step of forgiveness. We can't shove it away. We can't call it bad. And in you there is also the capacity for great patience and understanding. Find what strengthens and smooths access to those qualities (that yes, you do have!) so that you can offer them to the places in your heart that hold the hurt.
Mike Ensley, LPC is a professional counselor in Loveland, Colorado.
Broken glass photo by Lisa.