Perhaps the number one killer of mental and relational health is the refusal to go through the learning experience of emotional pain. But I believe our next biggest mental health buzz kill is our refusal to forgive others and ourselves. I just have to take a stab here at trying to reduce just a little bit this colossal waste of serenity.
Forgiveness is a private act. It is first of all an act of the mind and the will — only then can the words, actions, and finally the emotions follow along. It may never include an “I forgive you” talk. Sometimes the purpose of forgiving someone is to restore our closeness in that relationship, and other times it is to allow our detachment to create more distance. How forgiveness is expressed depends on the other person, on the relationship, its purpose, and how it will be acted out. But some purposes are common to all occasions of forgiveness. Let’s look at some answers to the questions I most commonly hear about forgiveness:
Christians are told that when the children of God forgive each other, it makes God happy. I believe it, as I believe God loves us and knows that forgiveness is good for us. It reduces the war and crime in our society, and on a personal level, our resentments, arguments, divorces, ulcers, insomnia and addictions. Besides, being kind and polite to our enemies without needing or expecting anything in return is just the best way to keep them at a safe distance.
We need to forgive whoever we are angry at, whoever we dread seeing at Wal-Mart or McDonald’s, and generally, all the people that can make us mad just by being happy. We also need to forgive ourselves. Believing that we have been forgiven by God or another person without forgiving ourselves is just like leaving a Christmas present all wrapped up under the tree — it gives no joy to the giver or the receiver until we take it out into our everyday lives and trust that it will work.
We need to forgive everything they have ever done wrong, to us, to our loved ones or theirs, to themselves or others. We also need to forgive every good thing they have failed to do, and every bad thing they will ever do in the future. Past, present, and future, we are to love the sinner and hate the sin.
Now understand that forgiveness is not trust. Unlike forgiveness, trust has to be earned. We need to forgive for our own sakes, long before the other person has earned our trust that they won’t hurt us again. And if our enemy DOES mess up again, we need to trust ourselves to get over it when they do. This is a heck of a lot easier to do when we can kindly and politely forgive and wish them well without expecting anything in return. We can trust ourselves to get over another betrayal if we know how and why to forgive, and how to set and enforce healthy boundaries for ourselves (more about those below).
And forgiveness does not mean condoning the other person’s behavior. It may or may not be a good idea to tell the other person you still think what they did was wrong, but it is always okay to say, “It is not that I am condoning or excusing what you did, I am just forgiving you.”
ASAP. We don’t need to wait until the other person repents, reforms, asks for forgiveness, or even admits that they were wrong. We sure don’t need to wait until we feel like it, because forgiveness is a matter of faith, not feeling. We don’t need to wait until we understand the other person, why they hurt us. With forgiveness,We just need to get it done
First, we need to figure out other ways of making ourselves feel safe without carrying around the anger. Just believing that a resentment can be justified and smart is like wearing a gun on your hip – it keeps gentle people at a distance, attracts fighters, and generally provokes suspicion and rejection. Actually carrying a live resentment around is like loading up our guns and wearing bullets on our belts – we’re carrying a chip on our shoulder, wearing our hurt on our sleeve, and just asking for trouble.
Second we need to practice healthy beliefs. We can never prove these beliefs right or wrong, but we can prove without a doubt the internal results of holding these beliefs: they calm us down. So taste these beliefs, and see that they are good: All human beings are capable of repentance and reform. If we were born into our enemies’ bodies and situations, we don’t know whether or not we might have turned out much worse. When we are kind to them without needing or expecting anything in return, it delivers deep and painful wounds their prideful and vengeful egos.
Third, we need to set and carefully keep healthy boundaries. A boundary is not a threat to another person, but a promise to ourselves of what we will do to protect ourselves if they violate our safety zone. Protective behaviors that do not attack might include remarks such as, “Well that’s your opinion,” or “I’m sorry you feel that way.” The important thing is to immediately change the subject or end the conversation, before you take offense or let yourself get upset. Otherwise, you would be showing blood to a shark. We can’t play it cool on the outside without being cool on the inside, and we can’t do that without forgiving all around.
Fourth, forgiveness can’t be given until it has been received, not from our enemy, but from someone that accepts us as we are. Abiding in this grace, accepting ourselves as we are warts and all, is a process, not an event, a new life work of giving up and working through resentments against ourselves. Like with money, we have to have some forgiveness to give it away. Before we can put a smile on our face, we have to put one in our hearts, every day.
Fifth and finally, forgiving others is also a process. It is committing ourselves to a life work of daily giving up our resentments, justifications, plans for revenge, and wishes for our enemy to suffer or fail. It means doing this not when we feel like doing it, but especially when we don’t. And we will fail if we just try to eliminate negative behaviors, because Nature abhors a vacuum. We must train in positive behaviors to put in the place of our old bad habits that provoked our enemies. We can pray for them in private, speak with them and about them respectfully in public. Or, instead of talking with them, we can make brief eye contact and give a quick little nod of recognition and a quick little smile before moving on to avoid them. If our light of goodwill doesn’t shine on our enemies, we remain the frightened deer, when we could so much more enjoy being the brightened headlights.