Let’s face it: we’ve all been hurt in life, often in little ways, sometimes in big ways, but we’ve all been hurt. And it stinks! It’s lousy, it’s painful, and it’s not right, but it’s the world we live in. Sometimes we feel we will never forgive somebody for what they’ve done to us, and it is certainly understandable that we would feel that way, especially when we’re in pain. But when the pain starts to subside and we think clearly, we realize that forgiveness is the only means to restoring peace in our hearts. If we continue to hold onto the pain of a wrong that someone has done we will never find peace. No one can change anything that’s happened in the past even if we want to, but when we don’t let go of the past we let the pain of the past continue to harm us in the present and the future, and we are forever victims of the harm. Instead of finding peace, we end up living as victims each and every day.
We know we should forgive people, but sometimes we think forgiving them kind of gives them the upper hand, that maybe they’ve made us into a chump by forgiving them. Maybe we think not forgiving them gives us the victory and ruins them. But it really doesn’t; it only harms us! Actually, forgiving somebody is the way that we have the upper hand in the situation; by taking the high road we win in the long run. Imagine this: suppose I do something to hurt somebody really badly and I know it and I go to them and ask for forgiveness and I’m big about it. I don’t make any excuses, I don’t try to say I was in a bad mood or I was cranky or anything like that. I say to them, “I did something to hurt you and I was wrong and I am sorry for that; will you forgive me?” Hopefully the other person will say yes, in which case we can make amends and move on with the friendship that we’re meant to have. But suppose the other person says no, suppose they say, “No, I will never forgive you for that!” Well, I can at least say in my heart that I tried to do what was right I did the right thing. I went to them and I apologized. I’m sorry for them that they could not find it in themselves to forgive me, but I can move on and leave it in the past and will have peace, but the person I hurt will continue to allow what I did to harm them into the future. No one can change the past even if we want to. We cannot go back and change something we’ve done. It is therefore healthy for us and even necessary to forgive other people who harm us.
But what exactly does it mean to forgive somebody? Let’s talk about what it doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean I always just forget about it and pretend it never happened, especially if it was something with serious consequences. Sometimes we do have to remember that something happened, but forgiving them means that we realize that they are weak human beings like ourselves and just as we fall sometimes and do wrong things, so are they, and we’re not going to hold them to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. Forgiving others also does not mean that we pretend somehow it was all our own fault, that we must’ve said or done something to make that person react that way. Maybe there is truth to that, but not always. Sometimes we’re perfectly innocent of saying or doing anything, and the harm that was done to us was totally unprovoked. It does mean to say “I understand that you are weak like me and I forgive you because we all need forgiveness every now and then.
Hopefully if somebody does come to us and ask us for forgiveness we will always say yes to them. But what happens if somebody never comes to us for forgiveness? What happens if the person doesn’t realize or will never admit that they’ve done anything to harm us? Or suppose the person who harmed us has long since passed away and could not come to us even if they wanted to? Well, this is what I always do: I bring it into prayer and I say, “Lord, if that person ever comes to me and says, ‘listen, I’m sorry for what I did to you. It was wrong of me; will you forgive me?’ then of course I would forgive them on the spot, and if they never ask me in life they will have to one day stand before you in judgment, and they will realize then that they have harmed me, and when they realize at that point that they need my forgiveness, help them know that I forgave them a long time ago!” That gives me so much peace, to be able to move on and have healing for the times in life that people have hurt me, even if they see no reason to apologize whatsoever. You never know! You might get someone to apologize to you even many years later. That happened to me once. Somebody who had harmed me big time repeatedly when we were young and with whom I had lost contact searched for me online and many years later finally found me and said, “listen, when we were kids I was really mean and cruel to you, and I’m sorry for everything that I ever did to you. I hope I didn’t hurt you too much, but can you forgive me?” I was able to tell this person that I did forgive him and that I have forgiven him a long time ago. I found peace many, many years ago. But I wonder if this person had been holding onto the guilt for all this time. Was this the first moment that he finally found peace for what he had done to me when we were kids? If that’s true, I’m glad at least he finally found it. But you see, I was able to go through my life with peace, leaving the harm in the past, and this other person may have been carrying the pain for all of these years. Now this doesn’t always happen; there are many people who have harmed me that have never apologized, and I am certain there are people whom I have hurt to whom I have never said I was sorry. But I ask God always to help anyone whom I have ever harmed to know I am sorry, and to please see that they are not forever hurt by my carelessness. That, too, gives me peace!
So when somebody harms us, were only hurting ourselves by not forgiving them. If they ask you for forgiveness, always say yes. If they don’t, pray and say, “Lord, if there ever comes a time when they realize they’ve hurt me and they need my forgiveness, help them know that I freely grant it. In this way, we can have peace in our lives. And of course if we have harmed somebody else and need to ask their forgiveness, then remember to apologize and make amends so that we may heal. If we withhold forgiveness we hold on to anger, which embitters us and cannot give us the peace that we look for in life. Refusing to forgive only makes us bitter. So forgive as God has forgiven you; that is the path to peace!
“In fact, not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999)
Ok, I’ll grant your assertion, and mostly agree that holding the resentment without moving on is only self-harming, but there is the other side to that blade. We can forgive and not forget. We can also look to the other person and if indeed they are remorseful, forgiveness can be easily given since — after all — we’re human and weak. But what of the person who asks forgiveness easily yet makes no efforts to change in themselves the behaviors that lead to the need for forgiveness? Does this really only make it easier for the other person to simply believe, “He forgave me, that was easy, I don’t need to consciously change”?
Once someone violates our sense of trust and wrongs us — “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” — as humans, we tend to become much less open and trusting in the future. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,” as the saying goes.
What is your guidance on this?
Definitely! Forgiveness doesn’t mean we become doormats or allow others to continually abuse us. We have to be clever as serpents, but innocent as doves. If the person is not planning on changing his behavior, he’s not really asking for forgiveness but is trying to get away with something. I remember a 15-year-old boy i once had in teen club who used the F-word constantly. Every time he did I corrected him, and he always said, “Sorry!” but he never stopped. I reminded him that saying sorry means you’re going to try and change your behavior. If I am not really sure, I give the person the benefit of the doubt.