A post on the “why” and “how” of forgiveness.

“Have you forgiven them?”

That’s it, the dreaded question of accountability in our own pain. Pain to which we are the victims, often feeling indignant in our stance that we are the bystanders to the plots, audacious assumptions, brazen statements, and selfishness of others. I’ve heard that extending forgiveness is powerful, and it’s true, but let’s not rosy it up by glossing over how challenging it is to do.

In their work, clients explore the intimate and varied ways in which hurt acts as a barrier to forgiveness. Together we investigate the roots of their pain, and we name the symptoms reflected in their behaviors. We spend time identifying their ails, validating their hurt and indignation. As people, we all need to hear that our feelings matter and that the painful moments are real simply because we felt them. Most clients arrive having done some of this work. They can identify the pain, have a sense of where it stems from, and maybe they know how it affects their behavior. Many wear their pain like a name badge telling you who they are. Ultimately, the remaining work is in the basic questions holding many of us back:

Have you forgiven the people you need to? Have you forgiven yourself?

Typically, I find these questions are answered with a degree of defensiveness. Someone might say, “Well kinda… I tried…but I’m still angry…or hurt… or I still can’t talk to them… I can’t forgive because they aren’t sorry…”. I get it. I’ve said those things too.

You see, forgiveness is not often a one-time affair. It’s not like the movies where there’s one dramatic line and then a person walks out of the scene with the higher ground. The decision to forgive can come up as many times as it takes to let something go. It is a decision to not remain victimized by the pain someone has caused you. It’s the realization that though things in life may happen to you, you can choose to be an active participant in how you respond.

And yet, these are not always easily implemented practices. Sometimes we endure hurts and unspeakable traumas which have consequences that transform our lives forever. Pain transforms us. It can make us hard, and jaded and it can take time to understand the true impact of a hit. If you’ve spent a good part of life feeling like a failure because what someone did or said remained painful even after you decided to forgive them, I want to encourage you that’s okay. I hope that you can release yourself. Forgiveness is about the condition of your heart—it’s about your unwillingness to let the pain devour you and transform you into someone you don’t recognize.

I think there’s evidence that forgiveness happens multiple times and that it can be a daily decision if necessary. Just as the themes of encouragement to not be fearful and to trust God show up repeatedly in the Bible, we can embrace that forgiveness may need to happen more than once. I used to expect that once I said “I forgive you” it should never bother me again. I realize now that thinking inhibits my ability to have the impact of my hurt be fully realized, and to engage in the process of robust healing.

Forgiveness requires release, but it doesn’t mean that relationships or circumstances should necessarily go back to the status quo as a reflection of a person’s ability to let things go. In fact, in some instances, forgiveness without change can start to feel abusive. As bitterness and resentment creep up, one must examine their participation in the continuation of their own victimhood. One can respond in forgiveness with boundaries, which are simply an expression of our own limitations.

For example, one can set a boundary with their spouse that they will only have discussions around conflict going forward over the phone or in person because texting escalates the situation. By setting a boundary in this instance, one takes ownership in how something negatively affects their ability to resolve conflict and allows for a response to not continue in the pattern of something that is hurtful.

Unfortunately, many people have been taught that forgiveness doesn’t have any consequences, it’s acceptance and moving on. In the Bible, Moses was forgiven for not doing what God told him to do, but everything didn’t go back to the way it was previous to his disobedience …the consequence of his choice was that he was prevented from entering the promised land (Duet 3:23-7:11). Sometimes forgiveness requires a change in engagement. People often think consequences for the violation of one’s boundaries are about controlling others, but it’s really a focus on how you protect yourself and acknowledge the limitations of your own emotional capacity to engage in destructive relationships or behaviors.

Certainly, this is a learned concept. As children, we depend on our parents to establish healthy boundaries to protect us and show us how to respond to hurtful situations. Once we’re adults, however, we become responsible for ourselves and for how we manage our hurt. We can choose to live in the victimization that is unforgiveness, or we can be victors continuing the hard work of walking in the freedom that our hurts ( though powerful and present ) will not define us as we pursue healing. That is the power of forgiveness.

Sure, sometimes we need extra support in the process. Whether it’s one’s faith that provides direction, a support group, therapy, journaling, art, or exercise, there are aids to processing forgiveness. It’s a decision, and then you do the work to support your walk in that decision. Forgiveness is not saying that an event or an action that hurt you was okay, it’s saying that you’re not going to be ruled by the hurt of it.

I understand that not every person who reads these posts is a Christian. For me though, forgiveness in purpose and function is informed by my relationship with Christ. He tells us repeatedly in the Bible to forgive because He wants us to be in bondage only to righteousness, which implies that unforgiveness leaves us captive (Romans 6:18). He tells us to live as overcomers who rise above the persecutions and adversity that will inevitably find us in this life (1 Peter 4:12-14). And finally, we are more than conquerors through Christ already when we make that choice to live like Him ( Romans 8:37).

Not one of us will finish our lives without hurting someone, whether intentionally or not. We can choose to own our mistakes, apologize, and try to live differently. And conversely, we all will experience hurt by others whether it’s intentional or not, and the burden remains with us to choose to respond as victors.

Indeed, there is power in having a choice. None of our choices are ever without consequences, or accountable outcomes as I explain to my clients, but there’s a lot of power in saying who you are and how you want to move through the world. There is power in your ability to choose a response, to forgive or not. The condition of the heart can change. Forgiveness is possible, and there’s freedom in choosing it.