Several years ago, a friend gave me a plant. The plant was special to me because it was a beautiful gardenia, but more importantly, the plant was gifted to me out of gratitude. The giver passed away about 6 months later.
My family did not realize that this little gardenia had taken root in my heart. A family member thought it might be a good idea to see if my gardenia would do better outside (or perhaps to make more room in the kitchen). We had an unusually cold winter in Kernersville, North Carolina that year and although I brought the gardenia back inside later that evening, the plant died from the cold.
The plant was special to me. I loved the person who killed the plant. This was a recipe for painful, mixed emotions. I wanted to lash out at the loved one who had made a mistake, but also knew that lashing out would make things worse. I needed to offer forgiveness, not only to prevent me from saying something hurtful, but for my wellbeing.
If you have relationships with others, you will eventually be hurt by them. Many times, the pain will be a minor sting, but there will be occasions in which the hurt seems unbearable. Ironically, the more you care for the person who hurt you, the more painful the hurt.
When we are hurt, we experience negative emotions. These emotions are not innately bad. In fact, the purpose of these emotions are to protect us from being hurt again. Such negative emotions help us to stay away from potential threats. When these emotions fester inside of us, we begin to have significant emotional and physical problems.
Yes, you read what I wrote correctly, not only emotional problems, but physical problems as well. When we experience negative emotions, particularly over a period of time, stress hormones impact us, causing interruption in sleep and impairing the healing mechanisms of our bodies.
A presenting problem I often encounter as a psychologist is to help people recover from hurts someone else has caused. There is a process we experience as we heal from such pain. While the process is different, there are commonalities as we heal from the hurt another person has caused. The process of forgiveness is a powerful and effective antidote to the negative emotions inside of us. The following are 6 important facts about forgiveness that may change your life.
Forgiveness Is Not Forgetting
We only need to forgive someone else when they have hurt us. If the injury is painful enough to forgive, we will not heal by trying to forget. Such wounds are painful and we can’t simply force ourselves to forget. If we did not recall what occurred, we may open ourselves to be injured in the same way. While we can’t forget, we can work towards healing of the emotional hurt.
Forgiveness Is Not Excusing
Excusing an offense is not the same as forgiveness either. There are times when excusing an offense is the appropriate response. For example, if you had a 3-year-old child and that child accidentally broke a vase in your living room, excusing the offense may be an appropriate response (along with chastising yourself for not providing appropriate supervision and for placing breakable items in the child’s reach). When the offending party unintentionally injures us, or we have no connection with the offending party, there are times when excusing what occurred is appropriate.
However, if the offending party commits a significant injury (for example, the “other man/woman)” in an affair with your spouse), even if you don’t know that person, forgiveness would be a more appropriate path towards healing than excusing the offense. Or, if the party is someone with whom you are connected, and they did something to hurt you that they should have known was wrong, excusing what occurred would generally not be the most healthy response.
Forgiving others does not mean that they are not confronted with the damage that they have done.
Forgiveness Happens Slowly
We live in a fast food society. We want satisfaction now. That won’t work in the context of forgiveness. While the time period is different for each person and each offense, forgiveness is not measured in minutes and hours. Forgiveness happens slowly.
Forgiveness Is A Process
We often like to think that when our intentions are good and we have done our homework, that the problem is solved and we can move on. Forgiveness is achievable, but it is a process. We often need to wake up each day and chose to forgive the offending party for a significant period of time until we have healing from the pain that has been caused. In many instances, we will continue to have scars and need to be grateful for the healing that has been experienced, and chose not to open old wounds through focusing on negative thoughts of the offending party.
This isn’t quick or easy. It is a slow process, but it is achievable and it will make an enormous difference in your mental and physical wellbeing.
Forgiveness Is Possible, Even Under Difficult Circumstances.
What about forgiveness in difficulty circumstances? What if the offending party is deceased? What if they offending party inflicted a wound that has lifelong consequences?
In such cases, forgiveness will be harder. However, your need to forgive is also significantly greater. The more intense your internal pain, the more you will benefit from forgiveness. This process is not doing the offending party a favor. It is not excusing their bad behavior. It is healing you.
Yes, forgiveness is possible in such cases, but often the process will be different. In such excruciating circumstances, there will often be no reconciliation between the injured and offending parties. Forgiveness will be an internal process that the injured party will practice.
What Is Forgiveness, And How Is Forgiveness Achieved?
Forgiveness Is Best Understood As Letting Go Of A Debt. Consider a person who owes a bank too much money to repay. That person has no assets and no income and will not acquire them in the future. For the sake of illustration, we’ll suppose this is an individual who put into a coma in a car accident and the person has no estate from which to recover funds. The bank’s only option is to discharge (forgive) this debt.
In most of life’s situations, there are no do-overs. When we hurt someone, we can’t take it back, and in many instances we can’t adequately repay them.
The options are often either negative feelings, such as anger, sadness, and hatred, or forgiveness. Negative emotions are the initial and natural response to injury. They help to keep us from being hurt again. In many respects. it is easier to hate than to forgive.
When we forgive, we let go of our right to get even. We stop viewing the offending party as a monster, a deceiver, a betrayer, or whatever negative, one dimensional box we may have place them in. We begin to see them a person who has positive and negative character traits. A person who has wronged us, perhaps on purpose or perhaps out of ignorance. We consider times when we may have hurt others and we remember the connection we share with each person we encounter. The process of forgiveness often happens best in the context of trusting relationships who can support us in the process.
Forgiveness is slowed, or goes backwards, when we have negative attitudes about ourselves or others, such as “you can’t trust anyone”, “or, I hope he gets what’s coming to him”. We know we are making progress in forgiving when we are able to enjoy life and be engaged in relationships. When we are able to wish the offending party well and have no desire to get even, the process of forgiveness has done its work.
Forgiveness is best understood as letting go of a debt. We let go of our right to get even. Forgiveness is not a favor we are doing for another person, but an investment we make in our own wellbeing. Forgiveness isn’t fast or easy, but most worthwhile pursuits in life take work and happen slowly. Forgiveness is a process that we often chose daily. Over time, as forgiveness does its work, we are more engaged in our relationships and experience more happiness and peace.
About the Author
Dr. Dave Spriggs is a psychologist licensed in North Carolina. He has worked in the mental health field since 1994. People seek Dr. Spriggs’ services for a variety of reasons, but he specializes in relationship issues, treatment of mood problems, and serving people who wish to integrate their Christian Faith into the counseling process. Dr. Spriggs finds that forgiveness is often a primary goal for his patients.