Last week, I spoke in a church meeting on the topic of forgiveness. The feedback I received immediately afterwards was so overwhelming, it made me wonder if maybe more people need to hear this message. I spoke about forgiveness from a different angle than I usually hear it. Customarily, I hear the importance of why we should have a forgiving heart. The two largest reasons being – first, so that the Lord will also be forgiving towards us (Matt 6: 14-16); and second, studies show that an unforgiving heart can be unhealthy for our physical and emotional well-being. Regardless of your spiritual stance, the latter reason makes it imperative for all of us to be forgiving. My talk wasn’t about why, I wanted to know more about how we go about forgiving. After reading a few articles, I settled on five ways to help become a more forgiving person. Because I am Christian, some of these steps will be faith-based.
5 Steps to Better Forgiving Others
1. Sincere Prayer
I read a fascinating speech given in 1997 by James M. Harper, a marriage and family therapist. Harper stated, “Our attitude in prayer will help transform our grieving, angry hearts into forgiving hearts.” His statement is the perfect way to show that forgiveness begins with the softening or changing of our own hearts. I’ve found that when I pray sincerely, it is not that I need to forgive, but rather that I need to ASK for forgiveness from someone. That is the beauty of honest prayer, it helps us to become humble.
2. Accept that forgiving the offender, does not mean you excuse their behavior
Quoting Harper again, he said, “I have seen survivors of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse struggle with the doctrine of forgiveness. They often feel that if they were to forgive, it would let the offender off the hook or would minimize the hurt and damage. Yet they fail to realize that transforming their heart to a forgiving heart is a gift they give themselves. It will do far more for them than it will ever do for their offender.” Having experiences of being hurt by someone, I know in some instances, I wanted the offender to hurt, as I hurt. Karma, if you will. I’m not saying this is right, but that is what my instinct wants to do. Forgiving them feels like I’m freeing them from consequences. How bold of me to think that I am somehow their judge, when there is only one judge they have to face and my decision to forgive has nothing to do with their salvation, but merely mine. In the book Beyond Ordinary by Justin and Trisha Davis, it reads, “Forgiveness doesn’t excuse their behavior; forgiveness prevents their behavior from destroying your heart.”
3. Avoid storytelling about an offense
This one piggybacks the last item for me and is my biggest weakness in failing to forgive. When I’ve been hurt, my impulse is to discuss the matter with my husband and my friends. First, I like to check in and see if I’m out of line for feeling the way I feel. Then, honestly, it’s to round-up my support group that I hope will have my back. The support group’s role is to make me feel justified in my feelings and to come to my aid when necessary. Again, not right, but that is my tendency. Upon learning more about forgiveness, I’m realizing how detrimental and counter-productive this is to forgiving others. I justify my storytelling as okay, because I’m merely looking for support, but I am perpetuating the offense and adding fuel to the fire. Harper states, “In retelling a story about how we have been offended, we can tell it in such a way that we either push pain, anger, and grief deeper into the cells of our heart or we free ourselves…Don’t let the negative storytelling consume your relationships with others…Don’t put energy into unforgiveness; rather put it into transforming your heart.”
4. Avoid dwelling on the offense
I have met people who struggle with this step, and I admit that I have faltered here a time or two. I have spoken of and recounted offenses in my mind that I have claimed to have already forgiven. Sadly, I have even held disdain towards certain offenders, even though there were no recent events that would give me any reason to do so. In being around other people who, like me, have perhaps not completely let go of hurtful events, I see the pain and strain that it causes in other relationships in their, and my own, life. As we dwell on our offenses and rehash them in our own minds and with others, we prevent ourselves from healing. I recently saw a quote that drove this message home, “To heal a wound, you need to stop touching it.”
We often hear this message in a similar phrase, “Forgive & Forget.” I read a study, known as the White Bear Experiment, by Social Psychologist, Dr. Wegner, that speaks about forgetting or suppressing a thought. The study concluded that if you try to focus on NOT thinking about something (or forgetting a sin or offense in this case), you actually end up thinking about it more. So, while you may have good intentions of “forgetting” the offense by trying NOT to think of it, you’re likely bringing it to the forefront of your mind even more so. A solution would be to try to replace the thought with something more positive.
I have been hurt by “repeat offenders” before and I find that I am most at peace when I focus on the good that the individual brings into my life. None of us are perfect, and I find that replacing my negative feelings or frustrations with positive experiences not only improves the relationship with the offender, but it also frees me from dwelling on the offenses. Plus, this shift keeps me from retelling the offense, when I’m naturally focused on it less.
5. Do kind acts for the offender
I have to admit, this is one concept I had not even thought to do. It wasn’t until I read an article in a children’s magazine called “Janie’s Seventy Times Seven,” that it even occurred to me. To summarize, Janie is frustrated with her little brother, Jimmy, constantly breaking her crayons, bugging her, making mistakes, and so on. She goes to discuss the matter with her Mom and says, “I forgave Jimmy for getting into my stuff and told him to keep out of my room forever. He didn’t Mom. He’s wrecking all my stuff.” Janie’s Mom asks Janie to read a scripture about forgiveness, then Janie replies “It says to forgive seventy times seven. That’s way too many times. It isn’t fair at all.” Janie’s mom replies, “Wouldn’t you want the Savior to forgive you more than once? Think about it. Maybe you could try teaching Jimmy how to take care of things. Jesus Christ said to do good to those who offend you—even your enemies.” Janie then takes a notebook and starts tallying all the times she has to forgive her brother, since she’s convinced that she doesn’t have to forgive him anymore once she reaches 70 times 7 (or 490 times). But with each mistake her little brother makes, Janie does as her mom suggests and either teaches him the right way or does a kind deed for him. After a few days, her tally gets to 12 out of 490 and she throws the paper away. She later tells her Mom that she didn’t need to keep track of the times she had to forgive him because, “Jimmy doesn’t seem as annoying as he used to.”
My take away from the story was that Jimmy didn’t stop making mistakes, none of us do, it was Janie that worked to have a change of heart. It’s her change of heart that brings us full circle to step 1 – sincere prayer. Sincere prayer is the first step to forgiveness, as it teaches us to heal or transform our own hearts, so that we have the strength to forgive, even when it may not be easy, or even when someone might not even ask for forgiveness.
I don’t know where I fall on the forgiveness spectrum. I’d like to think I’m a forgiving person. However, studying more about forgiving others, I’ve learned I have room for improvement. Storytelling of my offenses or dwelling on them is something I struggle with, while doing kind deeds had not even been considered before. There have been times where I had practiced the replacement of negative thoughts with positive ones, and there were times where I learned to hold my tongue regarding offenses. In reflecting back on those moments, I realize that I was more at peace with myself. That is the place I want to be in my life, and studying this topic reminded me of that.
Hopefully, reflecting on these 5 steps to better forgiving others will help you, as it did me. May you find the calming peace that a forgiving heart brings.