Friday Counseling Issues: Forgiveness

Forgiveness is not a feeling, an emotion.  If we wait to forgive until we feel forgiveness, we may never get around to it at all. Forgiveness is a choice, an act of the will; it is following what we are clearly commanded to do by Jesus Himself. It is what we do in order to be forgiven by God.  It is what we do to avoid self-pity, bitterness, and depression.

I had a conversation with someone this week who believes that you cannot forgive someone who does not sincerely repent; who does not ASK for forgiveness.   I’m still thinking about what she said because I don’t agree with her but so far have not been able to penetrate her conviction.

If she is correct, then anyone who has ever hurt us, but who never acknowledges their behavior or seeks forgiveness, is still hurting us every time the memory arises.  We are burdened to carry unforgiveness toward those who have hurt us and died without seeking forgiveness. I do not believe God intended for us to carry such negativity, never forgiving until the offender comes to seek forgiveness. The closest I came to giving her pause to think differently was to point out that Jesus, from the cross, said, “Father, forgive them. . . . .” when none of His tormenters had sought forgiveness.

I think perhaps we need to review the definition of forgiveness:  It is simply giving up one’s right to demand justice.  Clearing the debt.  Purging it out of the books, as if it had never existed; requiring  no payment whatsoever.

And it is a choice we make based not on warm fuzzy feelings, but on a clear understanding of God’s Word. Matthew 6: 14-15 are crystal clear about the importance of our learning to forgive others in order to receive forgiveness from God.

Choose to forgive.  Do it purposefully and prayerfully.  Doing so does NOT mean you must continue to accept poor treatment; it does free you from anger, self-pity, bitterness, and depression.

Forgiveness is NOT. . . .

We have some very strange ideas about what forgiveness really is.  One of those ideas is, when someone says “sorry,” to reply with, “Oh, that’s okay, it doesn’t matter, don’t worry about it.”  That is not forgiveness.  It is simply brushing the problem under the carpet. The only result that comes from doing so is to get a very lumpy carpet.

The truth is, it DOES matter if someone has hurt you.  It matters if you are offended, and especially if the person who hurt you has come with a heartfelt apology, that apology needs to be treated with the respect it deserves.  So let’s talk about apologies for just a moment.

Here are some really poor apologies:  “IF I hurt you, then I apologize.”  This is a poor apology because it isn’t sincere. The offender is actually putting the blame back on you; if you are offended, it wasn’t really his fault but he’ll say “sorry”  so he’ll look better.  And he’s really making sure you understand that he hasn’t done anything wrong.  You’re just overly sensitive.

Here’s one of my favorites, issued in the Rose Garden by Mr. Clinton: “Mistakes were made. . . .”  This is a classic.  It was given in the passive voice, There really isn’t a subject here.  Nothing is receiving the action of the verb, the doer is  not specifically named, and it wasn’t sin; it was just a mistake. He should have said, at the very least, “I have done wrong. Please forgive me.”  It is a mistake to enter a number incorrectly into the checkbook.  It is a mistake to mismeasure an ingredient in a recipe. It is SIN to deliberately choose to  have sexual contact with a woman to whom one is not married. It is a SIN to lie about it; and it is cowardly to phrase an “apology” in such vague terms that no one has any clear idea what actually happened, or what is being said.

These are not apologies. They are sorry excuses that allow us to refuse to accept responsibility for what we have done.

Now, back to that “It’s okay, don’t worry about it” thing. What’s wrong with that?  Well, for one thing, you aren’t telling the truth.  It is not okay when we’re offended.  It’s not okay to be insulted. And it’s not okay to pretend that everything’s okay when it isn’t.  The correct response is something like this:

“Well, I appreciate that.  It means a lot that you care enough to make things right.  Of course I forgive you. Thank you for clearing this up.”

If you had a part in creating the problem, you need to acknowledge it and, if necessary, seek forgiveness yourself.  Here’s a good example:

“Susie, I offended you yesterday when I said abcdefg.  I’m so sorry.  I shouldn’t have said it, and  I feel terrible about it. It was wrong of me. Can you forgive me?”

“Martha, I really was hurt. I’m so glad you  cared enough to make this right. I value our friendship, and of course I forgive you. Thank you.”

There. Done. No equivocating, no lying, no blaming or excusing or dodging.

Next week, two more things forgiveness is not.

Forgiveness, Part 5

Do I have to tell the person who hurt me that I have forgiven him?  I don’t ever want to see or talk to that person again. He’s scary, and although I’ve forgiven him, I want nothing more to do with him.

This is a “that depends” kind of question, and there is more than one answer.

Sometimes, the person we need to forgive is already dead. Perhaps it was an abusive or extremely critical parent that you have finally been able to forgive; however, that person is already gone, so there is no need to confront.

In some cases, your process of forgiving someone else is just between you and God. If you are convinced that telling a person you have forgiven him will do nothing but bring more pain down on you, then no, I don’t think you need to face that person.  Forgiveness, you’ll remember, is simply giving up your right to demand justice.  It does not require you to continue to be hurt by someone who is unrepentant and feels he has done nothing wrong. You can forgive from a safe distance.

I know of a situation in which the offended person did face her tormenter.  She told that person that she had come to a place of forgiving her, and wanted her to know that she held no malice. The guilty person, however, laughed until the tears flowed. “YOU have forgiven ME?”  she asked. “Oh, that’s rich. That’s really funny. I never did anything to you that you didn’t deserve. If  you hadn’t been such a twerp (yes, that’s the word she used)  you wouldn’t have gotten any trouble from me!”

Often, people who hurt us feel it was their right; in fact, they feel it was necessary. They believe they were justified in their words and actions, and have never felt a moment’s regret for anything. There’s not much future in trying to reconcile with that kind of attitude, and you’re probably far better off just to walk the path of forgiveness and keep it between you and God rather than to stir up another opportunity for the offender.

This is difficult if it’s someone you have to see often, such as a family member who lives nearby.  With time and patience, though, it can be done. I tell my clients that they don’t have to shut the person out of their lives, although the desire to do so may be strong. But clear boundaries can be established, and should be. When something starts between you, you can simply excuse yourself and refuse to participate.  You don’t have to attend every fight you’re invited to.

If you have an overwhelmingly interfering parent, in-law, or sibling, you must draw strong boundaries and then be willing and able to enforce them.  If you don’t, the person will continue to be a thorn in your flesh. It is possible to calmly state that you do not choose to continue the conversation, and to walk away or hang up the phone.

If you do desire to continue a relationship with the person you are forgiving,  then you must be prepared to have to choose over and over to forgive and let go.  I think you probably should tell the person that you have forgiven her for past hurts.  If she is a reasonable person, such a statement can lead to a conversation that will reveal hurt on both sides, and can be restorative.

We are called, as followers of Christ, to reconciliation and restoration. We are to love others as we love ourselves, and we all do love ourselves.  Impossible to reconcile or restore?  The person is so toxic that you simply can’t allow him back into your life? Yes, that can be the case, but forgiving removes the poison from your heart and soul and makes it possible for you to have contact with him without being tied up in knots.

The person is unrepentant, won’t admit she’s ever done anything wrong? Fine. Forgive anyway, keep it between you and God, and get on with your life.

The most satisfying thing, of course, is when an offender comes to you seeking forgiveness and you are able to offer it freely.  That’s the ideal.  In my experience, it doesn’t happen that way very often, When it does, you need to treasure it and  be thankful, and enjoy an renewed relationship with someone who cares enough to take the first step toward restoration.

As I said at the beginning, this is not a question for which one answer fits all. Seek wisdom from God, but forgtive in your heart no matter what.

Next week, what forgiveness is not.

Forgiveness, Part 4

When we choose to forgive, then the person who hurt us no longer has the power to control our emotions.

That statement bears a lot of thinking about. It’s important; it’s powerful; it’s one of the best arguments for choosing forgiveness that I know.

Do you know someone who is easily offended, angry, quick to snap back at an offense real or imagined?  A person who is bitter, negative, unpleasant to be around, and one that you “walk on eggshells” around to avoid conflict?  Are YOU that person?  Do others feel you have to be “handled” rather than just enjoyed?

These traits are often related to an offense, or an ongoing series of events, that colored the person’s life and that he has never forgiven.  Perhaps he doesn’t know he needs to forgive.  Perhaps no one ever taught or modeled forgiveness to him.  In any case, for years and years the person  has been living under the burden of negative emotion. He may have little or no contact with the person who hurt him, yet that person still controls his emotions and, therefore, much of his behavior.

In my work, I’ve found that this tendency toward anger and bitterness often marks whole families.  That is because they have existed in an atmosphere or retaliation rather than of forgiveness.  They view forgiveness as weakness; they see it as allowing the other person to have the upper hand.  The upper hand is very important to these people.  They don’t know that you gain the upper hand only when you learn to let go of your hurt.  When you do let it go, having the upper hand just doesn’t matter so much any more.

When we do not choose to forgive, we hold on to memories and emotions that color our thinking and behavior, thereby allowing the offender to guide our behavior. I work with people who carry great anger against one or both parents, or perhaps a sibling, who dominated and controlled the rest of the family.  Years later, perhaps even after the offender has died, these people are still behaving as if the offender is right beside them and has the power to control them still.  When I suggest to them that it is time to set themselves free from their anger by forgiving the offender, it always, always sets them back. The most typical response is complete denial of any need to forgive, denial of the anger and bitterness that everyone else sees in the person. Bringing that person to a place of recognizing the source of his unhappiness is sometimes a long and winding  journey.

To forgive, in these cases, is to cut loose a mountainous load of legitimate hurt, humiliation, helplessness, anger, and resentment. That load is doing far more damage to the one who carries it than it does to the offender, who is often oblivious to the pain he has caused.

We need to forgive for our emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical health. We need to forgive so that we can pry off the fingers of control that the offender  exerts over us.

Next week:  Do you have to tell the person that you have forgiven him?

Forgiveness, part 3

When we forgive, it is not so much for the benefit of the offender as it is to release ourselves from the prison of anger, bitterness, and depression. 

Have you ever met this poor woman?  Have you ever seen any other expression on her face than this one? Hard to deal with, isn’t it?  No matter what you do, she’ll always spot the error, always bring it loudly to your attention, always be angry. The sad thing is, she doesn’t even know why she’s so unpleasant and hard to please. 

When I was working on my master’s degree, I did a year of practicum in a nursing home.  I was a case worker, which meant that I had a regular list of residents that I looked after.  Sometimes it was just a matter of going in and spending some time talking with them.  There were other things to deal with, too, like family members who had questions or complaints; convincing a resident that she needed to stop ringing her bell every minute all night long; convincing them to eat, to tend to hygiene when they could, and so on. 

There was one man that I was warned about. “He’s a real grouch, Linda.  He’ll complain incessantly, and his language turns the air blue.  You’ll have to handle him carefully.”

Well, good grief.  This should a fun! 

The first time I went to see him, he greeted me with,”Well, finally!  I heard they were sending me someone new, and it’s about time you showed up.  Where have you been, anyway?”

“I’ve been avoiding you, Mr. Z, that’s where I’ve been.  And if you’re going to continue with this attitude, I’m leaving.”

He was stunned, speechless.  After a few seconds, though, he got his second wind and started in on a tirade ranging from his childhood to his most recent meal.  I gave him about ten minutes before I interrupted him. 

“Okay, Mr. Z, I think I’ve heard enough. It’s clear you’ve been mistreated, misunderstood, and abused all your life. I’m sorry you feel that way, but I’m just not going to come here every day to listen to you complain.  So here’s the deal. Tomorrow, when I come, you need to have a story to tell me about something good that happened to you when you were a kid. No griping, no complaining.  One positive story, and that’s all. If you can’t think of anything, I’ll come again the next day and the next until you come up with something positive. Understood?”

Again, he sat on his bed gaping at me, with nothing at all to say.  Finally–“You can’t do that!  I’ll report you!  I’ll have your job! I’ll—“

“See you tomorrow, Mr. Z.”

What he didn’t know was that I’d already informed all the appropriate people about my plans for Mr. Z, and they were all curious to see how it would go.  He’d been terrorizing the caregivers for months, and they dreaded having to go into his room.  I wasn’t worried at all. 

He had a positive story for me the next day. As time passed, we actually became friends.  Finally, I was able to talk with him about spiritual things, and I suggested to him that he would be much happier if he would learn to forgive those who had hurt him over the years.He was astonished at the idea, believing sincerely that the only possible reaction to mistreatment was anger.

The trouble with that, of course, is that the anger was eating him up from the inside, and it wasn’t affecting those he hated in any way. 

Anger itself is not sin.  What we do in our anger is another story, and often the greatest sin we commit in anger is against our own hearts and spirits.  Years ago, I read Tim LaHaye’s book How to Win over Depression. He wrote that offense leads to hurt and anger, leads to self-pity, leads to bitterness, leads to depression.  The only way to break that progression is after the hurt/anger part, and the thing that breaks the chain is to choose to forgive.  It is to realize that you yourself are far more hurt by your bitterness than is the person who hurt you. Even more important, your bitterness spills out like acid over all the other people in your life, who have no idea why your tongue is so sharp and your attitude is so critical.  They don’t understand that you learned those behaviors as a defense against mistreatment. They only know you’re hard to deal with, and they try to avoid you when they can. 

Mr. Z was transferred to another facility about halfway through my year.  I don’t remember why. But he left me a note, since the transfer was made over a weekend when I wasn’t there.  The note said, “Hey, smartypants, you won’t have to see me again.  But I’ll remember  you.”


Friday Counseling Issues: Forgiveness, part 2

Matthew 6:12, 14-15. “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.. . .For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

If you grew up in church and Sunday school, as I did, you probably memorized verse 12 along with the rest of what we have come to know as The Lord’s Prayer.  Again, if you’re like me, you probably didn’t get stopped on one tiny little word until some years later. 

The word is as.   We pray, “Forgive us as we forgive others.” We let the words role off our tongues so glibly that we don’t stop consider the importance of that one little word. 

So why am I making such a big deal out of such a small word?  Because of what it means, of course.  It means in the same way.  “Father, forgive me in the same way that I forgive those who have hurt me, sinned against me, slandered me, bullied me, stolen from me, lied about me.  Forgive me, Lord, the same way that I forgive them.”

Is that really what we want?  That God forgives us in the exact same way in which we have–or have not–forgiven others?  

I don’t remember when I first “got it” about this principle.  It’s been a very long time ago now, since I’ve reached this vast old age.  Sadly, I didn’t get it when I was very young.  I was an adult, rearing my own family, before the importance of this little word really sank into my heart. My experience had been that you don’t let anyone push you around, you fight back, you even the score.   Standing up to those who would hurt you may be necessary and right, but if you don’t forgive those who hurt you, then all you’ve done is fight. You haven’t settled the issue. And you’re carrying around a load of anger and bitterness that will affect every other part of your life. 

This is so important that Jesus went on to say that the only way to GET forgiveness from God is to GIVE forgiveness to others.   Those two verses, 14-15, have stirred up a firestorm of anger more than once as I work with people in my office who are struggling with deep hurts, abuse, misery, anger and depression. It is hard to realize that one’s relationship with the Father is tainted by unforgiveness; that indeed, if we do not forgive others, then He cannot  forgive us!

I urge you to ponder on these verses this week.  Next week, we’ll look at another important principle of forgiveness. 


Friday Counseling Issues: Forgiveness

I like to go back to the most literal meaning of a word. For that, I go to the Online Etymology Dictionary, and here is what it says about the word forgiveness: 

forgive (v.) Look up forgive at Dictionary.comOld English forgiefan “give, grant, allow; forgive,” also “to give up” and “to give in marriage;” from for- “completely” + giefan “give” (see give).
The modern sense of “to give up desire or power to punish” is from use of the compound as a Germanic loan-translation of Latin perdonare (such as Old Saxon fargeban, Dutch vergeven, German vergeben, Gothic fragiban; see pardon (v.)). Related: Forgave; forgiven; forgiving.

In financial terms, here is another definition  from

“Writing-off of a portion of one or more loans to a financially troubled firm by its lender(s). The objective is to help that firm in its debt restructuring so that it remains viable and is able to pay off the remaining part of the loan(s).”

To forgive, then, has always meant to give up the right to  demand justice, whether in human relationships or in financial terms. It is to grant pardon, to remove the neccessity of repayment for a wrong or a debt. 

There is a great deal of misunderstanding about forgiveness.  We believe, for instance, that if we forgive, then the person who wronged us gets away with it.  Or, if we forgive, then we have to accept continuing hurt and pain.  Forgiveness somehow makes us doormats for the bad guys. Worse, we tend to believe that forgivess is weakness.  Just the opposite is true, and I hope we will see that clearly as we talk through this topic. 

Often, we believe that forgiveness is simply saying, “Oh, that’s ok, don’t worry about it.”  I want to say that doing so is a cop-out.  It’s not true forgiveness. No one has done anything wrong, and the person who has been asked to forgive pretends he wasn’t hurt.  

Next week, I plan to start working through a handout that I offer my clients on this topic.  We’ll be starting in Matthew 6, with what we have come to know as “The Lord’s Prayer.” I’d encourage you to read through from verses 9-15. 

Please be in prayer for me as I write and study; and for anyone, including yourself, who may have some forgiving to do. This is one of the most important issues I address in my work.  We need to get it right.