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In Part 1 of this two-part series, we defined forgiveness as a process that moves us from the cold, unforgiving emotions of bitterness and resentment to warmer, more altruistic feelings of love and compassion towards the one who has offended us. We discussed why it’s important to forgive and how we can prepare ourselves to begin the process.
Steps to Forgiveness
Following are a dozen steps to bring you through the forgiveness process, and ways to follow through and sustain your resolution to forgive. You may need to implement only one or two of these steps, or you might need to use all or most of them. It will depend on your particular situation. They do not have to be done in any particular order; it’s all a matter of what works for you.
1. Personal Encounter: “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar; go first and be reconciled with your brother” [Matthew 5:23-24]. After a cool-down period of mental and spiritual preparation, arrange a discussion with the person who hurt you. Often, much of the anger will dissipate once you are face-to-face. If handled correctly, conflict can lead to positive change. Ask for an explanation and try to clear up any misunderstandings. It is only fair to others that we clarify what kind of behavior offends us. Do not use confrontational, accusatory language. Be respectful. Preserve your inner peace. Repeat the other person’s words back to ensure you understand their meaning. Don’t argue in circles or bring up past hurts. Keep in mind that you cannot always change someone’s point of view, and forgiveness does not always lead to reconciliation, which needs the cooperation of both parties. If you cannot resolve your conflict with someone by yourselves, call in an objective third party to mediate.
Never arrange a face-to-face meeting where you are alone with someone who has a violent temper, is abusive or otherwise unstable, or if you have difficulty controlling your own temper! If you have been the victim of abuse, you may need to seek the help of a professional therapist to help you work through the trauma. Your safety is of paramount importance!
2. Written Communication/Social Media: It’s important to realize that it is much easier for us to offend people or feel offended as a result of written communications as opposed to phone or in-person conversations. In this era of social media, texting and email, where communication is instantaneous, allowing little opportunity for rewrites or careful selection of our words, more and more of us are finding ourselves dealing with real or imagined offenses.
When you feel offended by something that was written to you, do not hastily dash off an angry, written reply. Take a break and then slowly re-read the message. You might find that you missed or misread some words, or “read between the lines” something that wasn’t actually there at all. If you still feel hurt or uncertain about the meaning of what was written, call or meet with the other person, if at all possible, and ask for clarification. You will then be in a position to discuss the situation and clear up any misunderstandings.
If verbal communication is not feasible, after a period of prayer and reflection, write a calm reply and ask the person to clarify their meaning, or present your side of the situation in a non-confrontational manner. If the other person insists on being rude and argumentative, the best response from you is none at all. There is no value in arguing with a person whose mind is closed and who does not want to compromise. If certain people are often negative or offensive on social media, it’s usually best to quietly disengage from contact with them. Most of the time, other people eventually will see these people for what they are and disregard their negative comments or cut off contact with them as well. But if other people believe the negative person’s lies or unkind remarks about you, they probably are not the kind of friends you want, anyway!
3. When no contact of any kind is possible: If the incident happened a long time ago, the other person is deceased or their whereabouts unknown, or if meeting/talking with them is inappropriate or unsafe, work through the rest of the steps in the process to bring you to a point of forgiveness and inner peace. It is not always necessary or possible for the other party to know you have forgiven them.
4. Examine your own actions. Ask yourself honestly: “Am I being overly sensitive? Did I do something to cause or exacerbate the situation? Could I have reacted more appropriately?” If you find that you are also to blame for the situation, acknowledge your part in it, apologize to the other party if possible, and above all forgive yourself as well as the other person. We all are human and we all make mistakes. Acknowledge, make amends, and move on.
5. Talk it out with someone whose judgment you trust. Don’t whine, play victim, or place blame, but discuss the event as objectively as you can. Then ask for honest feedback and receive it with an open mind. Sometimes another person’s viewpoint can help you see the situation more clearly. Tell your impartial friend not to allow you to discuss the matter repeatedly, and don’t go complaining about it to everyone you know. Continual rehashing of the incident will only deepen your feelings of resentment. Seek help from clergy, a counselor or a therapist if you continue to be deeply troubled about it.
6. Keep a sense of proportion. Hatred and bitterness arise out of our failure to realize that “we are not in the flesh, but in the spirit.” [Romans 8:9]. As spirit, nothing and no one on earth can destroy us. Superficial differences and petty arguments become meaningless when viewed in the vast panorama of eternit
7. Shift your perspective. Although we don’t have God’s ability to see into anyone’s soul, attempting to see the incident from the other person’s point of view can often help us to forgive. One way to do this is by writing out an account of the incident as seen from your opponent’s perspective. Were there extenuating circumstances, personal problems or pressures that may have been contributing factors? By putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, feelings of understanding, compassion and empathy may begin to replace the anger and pain.
8. Release your emotions. Write honestly about your feelings in a journal, or even in a letter to the person who hurt you. Don’t hold back – this is the time to release all the anger, hurt and frustration you feel. However – and this is vital – NEVER send the letter! Tear it up or burn it as a symbolic way of letting go of the negative emotions. Watch an appropriate movie or TV program, read a story, or listen to music that will help you vent some of your feelings. Don’t be afraid to cry as you watch or listen — tears can have a healing, soothing effect and soften your heart towards your offender. Some people find it helpful to use physical exercise as a safety valve for pent-up emotions.
9. Focus on the other person’s strengths and qualities. If your relationship basically has been a positive one, recall all the good times you’ve shared, the things you like about the person, the many ways in which the association has benefitted you.
10. Take positive action. Many people find peace by turning their pain and anger into constructive endeavors, i.e. working to change laws, raising public awareness over social injustice, giving time and effort to charitable organizations, etc. This brings good out of the evil that was done to them.
11. Recall a specific occasion when you offended someone and were forgiven. Remember the freedom and gratitude you felt as a result of being forgiven. How would it feel to do the same for the person who hurt you? Remember, at the same time that you are praying to forgive someone, someone might be praying for the grace to forgive you!
12. Find comfort in knowing that Divine justice will ultimately prevail. If someone has treated you unfairly, and no human justice is forthcoming, don’t become discouraged or seek revenge. We have God’s promise that all will be made right, if not on earth, then in the next world: “The Lord remembers what their enemies have done; he waits for the right time to punish them…The Lord will rescue his people when he sees that their strength is gone. He will have mercy on those who serve him, when he sees how helpless they are.” [Deut. 32:34,36].
Following Through on Forgiveness
Once you resolve to forgive, follow through on it. Write out a pledge to God and the person you are forgiving, and display it where you can see it often. Tell a third party about your commitment. This will make you more likely to stick to it.
After you have forgiven, let the matter rest and don’t bring it up with the person again. When Jesus said to forgive someone not just once, but “seventy times seven” times (Matt. 18:22), He meant, “Don’t keep a scorecard!”
Forgiving doesn’t always mean forgetting. There may be times when you’ll recall the incident and feel the pain all over again. It’s human nature to remember things that hurt us, part of our survival instinct to protect ourselves from being hurt in the same way again. As long as you don’t deliberately dwell on the memory to the point where you stir up bitterness and resentment again, you have not reneged on your promise to forgive. Accept and acknowledge the memories as they arise, then release them and move on.
Everyone’s experience of forgiveness will be unique. It might take time for you to be able to forgive. If you go through all the above steps and still find yourself unable to do it, don’t despair. Just continue to pray for the person who hurt you and do not dwell on hatred or bitterness. The challenge of forgiveness is not one we have to face alone. Give the situation to God and trust that He will restore light where darkness dwells, and peace where there is conflict, by infusing our hearts with the precious gift of forgiveness.