Most people, whether they are religious or not, would agree that holding a grudge and hanging on to bitterness is not helpful.
In an article entitled Forgiveness: Letting Go of Grudges and Bitterness the Mayo Clinic gives the following negative effects of holding a grudge:
- It can bring anger and bitterness into every relationship and new experience.
- You can become so wrapped up in the wrong that you can’t enjoy the present.
- You can become depressed and anxious.
- You can feel your life lacks meaning or purpose.
- You can become at odds with your spiritual beliefs.
- You can lose valuable and enriching connectedness with others.
Referring to a study on holding grudges from the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, David P. Feldman, Ph.D. states
“…those who said they tended to hold grudges reported higher rates of heart disease and cardiac arrest, elevated blood pressure, stomach ulcers, arthritis, back problems, headaches, and chronic pain than those who didn’t share this tendency. “
So, though holding onto a grudge and refusing to forgive may in some way feel good to us, the truth is it is not good for us. But forgiveness is beneficial to us mentally, emotionally, and physically.
For Christians, forgiveness is also beneficial spiritually. As a Christian, I have been given forgiveness I didn’t deserve and didn’t earn. Out of that undeserved gift, I am to learn to do the same…forgive others who are undeserving. Colossians 3:13
In the model prayer known as The Lord’s Prayer, we are taught to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Matthew 6:12
The Christian has been forgiven, but continues to experience forgiveness as they offer forgiveness.
Forgiving, especially in light of severe trauma, is not easy…even for Christians. Certainly the severity of the offense makes forgiveness difficult. How could such a horrible crime be forgiven?
But there are also certain misconceptions about forgiveness that can impede our ability to forgive. Understanding what forgiveness is and isn’t is an important step toward being able to forgive.
Let’s start with what forgiveness is not.
- Forgiveness is not condoning the offense. Forgiveness does not mean that what happened to you was ok. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that what happened to you was a small thing. The very fact that forgiveness is needed says that there was a serious offense that cannot be atoned for in any other way.
- Forgiveness is not excusing the offender. Nothing excuses what your abuser(s) did to you. It was wrong, it will always be wrong, and it can’t be undone. That’s why your only two options are bitterness or forgiveness. Forgiveness is not fair, but it is freeing.
- Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness releases the expectation and/or the need for the abuser(s) to make some kind of restitution for what they have done. Forgiveness does not require you to restore a relationship with the abuser(s). Reconciliation will depend on the repentance of the abuser(s) and the willingness of the abused, but forgiveness is not dependent on reconciliation. Forgiveness is solely in the hands of the abused.
- Forgiveness is not dependent on forgetting. Often we are told we need to “forgive and forget.” Or we are told that continuing to remember an offense is a sign that we have not forgiven the offender. Neither of these are true. Forgetting our hurts would keep us from learning and open the door for further traumatization. Throughout Scripture, God constantly remembers and rehearses the offenses of His people. Forgiveness does not override memory. Forgiveness overrules memory.
- Forgiveness is not a quick, one-time decision. Forgiveness starts with a decision, but from there forgiveness is a process of living out that decision. When the offense is small, the decision and process of forgiveness is relatively short and easy. But when the offense large, as in sexual abuse, reaching the decision to forgive and carrying out that decision can take much more time and effort. Look at the amount of time between when God proposed forgiveness in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) and when He actually carried it out with the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. As Christians, we are called to forgive completely…not necessarily quickly.
So what is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is choosing to give up your right and your need to expect or demand restitution for the wrong that was done to you. Forgiveness is releasing your need to collect on the debt they owe you and in so doing setting yourself free. Forgiveness is a learned and practiced skill. It is totally within your power and ultimately for you more than anyone else.
But having said all this, let me say that no one can pressure you into forgiving your abuser. Forgiveness must be given freely as a voluntary decision and an on-going act of the will.
In his article on holding grudges (quoted above), Dr. Feldman also says
“We’re not implying that victims of crimes, traumas, and atrocities have an obligation to forgive their victimizers. Most experts on the topic of forgiveness agree that nobody should (or even can) be forced to forgive. To do so would be to further victimize the victim. But, to the degree that we naturally feel ready to let go of grudges, it may ultimately be beneficial for us to do so. This isn’t something we do for those who wronged us; it’s something we do for ourselves when and if we’re ready.”
I agree with Dr. Feldman. Forgiveness is not to be forced out of a sense of a sense of duty to the offender, but rather offered as an act of freedom for the abused. Forgiveness allows the victim to move forward without continuing to drag the abuser around with them.