5 Reasons Forgiveness is Hard

forgive and forgetHas anyone ever told you to “forgive and forget” or “just let it go”? They make forgiveness sound easy, as if it’s an automatic response to deciding forgiveness is in our own best interest.  But releasing resentment in an act of forgiveness can be monstrously difficult, even when we genuinely want to leave old episodes in the past. It helps to see clearly what holds us back from the forgiveness we desire.  Here are five things that make forgiveness hard.

1. Misconceptions
Sometimes what forgiveness is NOT poses obstacles to forgiveness. Forgiveness does not condone the offense, liberate anyone from consequences, or restore trust. Forgiveness does not compel anyone to forget anything, to tell anyone they’re forgiven, or to stay in relationship at all. If I’m laboring under the misconception that forgiveness requires any of these things, I might quite understandably find forgiveness impossible to do. Fortunately, forgiveness is simply the release of resentment and claim to retribution—no more and no less. It is possible to release resentment and then end a relationship or return to a different kind of relationship with less trust.

2. Accountability
Most of us expect a little recognition for good deeds and to be held accountable for our mistakes. When someone does us wrong, we want that person held accountable. It flows from our sense of justice. If our offender appears to be waltzing off scot free, with no one holding her to account for her wrongdoing, we naturally feel drawn to fill that void. Thus, our desire for justice and accountability can work against releasing resentment.

3. Superiority
Being the victim of someone’s harmful choices can have several consequences. It can really hurt of course, but being the victim can have subtle payoffs as well. Recognizing another’s moral failings can make us feel better about ourselves, or at least better than the moral flunky who did us wrong. In addition to feeling superior, we might feel entitled to something from that person. Our attachment to superiority or entitlement pulls us away from releasing resentment.

4. Connection
In a badly tattered relationship, resentment may be the only thing left between two people. If it’s someone I think I need in my life, I may cling to the resentment because it’s all that’s left. This phenomenon sometimes plays out in parent relationships with adult children. A parent might cling to resentment for adolescent behavior as her only connection to a time when her child needed her. That desire for connection is at odds with releasing the past.

5. Remorse
The big kahuna of forgiveness obstacles is a lack of remorse. Genuine remorse on the part of our offender gives us a sense that forgiveness is complete. Without it, forgiveness feels one-sided and unfinished. Sometimes offender remorse is impossible, though. An addict deeply in denial, for example, doesn’t have the capacity for remorse. In the case of long past childhood wounds, the offender may have died. Even in stubborn cases without any offender remorse whatsoever, there are steps we can take to lead us to the healing power of forgiveness.

Join the conversation. What has made forgiveness most difficult for you?
Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Forgive and Forget: Two Views

A recent post on new year’s resolutions invited contemplation regarding whether there is forgiveness you need to receive or to extend.  A wise commenter responded with thoughts on what forgiveness really is. Here, in part, is what she said:

 

I once read that the definition of true forgiveness is to no longer see the other person as wrong! Wow! I mean if I didn’t think that they were wrong to begin with, I wouldn’t have a need to forgive them right? But now if I have to no longer believe that they are wrong, well, that puts a whole new spin on forgiveness doesn’t it? When God forgives us, he wipes the slate clean.  The bible says it’s as if the sin had never been…yep, that pretty much says I am not wrong.  I have a completely new beginning. I think that’s the forgiveness that God want’s from us as well. To wipe the slate clean towards our brother, as if the infraction had never been…as if they had never wronged us!

That is a challenging definition of forgiveness, indeed.  To contrast that with a different thought, I’ll refer to Curtis Almquist, another spiritual thinker I very much admire.  In Unwrapping the Gifts: The Twelve Days of Christmas, Almquist examines the etymology of forgiveness and suggests it is not about forgetting.  We’re often urged to forgive and forget, but is that as powerful as forgiving and remembering?  To remember the offense in all its meanness, thoughtlessness, malice or spite, and nevertheless in the very presence of that reality, to release resentment and all claim against the offender can be a greater offering and act of love than somehow vanquishing the offense from our consciousness.  Some may be able to blot out the offense as if it never happened when releasing resentment, but for me personally it sounds like a slippery slope towards repression and denial.  I am one of those challenged by the “forget” part.

Almquist helps by pointing to the blessing in the tensions we feel with those who give us a reason to forgive or those with whom we don’t get along.  He calls them “enemies,” a strong word but the one Jesus used for all who fall outside the categories of family, friend and neighbor.

I’ve changed my mind about enemies in several ways.  For one, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, not because it makes for more pleasant living (although undoubtedly it does).  Rather, we’re told to love our enemies because they may also be our teachers, perhaps even our best teachers.  Our enemies can get us in touch with “our stuff” like no one else can… Our enemies expose us, and I believe that they are extraordinary agents for our own conversion.

In this new year of life, as we reflect on where we’re headed and what is in our way, perhaps we can hold up, appreciate, and even love those people who are burrs under our blankets for the insight with which they grace us on our journeys.

Join the conversation.  Who is your fellow traveler who best exposes the life change your soul craves?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Forgive and Forget?

“Forgive and forget” is a mantra from my childhood.  I wasn’t particularly good at either but notably bad at the latter.  Is forgetting part of the forgiveness process?  What exactly constitutes forgiveness?

A man I met in a reconciliation workshop had survived child abuse and the wreckage of several family members’ alcoholism.  The depth of his 50-year struggle for forgiveness made an impression on me.  In the struggle, it seems that what forgiveness is not can present as many obstacles as what forgiveness is.

To forgive is to release resentment and claim to retribution.  To be complete, forgiveness is a two part process involving the offender’s genuine remorse for the offense and the victim’s release of resentment.  Forgiveness does not release the offender from accountability for her actions.  It does not erase financial, legal, physical, emotional, or any other kind of consequences.  Forgiveness does not make the offense permissible.  To the contrary, naming the offense as worthy of forgiveness marks it as unacceptable.  And forgiveness does not restore trust or repair the relationship.  A relationship might not be repairable, with or without forgiveness.   While restoring a relationship to full trust may be desirable, it is not always realistic.  The good news is forgiveness is possible without it.

Trust merits special consideration.  While forgiving is the moral choice, restoring trust might not be.  Should the parents of a child who has been molested by an uncle release anger and resentment for the uncle?   Eventually, yes.  Should the parents return to relationship with the uncle?  Maybe.  Should they trust the uncle?  No.  Evidence suggests molesters reoffend.  Neither family ties nor religious belief require anyone to ignore evidence.   Protecting a child is a parent’s moral obligation.  In this case, the moral choice is to release resentment and, if the uncle has genuine remorse, to return to a different kind of relationship without trust.  Note forgiving the uncle in this scenario would not absolve him of legal consequences for any crimes committed.

Forgiveness can be a struggle if one of the two necessary parts is missing.  This is true for the man in the reconciliation workshop.  His alcoholic brother is in denial and lacks the capacity for remorse, and the father who abused him died.  What can he do when there is no possibility of offender remorse?  Even without genuine remorse, there is hope for healing.

The hope starts with a journey inward–introspection.  Taking an honest look at how the wounds we received played a role in the wounds we inflicted, and taking responsibility for the harm we caused others, is a step that is completely within our control.  The very act of changing our wounded-wounding pattern severs the ropes that tie us to a wounded past.  Once free, we can release resentment and pray for our offenders, dead or living, to receive grace.  That does not make forgiveness complete, but it does create healing power.

Join the conversation.  How have you approached forgiveness when your offender lacked genuine remorse?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.