She is grappling with a difficult question. A victim of childhood abuse at the hands of parents, abuse that has impacted her ability to trust herself and others, she asks, “Do I have to forgive them to become emotionally healthy?”
Christianity places high value on forgiveness. Jesus calls on his followers to forgive “seventy times seven” times – forgiveness is a requirement. Other world religions also value forgiveness. Judaism places forgiveness in the hands of the person who has been harmed. Islam suggests that if a person seeks forgiveness, it is incumbent on the person being asked to give that forgiveness.
Let’s look at what forgiveness means. One translation of the Greek word forgiveness is “to let go of”. Biblical references include the concept of forgiving a debt or a trespass – “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”.
People who have been harmed by the actions of others often struggle with the idea that they must forgive the other person. Resistance to forgiveness in many cases arises from the mistaken idea that forgiving a person who has caused harm equals condoning his/her action – essentially saying it really didn’t matter.
What forgiveness is not:
Condoning or excusing harm
Pretending that the harm never happened
Continuing a harmful relationship
Allowing oneself to be taken advantage of
What does it feel like to be unable or unwilling to forgive? Some have described this experience as a hardness, a heaviness, a sense of being weighted. Others describe it as a burning sensation, or a coldness. Unforgiveness is hard to carry. It is especially hard to carry when for whatever reason it has become so familiar that it is often not perceived. It is just who you are. Just how things are. Inner dialogue might be: Yes, I was hurt. Yes, I still carry the scars. If I think about it, I just can’t stand that person. I don’t think about it much.
Forgiveness, for me, is an intentional and ongoing process of choosing to let go of carrying the pain of hurt and anger toward another person. I choose to let go of that burden FOR MYSELF. The other person may never know that I have let go of this burden. This does not invalidate the process. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same.
To answer my client’s question – forgiveness is a process that is part of emotional health. It is personal. It may take a lifetime. It does not require you to place yourself in harm’s way. “I was harmed. I acknowledge that you harmed me. I don’t want to carry the pain of that unhealed place anymore. I am letting it go for my own well-being.”
May we all find ways to let go of the burdens of unforgiveness in this hurting world.
For more on this topic, you are invited to join Susan Hammonds-White for a Lunch & Learn on July 24, 11:30am. https://www.tapestries.care/events
Susan Hammonds-White, EdD, LPC/MHSP is a professional counselor who is part of The Tapestries Counseling Center. An experienced counselor, she has been in practice for more than 40 years. Dr. Susan is an elder at Woodmont Christian Church, an Imago Relationships Therapist, and a level-II EMDR trauma therapist.