Many of us have heard the concept “forgiveness is a choice” so many times that it’s almost become a cliché. Yes, on its own, it’s an empowering statement. But in practice, it doesn’t always seem so simple.
My own struggles with forgiveness began with misunderstanding what it meant and what it looked like. I saw forgiveness as the opposite of anger. If I forgave someone, it meant I got rid of the anger. If I still felt angry when I thought of injustices done to me… well, then, I must have never forgiven in the first place. The reasoning sounds stable enough, right?
But that way of thinking has come back to bite me. Like most people, I’ve had a lot of reasons to forgive in my life. And the problem I always face when confronted with a need to forgive is that I’m left still feeling angry when I think of the offense. As a result, I spend years beating myself up over these feelings of anger. If forgiveness was a choice, then why couldn’t I seem to make it happen? Why was I still feeling angry?
I’ve come to learn that I was fighting human nature. We feel upset, frustrated, and angry when someone hurts us. It’s a simple game of cause and effect.
So if forgiveness doesn’t mean to banish anger, what does it actually look like?
I think in order to understand this, we need to come up with a new definition for what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is not a lack of anger when we consider an offense. Forgiveness doesn’t always mean reconciliation of a relationship, especially when that resumption would be ill-advised or even harmful.
Rather, forgiveness means I let myself off the hook for being the one responsible for enforcing justice. As author and speaker Lisa Brenninkmeyer says, it means releasing that person from our own internal court and instead giving it to God who is justice itself.
Forgiveness asks us to stop mentally condemning the person who offended us. It means stopping the rehashing of situations that cause us pain. It means purposefully leading our minds away from other people’s offenses and towards something more good and more beautiful. We cannot effectively live a life if we are only focusing on our own faults, and we can not effectively live a life of love if we are primarily focusing on the faults of others.
This is never easy, but no one said forgiveness is meant to be easy.
I have been struggling with the concept of forgiveness for what seems like ages. There are days where forgiving people is easy, and other days when it feels impossible. The good news of all of it is that there is help. We can turn to others to help us on our forgiveness journey, and we can turn to prayer.
The reality is, we live in a broken world, and none of us will exit this world without being hurt many times. That never releases us from the responsibility to forgive. It does, however, give us ample opportunity to practice forgiving. It gives us the opportunity to see the whole humanity in the other person, and it gives us practice seeing others as God sees them.
One of the best things I’ve been taught is that forgiveness is a process. It’s not necessarily a one-and-done thing. Sometimes this is because others are imperfect and continue to hurt us in the same ways. And sometimes it’s because we are imperfect and need to recommit to letting God handle the justice while we live out mercy.
Forgiveness doesn’t always mean that the anger we feel when we dwell on the experience will go away. In some cases, that does happen. One day we may be able to look back on a hurtful experience and feel peace. But even if we don’t get there, we have a better chance at healing if we release ourselves from the responsibility of being judge and justice. We can’t fix everything. Not every relationship will be repaired or restored. What we can do is choose how much of ourselves we invest in a painful or hurtful situation. In forgiving, we may recognize our limits, but we can also set ourselves free.