How to Forgive the Unforgiveable

Monday, June 1, 2020

Many of us have had seemingly unforgivable acts perpetuated against us. People who took advantage of our vulnerabilities, who exploited their power over us, who violated or abused us. Often, it is the very people who promised to protect and care for us that harm us.

When I became a Christian, the churches I attended gave me plenty of instruction on the importance of forgiveness, but almost zero practical advice on what that looked like or how to get there. Forgiveness became this pie-in-the-sky ideal that I was constantly falling short of. I felt like a shitty Christian because I couldn't stop being angry at the people who had hurt me. I felt so stuck. 

Then I hit bottom. I nearly died from the pain I was carrying and was forced to begin healing. Through 12-step programs, therapy, wise friends and good books, I began to piece together what forgiveness could look like, and how to get there.

What forgiveness really is. (And what it's not.)

As small children, most of us were asked to forgive the kid that took a toy from us or called us a name on the schoolyard, and then we returned to happily playing with the child who offended us. Forgiveness, in our young minds, seemed to mean pretending as if a slight had not occurred. For many of us, this understanding doesn't mature or grow much as we enter adulthood. We go through life knowing we *should* forgive, but not really understanding what that means. 

Forgiveness is about changing how I feel about the perpetrator. The dictionary tells us that forgiveness means to stop feeling angry or resentful towards someone who has hurt or harmed us. Forgiveness is not about erasing the realities of the harms done against us, it is about taking responsibility for our own feelings and dealing with the anger or resentment that is doing damage to our own spirits.

Forgiveness doesn't mean the relationship is restored. This is so important. We fall for the lie sometimes in the church that because Jesus sacrificed himself to his accusers, we have to allow all manner of abuse against us. That forgiving seventy times seven times means endlessly pressing reset on the relationship. But Jesus stood with the abused and hurting and marginalized. Jesus condemned abuses of power and acts of violence. Forgiving your attacker doesn't mean giving them opportunity to hurt you again. 

Forgiveness and boundaries are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes we have to forgive people so that we can move on and heal, but we must still keep them a safe distance from ourselves and our families. That's ok. Forgiving someone for feeding you poison doesn't mean you have to drink their poison again and again. 

If forgiveness restores community and relationship, that's great. But please know that for your own safety and wellbeing, you can forgive from a distance.

Forgiveness doesn't require the other person to be sorry. There are people who may never be willing or able to make amends to us for the harm they did. Forgiveness isn't about them, so their posture, whether sorry or indignant or somewhere in between, is irrelevant.

Forgiveness doesn't mean we don't think about the hurt. I've heard it preached from the pulpit that if we've truly forgiven someone, the things they've done won't even come to mind anymore. There are situations where that is true, but it's not always the case. This sort of teaching can cause us to misidentify the symptoms of trauma as signs of unforgiveness, and it can hold us back from truly healing by making us afraid to process what happened to us. In my experience, suppressing the darkness never leads us into the light. 

Forgiveness isn't about them. Forgiveness is about healing my own attitudes towards the person who hurt me, because our human spirits are damaged by hate and resentment. At its core, unforgiveness is an abuse to my own humanity.

Now that we know what forgiveness is (and isn't), how do we get there? 

In order to forgive, we must forgive ourselves. 

The nature of our humanity is that we can't hate ourselves without hating others. Only by accepting our own frailty, can we begin to forgive those who have hurt us. 

I cannot help but hold others to the standards I hold myself to. If I cannot accept less than perfection from myself, I will unwittingly hold others to that same standard. If I cannot present my whole self, good and bad, before a loving God, and trust that I can be forgiven, how can I believe that those who harmed me can do the same? 

I have to forgive myself for the things I didn't know before I knew them. I have to stop beating myself up for the choices I've made and the ways I've born my hurts. I have to accept my own frailty, my own humanity, so that I can accept the frailty and humanity of those who hurt me. 

As long as I am my own enemy, my ego will work hard to protect me by turning the finger of blame and judgement outward to others around me. Until I accept my own humanity, I will defensively hold on to my resentments against those who've harmed me.  Until I make peace with the darkness inside myself, I cannot forgive the darkness in others.

Praying for those who hurt us (even when it seems impossible).

In 12-step programs, we are taught to deal with persistent resentments by praying for the person all the things we want for ourselves. This is a tall order, and hard spiritual work.  When someone has hurt you in massive ways that have changed the course of your life, asking God to bless them with the things you want most for yourself can seem impossible. 

For some resentments, I had to start small. Surely everyone deserves to have food on the table and a roof over their head, so I prayed that they would have the material things they require. I pressed myself to admit that everyone ought to feel loved by God, and so I prayed that they would know that they are loved. Slowly, I began to pray for them, not that they would be changed, but that they would know safety and love and hope. 

This process humanizes our enemies. It makes them whole people instead of caricatures that hurt us. When the pain is still raw, and the emotional wounds are still festering, it is hard to feel that our enemies deserve anything good from the hand of God. But we ask, not because they deserve it, but because God gives to the undeserving. 

Our natural instinct is to ask God to change our enemies and to bless us. But forgiveness means praying "Lord, bless them and change me." If I am struggling to forgive, suffering under the weight of resentment and anger, I am the one who needs to see God move, I am the one who needs to change in order to be free. God, bless them, change me. 

Forgiveness is a process, and sometimes a slow one.

Complex hurts are multilayered and dynamic. 

We want forgiveness to be a one-time event. And sometimes it is. Some wounds are easy to move past.

 But some wounds barely scab over before something rubs up against them and starts them bleeding again. Sometimes the way someone hurt us touches so many individual parts of our being that it takes years to uncover all the emotional buckshot. Sometimes the many ways that the original harm affected us keeps surfacing in ways we hadn't previously seen, and we must keep forgiving. 

Forgiveness isn't a one-time act, it is a posture toward those who hurt us, toward humanity, and towards God. And it takes time. 

We forgive by choosing to heal.

For me, the biggest step in forgiving some truly unforgivable acts has been to choose to move forward and heal. By allowing myself to heal from the offense, I release the perpetrator from their power over my future. I am absolving them of responsibility for who I am becoming. I am not excusing or condoning their actions, but I am not giving their past behavior a hold on my future anymore. I'm taking responsibility for the next right step and inviting God to redeem a seemingly irredeemable situation. 

For many years, I held onto unforgiveness as if it were evidence for a trial against my abusers. If I laid down all this resentment I was holding, how could I guard myself against them and those like them? And sometimes, when I feel afraid, I begin to pick up those resentments again. But the anger and resentment was never protecting me. It was eating at me, breaking me. I had to let it go. I had to choose healing instead. 

Friend, that stuff that happened to you and I should never have happened.

The people who hurt us had no right to do so. And the struggle to forgive them is understandable, human, and normal. But the resentments we carry don't hurt them, they destroy us. They do damage to our relationship with others, with God, and with ourselves. 

There is no quick and easy path to forgiveness.  It's a process, and sometimes a lifetime one. May we each grow towards forgiveness today, and make space for the process.  May we be patient with ourselves and others. 

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