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Becoming a Forgiving Person

by Charles H. Chandler, D. Min., Executive Director

Forgiveness is a popular word. It may be talked about more frequently than practiced. Though most of us recognize that the ideal lifestyle includes becoming a forgiving person, the practical application is easier said than done. Genuine forgiveness, like grace, is never cheap.

When someone causes something to happen that we did not want to happen, a grievance emerges. It may come as a result of someone betraying us, doing us bodily harm, attacking our character, rejecting us, hurting someone we love, or offending us. But something happened that we did not want, and we choose to deal with the problem by thinking about it too much. This leads to constant awareness of what happened.

Have you ever had someone shine a bright flashlight in your eyes? When you closed your eyes, did you continue to see the bright light? A grievance that impacts us looms before us as constantly as a bright light after it has been shined in our eyes. As we focus on the offending act or person, we give the event or person power over us. Unless we deal with the issue, it will gain more and more control over our thought processes, emotions, and actions. An unresolved grievance can eat away at us until we become bitter persons.

Fred Luskin, Ph.D., in the book, Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness*, suggests that learning to forgive can offer a person a new lease on life that affects one's emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical health. Luskin argues that a happier lifestyle is possible by learning to remove barriers and by enhancing relationships. Dr. Luskin is co-founder and co-director of The Forgiveness Project at Stanford University in California . Some of the information in this article comes from my understanding of forgiveness and some of it comes as a result of my reading and re-reading Luskin's book. I recommend it to you.

What is forgiveness? It is important to understand what forgiveness is and what it is not. Life-changing principles are seldom achieved without tremendous effort and persistence. Forgiveness is a process. It cannot be rushed, nor is it instantaneous. In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter came to Jesus and asked, "How many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven." That suggests something of the breadth of forgiveness. Some commentators suggest that the reference may be to forgiving the same offense seventy times seven rather than seventy times seven different offenses. If so, this suggests something of the depth of forgiveness. When hurt so deeply, the offended person may have to spend an enormous amount of energy and persistence before the offense ceases to be an issue in his or her mind. It's like the light that continues to loom before you even after you have closed your eyes.

Forgiveness is for you, not the offender. In essence, forgiveness is giving up the right or desire to retaliate. Obviously, this can only come with effort and time. Forgiveness is learning to become a hero instead of a victim. Forgiveness is taking responsibility for how you feel. Though you may not have any control over someone's harmful action, you do have some control over your feelings. The forgiveness process enables you to take back your power.

The lack of forgiveness can affect a person emotionally, spiritually and physically. Failure to forgive gets things out of perspective. It rents out too much space in our minds to grudges, and stands as a barrier in our relationship to God and to others. According to Luskin, a handful of specific forgiveness studies show that becoming more forgiving enhances one's health. Preliminary studies from research in allied fields such as psychology, medicine and religion show that feeling more positive emotions such as gratitude, faith, and care have a positive impact on cardiovascular functioning. Both kinds of studies suggest positive results in a person's life as he or she learns to forgive.

To understand forgiveness, sometimes it is necessary to remove the myths. We can learn about forgiveness by understanding what it isn't. Forgiveness is not condoning unkindness, nor is it forgetting that something painful happened. Forgiveness is not denying or minimizing your hurt. Nor does it mean you give up having feelings. Forgiveness does not mean reconciling with the offender, nor does it mean that the offender's action was justified.

The constant awareness of a grievance, if left unchecked, distorts perceptions. Forming a grievance follows a three-step process. One, an offense was taken too personally. This produces a "fight or flight" syndrome. You know you have taken something too personally when you harbor discomfort. Two, the offender is blamed for how you feel. When you blame someone else for how you feel, you are giving them power by renting them too much space in your mind. And three, a grievance story is crafted. Since every detail cannot be included, and the focus is on the painful things you have endured but from which you have not healed, telling the grievance story makes you angry. Researchers have found that people who share their life experience with others (social support) tend to deal better with stress. However, when you tell the story over and over in your mind, it is easy to get stuck in your grievance story. It is very important not to allow yourself to think more about the painful situation than about the things in life that are good.

From a practical standpoint, a very important benefit to forgiveness is the assertion that we are not victims of the past. Another benefit of learning to forgive is how much we can offer to others. This enables us to give more love and care to the important people in our lives rather than having our time and energies usurped by negative (hurtful) thoughts and feelings. Though it is hard to focus on our blessings while in the midst of the pain of having been betrayed or hurt by the offender, learning to focus on the positive helps to restore things to a healthy perspective.

Luskin suggests there are four stages to becoming a forgiving person. In the first stage, after a loss, you feel angry or hurt and tend to justify negative emotions. The second stage emerges after feeling upset and then realizing that it does not feel good. In the third stage, the offended chooses to feel hurt for a shorter period of time. You turn your attention to either repairing the relationship or to letting go of viewing the situation as a problem. In this stage, it is necessary that you resolve to rent out solution space instead of grievance space. In stage four, you work to avoid taking offence. This can be done with a resolve to take things less personally and by accepting responsibility for how you feel.

As I stated earlier, forgiveness is more frequently talked about than practiced. But it's extremely refreshing to be relieved of the heavy load of carrying a grudge. Maybe that's why Jesus talked so much about forgiving your brother/sister, neighbor, and even your enemy. I'm convinced that becoming a forgiving person enables you and me to be more effective ministers. But it's a process, a laborious process, and Jesus serves as our example. Remember, "Living well is the best revenge."**

It makes more sense to learn to look for love, beauty and kindness around you instead of getting stuck in your wounded feelings.

*Fred Luskin, Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness) (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002).

**George Herbert, "Jacula Prudentum," No. 524. In the Works of George Herber, Ed. F. E. Hutchinson (University Press, Oxford, England, 1941).