A Better Way to Forgive

We have a responsibility to pursue maturity and growth in our ability to be more like Christ, especially with forgiveness.

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Family and cultural influences, as well as the intensity levels of the hurt, controls our perspectives on forgiveness. We as Christians have a responsibility to pursue maturity and growth in our ability to be more like Christ, especially with forgiveness.

While Christian and non-Christians agree on the necessity of forgiveness, they disagree on the path. A variety of family and cultural influences, as well as the intensity levels of the hurt controls their perspective.

What are the different paths towards forgiveness?

1. Event-Based Forgiveness

The Event: A Person requests forgiveness and expresses a willingness to make restitution.

Example: My son breaks our neighbor's window with a baseball, offers an apology and a willingness to fix the broken pane. The expectation is that the harmed neighbor would accept the apology and restitution, and restores the relationship.

This concept of forgiveness comes from the view that God forgives as an event, and we should do likewise. Our society buys into this mentality, even though it only nominally acknowledges God and His existence.

Problem: The more complicated and deep the hurt, the more difficult it is both to conceive of forgiveness and either offer or receive restitution.

Example: How can the mother of a child killed by a drunk driver ever offer forgiveness or receive restitution? What can take the place of a lost loved one?

Event-based forgiveness breaks down as individuals quickly recognize their inability to forgive major harm instantly.

When people encounter intense hurt and trauma they respond in one of two ways.

a. They are embittered and broken.

Example: "I have been harmed, and I don't want to deal with forgiveness. I want mandated restitution."

People force their bodies to deal with the intensity of their feelings, and this reality fuels massive trauma. They become susceptible to using drugs, alcohol, work, pornography, or other elements to avoid the reality of their pain.

b. They move toward a process-based view of forgiveness.

Some, however, will struggle with process-based forgiveness in an attempt to move beyond the hurt to avoid becoming embittered.

2. Process-Based Forgiveness

The more complicated and powerful the hurt, the more forgiveness will need to be viewed as a process. Process-based forgiveness recognizes that healing will take place over time and that change needs to take place in both parties.

  • To the degree that a lingering need for the offending party to show remorse and make restitution exists, the forgiveness will still function from an equal position.
  • To the degree that the offended party takes ownership for healing, the issue of forgiveness will be one of individual responsibility.

This does not mean that the offended party would not prefer that the offender participate in the process. The offended person is simply aware that some offenders will never be able to participate. If the offending party will not participate, the offended has two options:

  • Remain stuck in the anger and hurt
  • Move toward unilateral (one-sided) forgiveness.

Process-based forgiveness allows the offended to move on with life no matter what the attitude or the actions of the offender might be. Emotional health becomes a matter of personal choice and will.

Unfortunately, even though the offended party has exhibited a pattern of letting go of the hurt from the event, he or she may still have the attitude: "I have forgiven you, but I still loathe you as a person."

While forgiveness does not mean that we re-embrace the offender, to remain bitter toward a person shows that forgiveness has not occurred.

This is where a secular person needs God's help. Secular forgiveness is dependent on the individual's ability to be like God. Without a relationship with God, we will end up at one of two extremes: condemnation or permissiveness.

3. Grace-Based Forgiveness — A Better Way

To the degree that we focus on God as the source of our ability to love ourselves and forgive ourselves, will we be able to offer to others that same grace-based stance that He has towards us. This will apply no matter how terrible their hurtful actions have been.

This process is not easy and it does not function as an event.

We will have times when challenged to struggle with acceptance of a difficult circumstance when we are offended. We are never more like God than when we forgive, and His empowerment allows us to forgive in the most complete fashion.

We will only be effective to the degree that God is the power behind the process and that we allow Him that place of lordship in our lives.

We as Christians have a responsibility to pursue maturity and growth in our ability to be more like Christ, especially in the forgiveness realm.

God's forgiveness towards us is a Grace-based process.

  • He has forgiven us (justification).
  • He is forgiving us (sanctification).
  • He will forgive us (glorification).

We must accept that process in our lives so we will be able to offer forgiveness in full measure when we are offended by others in life.

Barney Self, Ed. D., is a licensed marriage and family therapist.