Not forcing forgiveness

Reconciliation is a wonderful goal, and its timing cannot be forced. Forgiveness, or the process of healing from a wound, is an important part of reconciliation where both sides must address their wounds and then decide whether or not they wish to have a relationship going forward.

 I wrote this essay about my experience in dealing with my own challenge of loving enemies – that is forgiveness AND reconciliation. It applies in settings where one feels pressure to forgive and then reconcile in ways that are not authentic. 

This is an essay about self-compassion during the process of forgiveness which is neither short nor direct. This essay may speak to people who long to be past a hurt but are not there yet; people who may be ashamed of this fact and feel it makes them a ‘bad person of faith’; and people who have friends who insist that sorting out matters of forgiveness is “simple.”

For those who would like support in taking practical steps to avoid self-destructive generosity, consider setting a generosity budget each month and sticking to it or other ways to think about the positives and real negatives of giving beyond one’s means, including spiritual, emotional, and intellectual resources you don’t yet possess (but hopefully, possibly are developing).  The below discusses a spiritual viewpoint.

I also honor that at times a public, quick statement of forgiveness – even if just the intent to forgive – prevents future violence. Few things in the world of forgiveness are simple and direct and grace for ourselves and others is required.


Talk about forgiveness is cheap.

Well-meaning people, excited that they have “the answer,” foist it on me all the time. Their need to have “the answer” is often more important than the complex reality of “who I am” and “why I am here in the first place.”

We may be much better off building a fresh path to the future through the portal of forgiveness. Believe me, it’s typically not the technical points of forgiveness that hold us back. There are often two barriers to forgiveness:

1. The other party to the problem.

In some cases, the other may be pathological, willing to strike again, or lack such empathy that re-engaging with that person can only result in your being damaged.   These signs are often not subtle.

This essay assumes that you are wise about the psychological constitution of the “other.”  If you recognize that the other person has it in for you, you should take proper steps to protect yourself from the damage of such an out-of-control person.  There is no value, and a lot to be lost, by engaging with a person who does not see or care about your well-being.  People who suggest that one engage in an abusive relationship are not doing you any favors. You are wise to take steps to protect your well-being. For an excellent book on how to take steps to promote your well-being in the face of a taker, consider Adam Grant’s GIVE AND TAKE.

2. My own attitude.

I must be authentic. Forgiveness is a signal that we are ready to move forward. It’s a statement that we are healed enough to accept what has happened and not let it hurt us further. I think of it as me having built up immunity to past pain: it may be there but it can’t hurt me very much any more.

We must attend to 1 ) our will to move forward, and 2) emotional healing.

Our will is important. But it’s not the only part of forgiveness. We also have emotional pain. This emotional pain takes much longer to heal. It takes even longer if we lack self-compassion. For instance, if we beat ourselves up in unhelpful comparisons and stories about how we “should” be. It’s intensified when people we respect and love just rattle off cheap talk of forgiveness – talk that they might find a hard time listening to if they were in our shoes. Talk that does not have much compassion. Talk that is nothing like what a loving friend would offer – one who sees our pain and sits with us in it.

I worked for four years in the Christian reconciliation movement and for a person whose specialty was Christian forgiveness. I’ve read widely in the area, interviewed, supported, taught, and met people all along the forgiveness path.

But once it’s my personal forgiveness – then that’s a different story! It’s my story.

Heres an example of the forgiveness/immunity building process in my own life:

A person knew I prayed “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I found out about this person’s betrayal of me and called the person on it. The response I received a mere seconds after asking for an explanation was, “You have to forgive me otherwise you are a bad Christian.”

I wanted to be a good Christian so badly I lied. I said I forgave this person, but I really didn’t. Not at all! The mere thought of this person for a long time made me ill.

And so after trying to force forgiveness without solace, I went the other way. I rebelled against the cheap forgiveness theory. I said “I won’t forgive until it’s authentic.”

I occasionally prayed to be able to forgive and was not granted peace. It’s not because I didn’t say the right words or want it. It’s because I had a lot of healing to do. Once I emotionally healed I was able to accept what had happened and let the past go.

Emotional healing takes so much time. Sometimes we may seem stuck. But often we’re not stuck, it just takes a long time. This tests our own patience and the patience of our friends. But what if you told yourself or a well-meaning friend said, “Build immunity right now!” Would that make any sense? Of course not.

Several years later I was able to, with courage and authenticity, take this person to lunch, give them a hug, congratulate the person on new prosperity. I now have a decent immunity from pain related to that relationship. I learned that the other party had not changed. But even that was good data, and reminds me to keep my boundaries firm and to stay on my own path forward.

Please consider:

1. We are not a one size fits all people, especially not in healing and building immunity to past hurts. The process tests our patience.

2. Our spiritual will can easily outstrip our emotional reality. And when this happens the premature forgiveness we so prided ourselves in may fail. It’s not supported by much.

3. In some cases, people do not see that forgiveness can be a vice. Telling people like me to forgive added to my emotional destruction. In essence, I believed I had immunity from past pain I did not have because “I wanted it.”  Think about that. I was running into places that were pretty bad for me because I thought they were suddenly healthy.

How can forgiveness be a vice? In the example I provide, I deployed it too generously to my own harm. I used theology to dress up my desire to run away from myself and learn “how I got here.”  (Again, Adam Grant – a business school professor – is the high priest of how to be wise about generosity with his GIVE AND TAKE.)

Instead, I need to see the people around me for who they were (acceptance and mindfulness). I needed to accept and love myself, which I had not done because looking inward was so painful. I had even accepted my tormentors’ view of me as not worth very much.

I had to deal with this reality and mourn it. Then I took the positive steps to love myself. It took time!

And from a position of stronger self-worth and self-love, I can build a bridge I can walk over into a new future. My emotional and spiritual selves are now in better sync.

Here is something to think about when you are being asked to forgive a person, and the request seems to lack compassion:

One of the best ancients in seeing people for who they actually are (and not “What I want to tell the person!”) is  Gregory the Great, a medieval Pope whose book Pastoral Care (one of the most beautiful pieces of medieval writing) begins with a description about how advice for one person can be completely off base for the next. I love Gregory the Great.

And how does Gregory the Great –  person who has healed so many through his writings for more than a thousand years – end his great work? I never sense he is telling himself “See, this advice I dispense is so awesome!”

Instead he tells us how hard this is for him to do. He says “I can say it, but I have a hard time taking my own advice.”

He wrote:

“I, miserable painter that I am, have painted the portrait of an ideal man; and here I have been directing others to the shore of perfection, I, who am still tossed about on the waves of sin. But in the shipwreck of this life, sustain me, I beseech you, with the plank of your prayers, so that, as my weight is sinking me down, you may uplift me with your meritorious hand.”

(Perhaps he could have used some self-compassion too!)