Trapped in a memory, unable to move past what they did to you, and forgiving is the last thing you want to hear… here are 5 reasons forgiveness is so hard.
I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to relating to people, one thing is guaranteed – you’re going to get hurt. I heard it once said very well that love is permission for people to let you down. But when it happens, you’re not always ready for it, are you? And it’s not the people who are distant from us or those total strangers leaving comments on your Facebook page or your YouTube video, or the acquaintances who make an off-comment about things that they have no idea about – it’s the people you let into your life, the ones you let close, who can really catch you off guard.
I was listening to a panel of female leaders and ministers one day who were all asked the question, “What is the one thing that you wouldn’t be able to get over?”. All of them without hesitation, answered emphatically with a very sober tone – “Betrayal”. Betrayal, whether you’re male or female, is one of the deepest wounds you can ever experience. There are others in a similar league. When a spouse says a sentence you didn’t think you’d ever hear from your worst enemy, let alone the one you love. When a friend disowns you without a warning. When the knife in your back is issued to you by a family member. “Etu, Brutus” – the analogy of Shakespeare is all too real.
And one of the last words any of us want to hear when we’re dealing with whatever has happened is that you need to forgive. If you’re in religious circles like me, you would hear that we should forgive others like God forgave us. Well well well, isn’t that a big sentence right there? Others would pull out the old line “Forgive and forget”.
But is it actually possible? Are you really able to move past what they did to you and enact forgiveness? Here are 5 reasons forgiveness is so hard.
#1: It doesn’t fix the broken plate
The picture of the broken plate above is very intentional. A very strong post I’ve seen do the rounds several times on the Internet is a conversation between two people:
If we can be real here, apologies don’t actually fix the proverbial broken plate. Even the act of forgiveness – accepting an apology you did get, or even one you didn’t – may not actually repair the damage of what was done.
Forgiveness carries with it a steep cost. We just had the Easter season pass, and I was thinking about that very thought of how God forgives us. It wasn’t like what people did to hurt him was okay – it actually required the death of His one and only. What a sobering reality.
And even when you have properly forgiven someone, I don’t think it means the pain goes away. Sometimes it never will, to be honest. It depends on the severity of the action. Forgiveness is a step towards recovery, and a foundational one, but it’s not the only part.
All the more reason to set things right and not just slap across a simple “sorry”.
#2: It changes your expectations of people
Ah man, this one has been one of the biggest struggles for me in my life. I love to hold people in high esteem. I love to see their calling realized. I love having a conversation with men and women and dreaming about who they’re going to be and the amazing destiny that’s behind what’s going on in their life right now.
So when I have someone I hold in high esteem do something that hurts, it really just shatters my world. Not that perfection is expected, but isn’t it amazing at what we’re able to come up with in the way we treat each other?
I think one of the things that we can be reluctant to do, but is often necessary, is to allow a situation to readjust your expectations of people. It becomes completely impossible to understand a situation or an action if your expectation is still for a person to know what they’ve done is wrong, or for them to know to do better. But as TD Jakes fairly and somberly states on forgiveness, if you’re a 10-gallon person, you can’t be thrown off when you discover someone has “pint-sized” capabilities. He goes on to say that in forgiving people, we see their behaviour and have to adjust our expectations accordingly in order to properly understand what happened. It doesn’t mean disowning or hating the person, but it just means recognizing that it probably isn’t within their willpower or capacity to have done something better.
I wonder if that’s a humbling challenge to us to not be afraid to adjust our expectations accordingly… or even moreso, to recognize areas in our own lives where we may be treating others with a “pint-sized” capacity, and look at what we can do to grow in those areas.
#3: It needs to be processed properly
I was talking to someone recently who was sharing a very deep and troubling experience in their life. At first they were saying it wasn’t that big a deal, but after a few minutes and some big tears I soon realized that it really was a big deal for this person. Feeling belittled the words and actions of someone close to them, they had felt like they had been carrying so much inside with nothing they were able to do about it. At one point I asked them, “Why do you think your heart doesn’t matter?”
Dr Phil McGraw (awww yeah Dr Phil) has done some very fascinating counselling sessions over the course of many years. Love him or hate him, the dude has some great success in helping couples in particular face problems. One session I saw was where the husband had done exactly what the women in leadership above had said they fear so much – betrayal. He’d cheated on her with another woman, but was truly repentant and trying to make things right with her. He said every time, his advances were knocked back because she would just quickly retort, “Well, you cheated on me”. This was the extent to which she was discussing the problem. The good doctor looked her in the eye and said, “You’re struggling to forgive and accept so much because you haven’t actually expressed how much what he did affected you”. He knew it hurt her, she knew it hurt her, but she was yet to actually spell out in detail what exactly his actions made her feel. A very long and difficult conversation would approach in their lives that would be the key to their restoration.
And once again, the situation makes me think of forgiving others the way God forgives us. And the reality is, God didn’t pretend that everything was okay. Quite the contrary, He very publicly communicated what our mistakes cost to fix. He doesn’t continue to hold it over us or belittle us, but He was completely upfront about how much it affected Him. Maybe it’s not a bad thing if we need to do the same with others.
Confess to one another, and you will be healed.
And the challenge really can arise when the other person is unwilling to even give you that much. It’s a tragedy that it happens, but it does. Which leads us to…
#4: It’s not the same as reconciliation
Forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things. Forgiveness takes one. As hard as it can be, moving forward takes one. But to reconcile and repair the broken relationship? That actually takes two.
Once again, the analogy of how God forgives us. If all of us are forgiven, then why isn’t it the case that all of us are in a clear relationship with God? Scripture is very open about this – it’s because a response is required from us. The plea of the New Testament church is this – be reconciled to each other, and to God. You’ve done something wrong, He’s forgiven it, but now if you want the relationship back, you have to take the steps towards getting closer.
Reconciliation is more than a magic wand one sentence fix. It actually takes time. It actually takes accepting that your actions have damaging consequences, and that it may be a process for the other person to let you get back to where you were. For the sake of their own survival, like Taylor Swift found in Back to December, there may be a chain on that door when you go back again.
But true restoration and healing for both parties requires an act of reconciliation. It might be a letter, an e-mail, a phone call. Personally I think the attempt should always be to communicate important matters in person, because the electronic forms really do hinder what you’re trying to do and can leave people feeling cheapened or used, especially if they’re sent at the wrong time. The bottom line really is respect – what would it take for you to feel respected in that situation? Give the person that respect. Do whatever you need to do to set it right.
And if you don’t have reconciliation from the other party, accept that you’ve done your part. If you’ve extended the olive branch and really given it a decent effort, only to have it knocked back, then as far as you’re concerned, you’ve done everything you could. Even God won’t force reconciliation on someone who continually refuses it.
#5: You forget how much you’ve been forgiven
Whenever I think about forgiveness, I always think about a story Jesus told. It was about a man who owed a wealthy man a huge amount of money. Unable to pay, the man who owed the money begged and pleaded for more time, to which the wealthy man responded by cancelling his debt and letting him go free. A few minutes later, the forgiven man saw someone who owed him much less money, and continued to hold it against him. When the wealthy man heard about it, he had the forgiven man thrown in prison.
But a humbling reminder of the debt I could never pay. Of the mercy that was extended to me. Of the grace that broke my chains and set me free.
And now faced with another person, or another group of people, I’m going to stay bitter? It can’t be.
You and I have been forgiven for so much. It was properly processed. The price of our forgiveness was so clearly communicated to us. We know how much it cost. And instead of getting all banged up and bitter, we should instead ask for the wisdom and grace to extend the same forgiveness that was extended to us.
Easy? No. Necessary? Absolutely.
With the same strength as the One who found it possible to forgive us so much.
I pray that wherever you find yourself, whatever you’re finding you’re facing right now, whatever the pain is, I pray that you find the grace to forgive it properly. You don’t have to pretend it didn’t hurt. You don’t have to expect better behaviour from the perpetrators. But forgiveness is the price that love pays. And in any relationship in our lives, whether it be with God, with others, and with ourselves, forgiveness is what will enable us to go the distance.
How about you? What are some things you’ve found hard with forgiveness? Or some ways you’ve found help you deal with it properly?