A woman tells the story of her 18-year search for her birth parents because she was given up for adoption as an infant. She felt that the questions which were constantly on her mind could be answered only by either her birth mother or her birth father. “I wanted to know why they didn’t want me,” she said. “I wanted them to tell me why they gave me away.”
She finally succeeded in tracking down her father, who agreed to meet in person. “I will never forget that day,” she says, explaining that she was simultaneously frightened and excited, hoping that “this could be the start of a relationship I had longed for my whole life.”
When they met, her father spoke first. He said, “You were just a mistake!”
Ever since that first and only encounter, she has relived those words. “I’ve had the hardest time moving on from that hurtful moment,” she said. “I don’t know if I can ever forgive him for giving me up—or for those hurtful words that broke my heart all over again.”
It’s a sad reality that people do hurt each other by their words and deeds, by what’s said or isn’t said, by what’s done or isn’t done. Whether the act is intentional or unintentional, large or small, the wounding can linger long and cast a dark shadow over a person’s life in a powerfully painful way.
That’s why forgiveness is essential. The opposite of forgiveness is taking revenge, inflicting wounds, seeking retribution, exacting punishment, holding grudges, responding spitefully. But living with those negative emotions destroys peace of mind, expels joy, and erodes the quality of life. That’s why the Bible instructs us to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31).
In order to live, we must forgive. Following are seven ways to move toward forgiveness.
1. Understand the benefits of forgiving
In his book Forgive to Live: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve, author and theologian Lewis Smedes says, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Motivate yourself to forgive wounds and hurts by understanding and appreciating that forgiveness is primarily beneficial to yourself.
Frederic Luskin, the director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, says that “forgiveness can reduce the physical manifestations of stress, reduce blood pressure in hypertensives, improve physical vitality and improve one’s compassion and optimism.”
Dr. Luskin adds that the benefits of forgiveness apply to all experiences of injustice, whether the wound is small and slight or profound and pervasive. “Forgiveness is for everyone . . . hurt college students, angry and disappointed middle aged adults, stressed out business people, and people who have had families murdered by political violence.”
2. Improve your ability to forgive through practice
To become an exceptional forgiver, start with the small offenses. Promptly forgive every minor and slight infraction that comes your way. When a family member speaks harshly to you, forgive it and let it go. When a colleague is rude to you, forgive it and let it go. When someone cuts you off in traffic, forgive it and let it go!
Iyanla Vanzant, author of Forgiveness: 21 Days to Forgive Everyone for Everything, explains, “You may be asking yourself, ‘Why would I want to practice forgiveness?’ The answer is simple. Practice develops skill. Skill leads to mastery.
“When you master the practice of forgiveness, it becomes as natural as breathing. . . . The only true way to create a more loving, productive, and fulfilling life is by forgiving the past. Releasing the past restores us to the full energy of the present moment.”
3. Am I partly responsible?
Rabbi Rami Shapiro offered this suggestion in his book Rabbi Rami Guide to Forgiveness “When you are in a hurtful situation, ask yourself, How am I complicit in this drama? What role am I playing that allows this drama to arise and continue? Don’t take responsibility for the whole show, just your part in it. This is not a ‘shifting the blame’ exercise from the other to you, but a realization that, as trite as it sounds, it takes two to tango.”
Simply raising this question opens up space to view the larger picture and find an exit point. “The more you notice your own complicity, the more you realize that you and the other person are both trapped in the same drama,” notes Shapiro. “The more you realize the trap, the easier it is to focus on what you need to escape the trap, end the drama and move on with your life.”
4. Forgive quickly
Our natural instinct is to nurture the hurt. That’s why forgiving quickly is difficult for most people. Yet, moments arise when we are offended by someone, and immediately an inner voice tells us to “let it go.” Act on that! Avoid delaying because delay often transforms into a denial of forgiveness.
Singer Tony Bennett witnessed just such an act of quick forgiveness. He was 10 years old when his father died. Though he has few memories of John Benedetto, one stands out and has influenced Bennett all his life. His father, an Italian immigrant to America, operated a small grocery store in New York City. The family lived above the business. One evening they heard noise downstairs. A man had gotten drunk and was attempting to break in but was having a hard time doing it due to the alcohol. Benedetto crept downstairs and discovered the man unconscious. Evidently, he had tripped over some egg crates.
The police were called, and they explained that if Benedetto pressed charges, the man would be arrested and jailed. Letting out a sigh, Benedetto walked over to the man and asked, “Do you have a job?”
The man shook his head no, too embarrassed to speak.
Then Benedetto said, “Well, you have one now. You can work for me if you want to.”
The man accepted the offer of employment immediately, and harmony returned to the Benedetto home and family life.
5. Forgive slowly and incrementally
Most forgiving is done gradually, allowing time and thought to create the space necessary to forgive. Initially, there is often anger or even rage. That usually softens into resentment and frustration. Finally, any lingering bitterness is replaced by a more mature, objective perspective.
In an essay titled “I Am Slowly Learning How to Forgive You,” author Holly Riordan outlines her forgiveness process: “I am slowly learning to take baby steps toward forgiveness. . . . I am slowly learning to hate you less and pity you more. . . . I am slowly learning that remaining mad at you is another kind of punishment. . . . I am slowly learning forgiveness is not something that can happen overnight. . . . I am slowly learning how to forgive you.”
As she worked at forgiveness, Riordan began to see more and more clearly that harboring a grudge merely became “another kind of punishment.” She went on to say, “Staying angry convinces me to keep my heart guarded. It makes me seem like a bitter, cold, unforgiving person. If I want to live my life to its fullest, then I cannot hold a grudge against you. I have to find a way to cope with what you put me through, even if forgiving you is the last thing I ever want to do. Even if it takes me some time to get used to the idea.”
6. Add generosity to forgiveness
Moments may come your way when you not only forgive but can find ways to do so with a magnanimous heart and benevolent spirit. It was just this kind of generous, forgiving attitude offered by General Douglas MacArthur that impressed citizens of Japan. He spoke at the Japanese surrender ceremony on September 2, 1945. The ceremony took place on board the USS Missouri, which was docked at Tokyo Bay.
General MacArthur said, “We are gathered here, representatives of the major warring powers, to conclude a solemn agreement whereby peace may be restored. The issues involving divergent ideals and ideologies have been determined on the battlefields of the world, and hence are not for our discussion or debate. Nor is it for us here to meet, representing as we do a majority of the peoples of the earth, in a spirit of distrust, malice, or hatred. But rather it is for us, both victors and vanquished, to rise to that higher dignity which alone befits the sacred purposes we are about to serve, committing all of our peoples unreservedly to faithful compliance with the undertakings they are here formally to assume. It is my earnest hope, and indeed the hope of all mankind, that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past—a world founded upon faith and understanding, a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance, and justice.”
7. Forgiveness comes from God
In Galatians 5:22, 23, the apostle Paul listed nine attitudes that result from the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian. Forgiveness isn’t one of them, but it could have been, because forgiveness is a divine quality. Jesus set the example of forgiveness on the cross when He asked God to forgive His persecutors. “Father, forgive them,” He said, “for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
A friend of mine whom I’ll call Tom told me that one day he became aware that something he had done years earlier had caused another person profound pain. The other person didn’t even know that Tom was the cause of his pain, but Tom felt that he should confess what he had done. But he said, “I would rather have died than tell that person what I did to him!” Nevertheless, Tom said this prayer “God, I can’t bring myself to confess what I did to hurt this person. However, if you can bring me to the place that I’m willing to confess, I will do it.” Tom told me that he kept saying this prayer, and after about six months he came to the place that he was willing to confess to this person. He said, “I can still remember feeling good about it as I walked up the sidewalk to his house to make my confession.”
So if you’re struggling to forgive someone, ask God to help you. Do what my friend Tom did. He needed to confess; you need to forgive. But his strategy will work for you too. Tell God something like this: “God, lead me to the place that I’m willing to forgive the person who injured me.” Keep saying that prayer. You will come to the point that you can forgive.
Finally, remind yourself that each time you forgive, you are strengthening your power to release pain, gain healing, experience joy, and increase happiness. Forgiveness requires both strength and maturity, which is why Mahatma Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
Victor Parachin is an ordained minister, bereavement educator, and author of several books about grief. He is a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times®.