What Does Forgiveness Mean?

I’m in a book club, actually I’m in two book clubs. Yes, that’s right you can call the Nerd Patrol, I accept it. This month we read The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult. In a nutshell the story is about a 90 year old Nazi who is in search of forgiveness from a Jewish family he hurt. The topic sparked quite a bit of discussion about what forgiveness really means and who it’s for. It got me thinking about what it means to forgive, to truly forgive.

We’ve all been hurt by someone and those hurts can come in lots of forms: intentional and unintentional, big and small. The fact of the matter is that no matter how “big” you’ve been wronged, the pain is real. Please understand that I’ve never been a victim of a violent crime, nor has any member of my family and I don’t want my comments to sound trite because I cannot empathize with you if that is the pain you’re dealing with. If this is the case with you, I strongly recommend professional counseling and finding a support group.  I can, however, speak about the tools that are required to begin the forgiveness process. Sometimes forgiveness comes easier than other times. The main point is that forgiveness is a process that varies because it’s personal, a very personal journey that only you accomplish on your own.

One of the suggestions made during my book club discussion was to pray for the person who wronged you. If you pray enough you will become divinely inspired and suddenly everything will be all better. Now, my initial thought on this was that the people who immediately suggest this just don’t get it. What do you mean pray for him, don’t you know what he did to me??? It sounds like one of those clichés people spout off in times of sadness and despair. Like the string of people who patted my arm within hours of my father’s death and said, “Well, he’s in a better place now.” I literally wanted to smack the next person who said that to me – I know he’s in a better place, but I was happy with him right here! Same concept with the pray for forgiveness expressions, right?  Well,  actually, there might be something to the power of prayer, I’ll explain later.

So what does forgiveness look like?

This first step is recognizing that forgiveness does not mean you’re necessarily going to welcome the person who wronged you over for coffee as you share a nice laugh about what happened. When I realized this, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted. It’s like putting our hand in a basket full of rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes bite, it’s what they do, so why are you surprised that you got bit over and over again? There are people in this world who to you, are toxic. So, just because you’ve forgiven, doesn’t mean you ever have to interact with them again. Sometimes keeping your distance is the only way to truly rid yourself of the poison the relationship creates. Stop reaching into the basket and walk away.

The next step is to change your thinking habits about the person. You know what I’m talking about, the plotting for revenge, wanting to “out” their behavior, secretly wishing for the Karma to come knocking in the form of a tax audit. It’s a bit of an adrenaline rush to be caught up in the drama and you secretly relish it. Plus, the attention and sympathy gained from telling your side of the story – well that’s always a plus. That pattern of thinking has to change. I am a firm believer in the truth. The truth will always come out, always. You just might not be around to see it. That’s because it’s not up to you to dole out the Karma. If you’re truly trying to do the right thing, you will come out on top. Take the high road and stand on solid ground, the truth. That includes accepting the fact that you are not completely innocent. You might be innocent in this situation that you’re currently struggling with, but you’re not innocent in every situation. You are just as flawed as the person who hurt you. You can start to change your thinking by never speaking ill of the person, even through your blood boils at the mention of his name. If you cannot think of anything positive to say (even a simple I guess he just doesn’t know any better) then keep your mouth shut, smile and deftly change the subject. Remember when your Grandma used to say, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” That applies here. You might really want to tell your friend (again) just how terrible this person is, but don’t do it. I think we get in the habit of wallowing in self-pity (it’s nice down there in the mud) and it’s hard to get out of it.  So if you change the things you say out loud, you’re consciously changing your thinking patterns.

The last step is to take your power back. My dad used to tell me to stop letting people live rent-free in my head. When we allow someone to occupy our thoughts in a negative way, we give our power away. When it happens and you feel that sudden urge to seek revenge, try to find some common ground with this person or maybe some empathy. You know, some people are just plain mean, but they didn’t start out that way. Mean is created. Find that part in yourself that can see him as a little kid. Maybe there isn’t a reason behind your offense and that’s power too. Recognize that you cannot control anyone but yourself. You have the power to release yourself from their constant presence in your head.  I think that this is where prayer comes in. Pray, meditate, think about, journal, whatever your method might be- about your offender’s point of view. Honestly, the person you’re spending so much time thinking about might not even know you’re hurt. They might not care, so why are you giving this any more of your precious power?  If you can see the situation from his point of view, you might have a better chance of letting it go. Maybe not, but at least you’re working on changing your thinking by being proactive. Proactive action is a step in regaining your power.

Isn’t that what forgiveness is? Regaining control of your thoughts. Eventually, you will no longer feel that pit in your stomach when you see or hear from him. It’s a process and depending on the offense against you, it might take a long time. You might think you’ve forgiven him and then it all comes rushing back . Start again: rinse and repeat. You can be free of this burden, this burning in your soul. Allow yourself the time to gain your power back and let go of the negativity. You’ll know you’re there when the thoughts of revenge are gone, and you just don’t think about it any more. In the end, forgiveness is a gift to you, not the other person.

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