The Art of Forgiveness

(April 2010, originally printed in 280 Living, Birmingham, AL)

I am not really sure why I titled this article “The Art of Forgiveness.” It sounds really nice and fluid, and a little catchy, maybe intended to pique your interest. But forgiveness is not really an art. It is more of a process, a choice, a result, and a continued state of being. It is neither easy nor fluid, and often hard to get to and difficult to maintain.

Of course, that is exactly like art, especially good art. Good art takes work, and forgiveness, especially if it is real forgiveness, takes work, both internally and externally. Forgiveness, ultimately, is an act of change—a change in heart as to a posture or approach toward someone who has harmed, wronged, or hurt you. It is the giving up of one’s rights to retribution or vengeance, the laying down of one’s negative thoughts toward the offending person in order to gain freedom from anger and resentment. Forgiveness enables restoration of inner peace, and allows reconciliation of a relationship. We are never more like God that when we forgive.

But how does one do that?

Let us go back to forgiveness being an act of change. Alan Wolfelt, in his book, Living in the Shadow of the Ghosts of Grief, wrote: “Change means loss; loss means grief; grief requires mourning.” Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her classic book on grief, On Death and Dying, wrote about the grief process, the territories that a person traverses during the season of grief, which we tend to call “dealing with it/getting over it” (the “it” being whatever or whomever was lost to us). Kubler-Ross observes that the griever goes through phases of denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, and depression (profound sadness) before getting to acceptance (the state of having “gotten over it”). This is not easy to do; the phases often are not in sequential order and are often repeated; and the process is often rushed by the griever and encouraged to be rushed by the griever’s support group (this is not a good thing). Good grieving takes time, patience, intentionality, and fortitude (oh, and did I say time?).

Forgiveness can be a similar process. Everyone experiences times of hurt and conflict in a relationship, of letting each other down. Sometimes the offense is minor, such as forgetting to put the clothes in the dryer or being late for an appointment. Sometimes the offense is a major betrayal, such as an affair or an addiction. Either way, these are moments of loss: loss of expectations, dreams, connection. Either way, restoration of the relationship and healing needs to happen, but that happening is not instant.

Forgiveness takes time and intentionality, because forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness does not betray boundaries or personal safety—sometimes it is unsafe or impossible to restore a relationship. Forgiveness is not necessarily quick; it must be allowed to unfold, for time to be taken to work through the process of granting forgiveness. In granting forgiveness, one must experience: denial (“oh no you didn’t”); anger (“how could you?; what were you thinking?; you’re an idiot!”); bargaining (“take it back, please don’t, say it isn’t so, just do this for me and then I’ll…”); and depression or profound sadness (“go away, I’m alone”, tears). These states of emotion must occur, and sometimes occur for prolonged and repeated periods of time, long before acceptance (“I’m ok,” “it’s ok,” “we’re ok—I forgive you”) can ever be uttered. And when one is unable to forget what happened (because random moments of remembering do occur, beyond our control), the choice to forgive must occur again and again, and again and again. Take (or give) the time to allow the process of forgiveness to happen.

Richard Marks with Marriage for Life, Inc. of Jacksonville, FL, wrote the following about granting and seeking forgiveness:

Six Step for Granting Forgiveness:
    1. Acknowledge your pain and anger. Allow yourself to feel disrespected.
    2. Be specific about your future expectations and limits.
    3. Give up your right to “get even,” but insist on being treated better in the future.
    4. Let go of blame, resentment, and negativity toward [the one who wronged you].
    5. Communicate your act of forgiveness to your partner.
    6. Work toward reconciliation (when safe).

Six Steps for Seeking Forgiveness:
    1. Admit what you did was wrong or hurtful.
    2. Try to understand/empathize with the pain you have caused.
    3. Take responsibility for your actions and make restitution if necessary (or possible).
    4. Assure your partner you will not do it again.
    5. Apologize and ask for forgiveness.
    6. Forgive yourself.

Remember, forgiveness takes time and is not the result of working through the list in as efficient a manner as possible. Efficiency is not the goal; restoration of self and, if possible, reconciliation of relationship is. Allow yourself space and time to ebb and flow between the steps and phases, often repeating some of them when necessary. If you are able, then you may find yourself reconnected to your other in a way that rivals even the greatest of masterpieces.

To talk further about the process of forgiveness in your own life and relationships, contact LifePractical Counseling for your counseling or consultant needs. Paul Johnson is a professionally licensed marriage and family therapist and professionally licensed counselor in the state of Alabama. He plans to celebrate Easter and the season of forgiveness in a contemplative way this year (but with 2 very young kids, we’ll see).