Preparing to forgive begins with discovering a personal willingness to forgive

cropped-shutterstock_128988602.Purchased.PensiveWomanInGreen-PRCHS6.jpgIn considering the role of a therapist in helping another forgive those who have wounded them, Griffin’s (2004) caution is worth noting as she expressed concern over the tendency of some to use power or control to coerce persons to forgive. She takes the position that choosing not to forgive an offender may be a healthy choice for some unspecified period of time. However, she may have overstated the case when she advised that anyone who would suggest that a person must or should forgive should not be believed:

“It would be impertinent to tell those who have gone through terrible experiences that they must, or should forgive. That they are somehow lacking in moral fiber if they don’t, or not as good as those people who do come to forgiveness. It is not for us to judge the path of forgiveness in someone else. We are all on the journey of forgiveness, but some of us have things to forgive which are so painful that it may take years even to be able to begin to look at them with any possibility of change. There are some life events from which it is difficult, if not impossible, to recover, and it is important that we honor that experience” (Griffin, 2004, p. 18).

Allender (1995) agrees that forgiveness is not something to be forced on someone who has suffered abuse:

“It is an aspect of the healing process, but not a bitter pill to swallow. It must be assumed not commanded. A heart that knows something of the joy of returning to God will be drawn to offer restoration like God” (p. 240).

Commenting on the importance of a person finding a willingness to forgive within their own heart, rather than being coerced into forgiving, Smedes (1996) observed,

“We ought to forgive the way a spouse ought to make love, a sad person ought to cry, a happy person ought to smile, a lyrical person ought to sing, and a grateful person ought to say thank you. We ought to do it because it suits us well….[so that] when we actually do forgive, we are only doing what comes naturally to anyone who has felt the breath of forgiving love on her own heart” (Smedes, 1996, p. 69).

Though Anderson (2003) would agree that no one should be coerced or overpowered to forgive, he does not see the issue of the timing of forgiveness as much in terms of readiness as much as in terms of obedience and a crisis of the will. As such, one should not delay forgiving on the basis of not feeling like forgiving since, according to Scripture, God commands His followers to forgive. If God commands it, reasons Anderson, it can be done with the help of God, who He believes supplies the believer’s every need. Therefore, in the face of any internal resistance that may be experienced, Anderson advises individuals to simply step out in faith and trust God to provide the grace and power necessary to follow through. As such, to delay extending forgiveness and to continue to harbor bitterness due to a perceived lack of readiness is the choice to unnecessarily prolong the suffering of the injured party and to choose to disobey God in distrust.

Volf (2005) echoed Anderson’s sentiment when he wrote:

“Since God commands us to forgive, now we actually have to get on with the business of forgiving! Are we generous enough to do it? Can we muster enough inner strength? Are we humble enough to forgive well? It helps to remember that we ourselves were forgiven, it helps to live in a community that celebrates forgiveness, and above all, it helps that it’s ultimately Christ who forgives through us, that our forgiveness is an echo of God’s” (Volf, 2005, p. 218).

Anderson, N. T. (2003). Discipleship counseling: The complete guide to helping others walk in freedom and grow in Christ. Ventura, CA: Regal.

Griffin, K. (2004). The forgiveness formula: How to let go of your pain and move on with life. New York, NY: Marlowe & Company.

Smedes, L. B. (1996). The art of forgiving: When you need to forgive and don’t know how. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Volf, M. (2005). Free of charge: Giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of grace. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.

Preparting to do forgiveness work related to trauma and abuse includes establishing a sense of personal safety according to Herman and Griffin

cropped-face_of_child_203990.jpgIn her seminal work Trauma and Recovery, Herman (1992) suggests that the first step in helping a trauma survivor heal is establishing a sense of safety. Griffin (2004) expressed a similar sentiment with a sense of ire as she wrote: “Usually you have to stop the behavior and get out of the line of fire before you can begin to embark on the path of forgiveness” (p. 187).

Herman, J. L. (1992). Trauma and recovery. New York, NY US: Basic Books.

Griffin, K. (2004). The forgiveness formula: How to let go of your pain and move on with life. New York, NY: Marlowe & Company.

How does one forgive another? Enright & Fitzgibbon’s 4 Phase Model

cropped-shutterstock_130323026-White-Male-with-Somber-Expression-PRCHS1.jpgThere are several models that a person can utilize in order to forgive someone who has hurt them. One elaborate model developed by Enright and Fitzgibbons (2000) and Enright (2012) includes the following components:

After the preliminary step of determining who it is that has hurt the individual, how deeply they were hurt, how they were specifically hurt, and what specific circumstances surrounded the event (i.e., the time of day, the weather conditions, what was said, how the person responded), the individual is invited to participate in four phases of forgiveness. Phase 1, is aimed at uncovering of the individual’s anger. This includes exploring how the individual has dealt with anger in the past, uncovering any fear of exposing their shame or guilt, considering how their anger may have been affecting their health, reflecting on how they may have been obsessing about the injury or the offender, and determining how the injury may have caused permanent change in their life, including their worldview.

In Phase 2, the individual is invited to decide to forgive. This includes helping them realize that the way they have been handling their anger has not worked as well as helping them discover an inner motivation and willingness to forgive, leading them to a decision to forgive. In Phase 3, the individual is led through the actual process of working on or through forgiveness which includes working toward understanding and developing compassion toward the offender, accepting the pain inflicted, and giving the offender a gift of mercy (i.e., a smile, acknowledging a person’s presence, a returned phone call, a visit to the cemetery of a deceased offender). Finally, in Phase 4, entitled “Discovery and Release from Emotional Prison” (p. 338), the individual is led to explore the meaning of their suffering, consider their own personal need for forgiveness, learn to rest in the truth that they are not alone, find purpose in their life, and celebrate the freedom of forgiveness.

Enright, R. D. (2012). The forgiving life: A pathway to overcoming resentment and creating a legacy of love. Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.

Enright, R. D., & Fitzgibbons, R. P. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.

In order for our forgiveness to be psychologically healthy, several ingredients may be necessary

cropped-young_couple_193184.jpgI don’t know how many times I have had Christians report that even though they have forgiven their offenders, they were still experiencing overwhelming feelings of hurt or anger.

Donna S. Davenport, the author of a widely used counseling textbook, An Introduction to Psychotherapy: Common Clinical Wisdom currently maintains a private counseling practice in Williamsburg, Virginia and serves as an associate professor in Psychiatry at the Texas A&M Health Science Center (Davenport, 2013). She proposes that in order for our forgiveness to be psychologically healthy, it must contain most or all of the following ingredients: (1) Over against denial, there must be a full acknowledgment of the realities of the injury, whether to one’s self or to others; (2) In instances where we have wronged others, self-compassion must overshadow continued recriminations and self-blame; (3) In instances where we have been wronged, we must allow ourselves to fully experience our anger toward the abuser, with a minimum of defenses; (4) On the other side of the forgiveness process, we should find ourselves being more proactive, more empowered, better able to set healthy boundaries, which helps ensure that further abuse or injury does not occur; (5) On the other side of the forgiveness process, we should left with a sense of appropriate hope and increased vitality for life as we celebrate the freedom to require mutual respect and appropriate behavior change, rather than capitulating to continued abuses; and (6) Realizing that it was as a result of our offender’s choice to dehumanize us that they were able to objectify us, use us and abuse us, we refuse to dehumanize or villainize our abuser, recognizing that they are a complex, three-dimensional human being, just as we are. (Davenport, 1991, pp. 141-142)

If you are still suffering significantly on the other side of having sincerely forgiven your offender, you may need to consider adjusting your understanding and exercise of forgiveness to include some or all of these ingredients. Then, if your symptoms continue to persist, you may also need to consult a trusted friend, pastor or counselor, as unresolved trauma can have a detrimental impact on your physical, mental, social, and spiritual wellbeing.

Regarding point 3 above, it may be semantics rather than a difference of opinion, but I think there may be another way of getting to the same destination (i.e., healing) that does not include “fully experiencing” our anger toward the abuser since this may present a health risk to some. It involves experiencing the primary emotions that may have been present at the time of the offense (i.e, deep sorrow, vulnerability, fear,), and from that place of deep hurt, giving up your right to revenge and releasing the offender into the hands of God, as an act of worship to God. It also involves taking the ground back that we forfeited to bitterness and unforgiveness (see Ephesians 4:26-27)and dedicating that place in our heart to God. Next, it involves asking God to reveal the lies (i.e., core beliefs) that we may have unknowingly embraced prior to, during, or after the offense, related to the trauma. In my experience, these lies are the cause of most of our residual anger. Finally, it involves asking God to replace the lies God revealed with truth.

Davenport, D. S. (2013). Vita.

Davenport, D. S. (1991). The functions of anger and forgiveness: Guidelines for psychotherapy with victims. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 28(1), 140-144. doi: 10.1037/0033-3204.28.1.140

Copyright © 2013 Stuart A. Coleman

Courageously facing the facts of our abuse may require a safe friend and a power greater than our own

cropped-shutterstock_76161385-Older-Couple-Hugging-PRCHS.jpgIn order to heal, one must at some point begin to face up to the trauma one has suffered. For it is only as one faces the pain and forgives one’s offenders that one can heal. This takes courage. And many would say, it requires not only trustworthy and caring persons in one’s life to give witness to one’s painful past, but the love and power of God. Such was the case with Doug’s wife. Her trusted friend for the journey was her husband “Doug” (pseudonym). The strength that both she and her “Doug” needed for the journey came from God:

“Ours is a story of restoration. Ours is a story of having to walk back through the pain and reliving the nightmare. Ours is a story of how God healed all of that pain that was stored deep down inside. Ours is a story of how God caused my wife to once again become a whole person” (“Doug”, 2001, p. 8).

How do we find a safe and trustworthy friend to open up to? We have found Cloud and Townsend’s (1995) work helpful in this regard.

How do we begin to rely upon God for the strength to face our pain? For some, simply asking God to teach them how to rely upon Him might be sufficient, as God is eager to do so. However, for some who experienced spiritual abuse or were involved in cult activity, even a simple prayer like this may be very difficult.

“Doug”. (2001). For better or for worse. Colorado Springs, CO: Lydia Press.

Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. (1995). Safe people: How to find relationships that are good for you and avoid those that aren’t.

Before reconciliation can occur, there must be true contrition

cropped-woman_and_hat_212421.jpgObserves Tutu, “When you say to me, ‘I am sorry,’ in my Christian understanding I am constrained by the Gospel imperative to forgive. Yet, this is not the end of the story. You see, if you have stolen my pen and you say you are sorry, and I forgive you and you still retain my pen, then I must call into question the authenticity of your contrition. I must-as part of the process of reconciliation, of forgiving, of healing, of the willingness to make good-appropriate restitution” (Tutu, 1998, pp. xiii-xiv).

Tutu, D. (1998). Without forgiveness there is no future. In R. D. Enright & J. North (Eds.), Exploring forgiveness. (pp. xiii-xiv). Madison, WI US: University of Wisconsin Press.

Forgive and forget? That may not be such a good idea

cropped-i_am_watching_you_197788.jpgMany people have the mistaken idea that if they have sincerely and successfully forgiven someone, there should be no memory of the past wrongdoing. Not so, insists Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

“Forgiveness does not mean amnesia. Amnesia is a most dangerous thing, especially on a community, national, or international level. We must forgive, but almost always we should not forget that there were atrocities, because if we do, we are then likely to repeat those atrocities. Those who forgive and those who accept forgiveness must not forget in their reconciling” (Tutu, 1998, p. xiv).

Tutu, D. (1998). Without forgiveness there is no future. In R. D. Enright & J. North (Eds.), Exploring forgiveness. (pp. xiii-xiv). Madison, WI US: University of Wisconsin Press.

Forgiveness is taking seriously the awfulness of what has happened

cropped-woman_praying_1974461.jpgSome have the mistaken belief that forgiveness is the minimizing of what has happened, or pretending that things were different than they were. On the contrary, argues Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

“Forgiveness is taking seriously the awfulness of what has happened when you are treated unfairly….Forgiveness is not pretending that things are other than they are….It is facing the ghastliness of what has happened and giving the other person the opportunity of coming out of the ghastly situation” (Tutu, 1998, p. xiii)

Tutu, D. (1998). Without forgiveness there is no future. In R. D. Enright & J. North (Eds.), Exploring forgiveness. (pp. xiii-xiv). Madison, WI US: University of Wisconsin Press.

What if they will not forgive you?

cropped-winter_fashion_21224-.jpgWhat if they refuse to forgive you?  It is simply unwise and unhealthy to catastrophize about it.  Better to tell yourself something like this: “Okay.  What if they refuse to forgive me?  Well, I definitely would be disappointed.  But it would not be the end of the world, because no person on the earth has the power to negate what God has declared, which is that I am forever fully forgiven, that Jesus paid the debt for my sin, and that I am thus free from all condemning charges against me.  And because Jesus is my contentment, rather than any outward circumstances, I can rest in Him. “ You are thus free to redirect your attention away from self-centered, self-defeating ruminations and toward asking God to bless the person who refuses to forgive you.  For in truth, if they choose to withhold forgiveness, they are moving toward enslavement to the bondage of bitterness, which can have dire consequences on their physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual wellbeing. This might be a good time to quiet your heart, turn your eyes upon Jesus, and join Him as He prays the prayer He prayed from the cross:  “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”  (Luke 23:34) Stuart A. Coleman

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