Most parents try to teach their children about forgiveness when something goes wrong by asking them to tell a friend or sibling, “I am sorry.” Forgiveness is not an absolute science. We cannot expect that by doing 1+1 we will get 2 as the result. Our emotions are not some mathematical formula. What is forgiveness? Forgiveness has many interpretations. It is important that we accept the interpretation and definition that works for us.

Be Realistic

If we are unrealistic in our interpretation, we can quickly become discouraged. For example, one woman said, “As long as I have moments when I still become very angry and bitter, I have not forgiven him.” Her absolute, 100% interpretation may cause feelings of guilt because she has not forgiven according to her high standard and then she questions herself by asking, “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I forgive him?”

A more realistic approach is helpful, such as, “I have fewer moments when I am angry or bitter than I had before.” This more realistic definition gives us inner peace. With inner peace we are actually able to do more because our emotional energy is not spent in achieving the impossible and then beating ourselves up for not achieving it.

Forgiving our loved ones who have caused us so much pain may be the furthest thought from our minds right now. At this time in our lives, there are so many other emotions we are dealing with that we usually do not want to add one more. Speaking about forgiveness, a wife said, “I don’t even know what the word means.” A husband commented, “I’m not even ready to think about forgiveness at this point.” That’s okay because forgiveness cannot be rushed nor achieved when we feel pressure by our loved ones or others.

Forgiveness is also very elusive. At times we may think we have forgiven, and then we are hit again with bitterness, resentment, and anger.

Forgiveness in Stages

Forgiveness is usually achieved in stages. Stage One of forgiveness is doing what we can now—what we are capable of doing, nothing more—and accepting it. Maybe later we can expand the definition to include a little bit more—Stage Two. Perhaps later we can add more—Stage Three—and so forth.

Others who have reached a level of forgiveness toward their loved ones have made these forgiving statements as they continued to forgive:

“I’m not blaming her anymore for what she did.”
“I’m less emotionally sensitive to what my husband did.”
“I no longer think of ways to get revenge.”
“I no longer have a desire to seek revenge.”
“I have more empathy for him and the environment in which he was raised.”
“I have been able to just let my anger and resentment go.”
“I’m focusing more on me and my own progress than on what he did.”
“It no longer occupies my mind every waking hour.”
“I have less bitterness and anger toward my spouse.”
“I’m not going back and replaying the event in my mind again and again.”
“I stopped trying to control my forgiveness and just let it happen.”
 “I don’t dwell on the emotional pain anymore.”

Forgiveness is a Process

When we feel confused by our tendency to revisit those feelings, we must realize that forgiveness is an ongoing process that takes time. We should apply patience to this process and give ourselves credit for every small degree of success, knowing we’ll have more later on. Over time we come to realize that an unforgiving heart hurts us more than it hurts the person who may have offended us. We learn that forgiveness is not about them, it’s about us! We can only forgive when we are ready. Forgiveness cannot be rushed, but at the same time we should not purposely keep pushing it back. We often hear advice on how to forgive, but somehow it does not seem to apply to our situation. Because of this we may find ways to justify our lack of forgiveness.

To help us choose the forgiveness path, we can remember that forgiveness does not mean that we condone or forget what happened and it does not mean that we let our loved ones walk all over us. It does not mean that we can avoid having feelings of anger and resentment pop up from time to time. Forgiveness does not mean that our loved ones are not accountable. They are accountable! We can forgive and still set boundaries. We give up the idea that forgiveness should happen within a certain timetable.

© 2005 Rod W. Jeppsen