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5 Misconceptions of Forgiveness

The word "forgiveness" is used frequently in church, movies, and song lyrics. However, meeting with individuals and couples in counseling has taught me that many struggle to understand forgiveness. When I hear that someone is struggling to forgive,  I frequently ask, "Well, what is forgiveness? What is it that you are struggling to do?" Many respond, "You know, like, just forgive." Then comes the admission, "Well, I guess I don't really know how to explain it." It is hard to do something that you do not grasp and cannot explain. I desire to share a brief overview of what I understand forgiveness to be. Then, I will share five misconceptions I frequently come across that tend to keep people stuck in unforgiveness. I pray God will use this to help you progress in your ability and desire to truly forgive those who have hurt you.

What Is It?

Forgiveness is a decision and a process.Forgiveness decides to let go of bitterness and not to seek revenge against the person who harmed you, and then proceeds to live out that decision on a daily basis. Forgiveness absorbs pain rather than transferring it to someone else. Consider how God has forgiven those who love and trust in Jesus. He does not punish us for our sins (Romans 4:6-8). He does not spare us all consequences, but he does spare us  his wrath, bitterness, and revenge. Praise the Lord that he does!
It is important to see forgiveness as a decision and a process. If you see it only as a decision, you will feel that your forgiveness was not real if you have a negative thought about the offender after extending them forgiveness. If you see it only as a process, you will delay in choosing to forgive until it "feels right." Viewing forgiveness as a decision and process allows you to make a decision and then walk it out day after day. If you choose to forgive and later feel bitterness or the desire for revenge creeping in, you can still know you have chosen to forgive. Now, you must strive to live in light of that decision.

5 Common Misconceptions

Now that you know how I am defining and viewing forgiveness, lets consider five common misconceptions that keep people in unforgiveness.

1. "Forgiveness and trust go together."
Many believe that to forgive is to trust. This becomes apparent when I hear something like, "I am struggling to forgive my spouse, because I do not feel I can trust them yet." Forgiveness is a free gift given to someone who does not deserve it. Trust must be earned. If a babysitter falls asleep on the job and my son gets hurt badly due to the babysitter's neglect, I will seek to forgive the babysitter. However, guess who will not be babysitting next Saturday night? I can forgive the babysitter for the harm, but I will not trust the babysitter alone with my children unless they do whatever it takes to earn back my trust.

2. "I must be 'over it' to forgive."
Often I hear, "I am struggling to forgive, because it still hurts and I still feel angry." Feeling hurt and not being "over it" are not evidences that you cannot forgive, but rather makes forgiveness more meaningful. Do not believe that you have to be over the hurt and anger to extend the gift of forgiveness. Remember, forgiveness is a decision and a process, not a feeling.

3. "If I forgive, the person will be free from consequences for their actions.
If you forgive, the person will be free from your revenge. There may still be legal consequences, feelings of guilt, and lack of trust. When you forgive, you do not free the offender of all consequences, but you do extend to them the gift of freedom from your revenge and bitterness.

4. "I cannot forgive, because (s)he has not apologized.
It usually makes it easier to forgive when the offender extends a good and sincere apology, but it is not necessary. Remember, forgiveness does not mean you are reconciling the relationship and immediately trusting the offender. It simply means you are not seeking revenge and are moment by moment aiming to let go of the weight of resentment. You can do this before receiving an apology.  

5. "It is best to forgive quickly and move forward."
Yes and no. Seeking to extend forgiveness quickly is great. However, keep in mind that it is hard to forgive what you do not understand. I often work with marriages that have been through infidelity. Sometimes, the offended spouse will tell me in the first counseling session that (s)he has forgiven his/her spouse. Though an honorable attempt, this forgiveness is almost always incomplete and far from finished. As the offended spouse comes to more fully understand the pain, (s)he will need to continue to forgive. It is likely impossible to understand all the pain, but quick forgiveness typically does not persevere and endure when the pain is severe. Forgive quickly if possible, but do not assume it is finished. As you realize more effects of the offense, continue to work through and express forgiveness.  

How Can You Forgive?

This post is already longer than I hoped, but I feel I must write something about how you can find the ability to forgive. Stated bluntly, forgiven people forgive (Mt. 18:21-35; Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13). If you have not experienced being forgiven, it will be impossible to forgive. If you feel that you have only been forgiven for minor offenses, it will be hard to forgive someone for a major offense. If you are struggling to forgive someone, make sure you understand what forgiveness is. Then, sit down and journal about how you have been forgiven in your life. How have you been forgiven by friends and family? Have you experienced the forgiveness of God, who is the only one who forgives while having no need of forgiveness? Dive deep into how you have been forgiven in your life and pray that God would give you the strength and grace to forgive others. 
What would you add to this list? I'd love to hear misconceptions you have heard or believed or any questions about forgiveness that you have in the comments sections.
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