Several years ago, I led a series on the subject of forgiveness with college students when I was a seminary intern at my church. I did not know what kind of engagement to expect from our students, but I know I was not prepared for their response. Every person in the discussion group I was leading (all of whom had been relatively quiet over the previous few weeks) became “passionately engaged” in our conversation. And some of them were not happy with what they were hearing.
One guy, in particular, was speechless when I described how God wanted us to let go of our desire to “make things right,” instead of trying to get back at or injure those who had wounded us first.
When the subject of forgiveness surfaces in a discussion group where I’m a member or a leader, it is as if a bomb went off in the group. People who seemed to be loving and gracious, who I believed to be mature, turn into angry, frustrated people who refuse to budge. The amount of unresolved anger and bitterness bubbling just under the surface has been incredibly shocking.
As I began to reflect on past teachings I’d done on forgiveness and the conversations I’ve engaged, I re-encountered a lot of inaccuracy around the subject. Even as I processed a recent experience where my actions led to a damaged relationship, I realized I had to discard the myths and go looking for the truth about forgiveness.
Here are nine myths I’ve identified from my work with other people about forgiveness and the truths you can replace them with so you can be set free from bitterness.
Myth: Forgiveness is about the other person.
Truth: Forgiveness is about you.
There’s a famous quote that’s been ascribed to several people throughout history that says, “Refusing to forgive someone else is like drinking rat poison and expecting the rat to die.” We often think that refusing to forgive will someone “show” the other person how bad their actions were. We believe that forgiveness is about what they did and whether they’ve done anything to rectify their actions. Truthfully, forgiveness is about you (the wounded person) moving on from the offense and living in freedom.
Myth: If you forgive someone, you should forget it ever happened.
Truth: Forgiveness and forgetting are two very different things.
Forgetting what happened is not always possible, nor is it always wise. You cannot make yourself forget something, especially a deep wound. Our hearts and minds do not have a “recycle bin” like our computers, where we can simply drag items there and watch them disappear. Also, forgetting something like abuse or deceit can often lead to dangerous consequences for the victim of a crime. Forgiving is something we must do for our own health and well-being. Forgetting is something separate and different.
Myth: I can forgive them while still secretly living in bondage to regret and shame for my own failures.
Truth: Our ability to give forgiveness is connected to the depth of forgiveness we’ve received.
Scripture constantly reiterates one message about forgiveness — forgiven people can forgive. God forgives us in Jesus and enables us to forgive others. Throughout the New Testament, we read passages like Matthew 5:7, Ephesians 4:29-32, Colossians 3:12-14 and Matthew 6:9-14, all linking God forgiving us and us forgiving others. If we want to experience the freedom that comes from forgiving someone else, we need to experience the forgiveness God wants to introduce into our lives.
Myth: The people in the Bible didn’t need a lot of forgiveness.
Truth: The people in the Bible are as dysfunctional as we are.
Moses was a murderer, David too. The Apostle Paul was a mass murderer and prosecutor of Christians. For many of us, we have no problem with God redeeming and forgiving them. Our favorite Bible characters are often the people most in need of forgiveness. Yet, in our life today, when we encounter dysfunctional people who sin and hurt others, do we allow God space to work today like He did with Moses, David and Paul? I mean, how many of us would have partnered with a church plant whose pastor was a known murderer and prosecutor of Christians? I’m not sure Paul would have passed some of the assessments we use on leaders today.
Myth: Forgiveness is a decision, an act of the will.
Truth: Forgiveness is a decision and a process.
As I said above, we cannot force ourselves to let go of something in a moment. Our hearts do not follow commands like the computer I’m typing this post on. Richard Rohr wrote, “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” While we may have thoughts and decisive moments of letting go, it is in the processing of letting go again and again that we experience the full magnitude of forgiveness. We decide to do it and we do it … and we do that again and again.
Myth: Refusing to forgive shows I value accountability.
Truth: Refusing to forgive can mean you’re lusting for revenge and struggling to trust God to do the best thing.
I once wrote a definition of forgiveness. “Forgiveness is giving up my pursuit of revenge and trusting God to bring justice (in a situation).” I believe unforgiveness is at the heart of our lust for revenge. As a follower of Jesus, I lay down my “right” to revenge. Jesus’ perfect life and sacrificial death was the greatest good ever done. And out of that good comes the power to overcome all evil done by mankind. How do we overcome evil with good? We forgive. How do we forgive? Well, it’s not easy. It’s not quick. It’s not the same for each of us.
The Bible doesn’t lay it out step-by-step for us. But we do not see any healthy people in the pages of Scripture apart from forgiveness. (While I haven’t read the whole thing, Neil T. Anderson’s The Bondage Breaker has a really interesting diagram and related steps to process wounds and move towards forgiveness. It would be worth checking out if you’re looking for a resource. The book is dated, but I know some big fans.)
Myth: Forgiveness and reconciliation are the same thing.
Truth: Forgiveness and reconciliation are very different things.
Ultimately, reconciliation is God’s gift to broken relationships where everyone involved has forgiven themselves and forgiven others. Reconciliation can take time, however — a long time. Patience is essential. Reconciliation will move you forward, not backward to the “way it used to be.” Sadly, you can’t ever restore the past; you can only move forward. You are both (or all) different people, hence whatever relationship you reforge will be different.
Sometimes reconciliation is based upon someone’s life showing that they have changed. Since true forgiveness makes reconciliation possible, we cannot rush or short-circuit the forgiveness process. If so, we derail our hopes and dreams for a reconciled relationship in the future.
And if we’re honest, there are times when reconciliation doesn’t always work out, such as cases of abuse where you are not safe. Cases where the person has not proven themselves trustworthy. Cases where the best thing for someone involved is just moving on. Being married to a domestic violence prosecutor for five-and-a-half years ruined me on the subject of unhealthy and unsafe reconciliation. I cannot ignore the challenges on this issue. And I think this is why I’m so passionate about how different and distinct forgiveness and reconciliation are from each other.
Reconciliation requires something from both people and that may mean that the “other” person never gets there. Maybe you are the person who was hurt and you cannot ever or should not ever trust the person who hurt you again. Maybe you are the person who did the wrong and you desperately wish you could undo it, but you can’t. You believe you have changed, but the other person is not having it. Forgiveness without reconciliation can be incredibly tough, but it is the experience many of us will encounter.
Myth: I need to tell the person I forgave them.
Truth: You don’t necessarily need to tell them you forgave them.
“I wanted you to know you unknowingly hurt me years ago and I’ve been a wreck over it for years. But don’t worry, I finally came to the place after thousands of dollars in counseling and days of prayer where I can forgive you. Welp, just wanted you to know. Wow, now that it’s off my chest, I feel so much better. See ya!”
If you go tell someone this (I haven’t heard this, but have heard something similar), first ask yourself why you need to let them know they unknowingly wronged you. Is it possible that saying, “You never knew I was angry with you, but I was because you were terrible … but I forgave you, so it’s cool!” is really one last attempt to get back at them for hurting you? You can forgive someone without ever telling them because forgiveness is about your freedom, not about theirs.
Myth: Forgiveness is something I can do on my own.
Truth: We need help processing the pain and letting go.
The hardest things in life and the most important things in life are often things we do not do alone. For many of us, we’ve tried forgiving and we haven’t made progress. If we were going to make it alone, we would’ve done so by now. For me, forgiveness is all about God opening my eyes to what I am blind to.
I know someone who specializes in mediation whose first goal in his process is to “get everyone involved to pull the log out of their eye.” His goal comes from Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1-4 where Jesus talks about how we’re to work together to remove the barriers in our life. Jesus reminds us that we all have barriers and we all need help. Each of us has wounded others and been deeply wounded ourselves. We’ve all needed forgiveness and needed to forgive someone else. If you find that you have someone to forgive, today’s a good day to start.