Simple Superpowers Series, Part 4: Researchers have identified simple superpowers that help us flourish in our lives and relationships. In parts 1 and 2 we looked at gratitude and curiosity and last week we focused on why forgiveness is a superpower. This time, we get practical and cover why we resist forgiving others, and how to actually forgive.
Last week we found that forgiveness leads to incredible health and relationship benefits. So why do we struggle to do it? Why would we resist something that a) God wants us to do, b) research says is good for us, and c) creates the inner-peace we long for?
And just as important: how on earth do we forgive, when we just don’t feel like it? Let’s dive in.
Why do we resist offering forgiveness?
Here are the most consistent objections I hear:
- It feels like we are letting the other person off the hook for their behavior. I have a right to be mad.
- It feels like we’re at risk of losing a sort of perceived advantage. When we forgive and let go, we instinctively feel we are losing the upper hand.
- Ironically (given the above), we also enjoy having a sort of “victim status.” This allows us to justify things we otherwise wouldn’t.
- We fear that the record of the person’s offense will somehow fall away if we forgive.
- We’ve been harmed so deeply that we actually want the other person to suffer.
Now, as we said last time, forgiveness does not diminish grievous hurts. And it doesn’t mean ignoring our legitimate pain or anger. But it does keep us from sinking into a pit of bitterness and avoid identifying as a victim for the long run.
Here’s what I mean. A dear friend of mine was raped as a teenager and that trauma has led to many emotional consequences for her and her husband. Yet she has worked to forgive her rapist, so she can be set free, even as she has worked to hold the man accountable. Forgiveness helps her approach life from a sense of personal agency, strength, and compassion.
The big picture in all this is that we have a sovereign God who cares about fairness and restoration. He values mercy and justice. And this may be hard to hear in some circumstances, but He loves you and the person who hurt you.
Our job is to forgive and let our God sort all the rest out. As I wrote in my devotional Find Joy, “One who forgives finds freedom. And when we find true forgiveness, we find joy.”
So how do we actually do that?
How can we forgive?
We know why we should forgive, and we’ve taken aim at some of the justifications we use for not forgiving … and now we’ve arrived at the million-dollar question:
How do we forgive?
This could never be fully covered in a single article, but the following steps can set us on a path that focuses on finding the will and the strength to forgive – as well as discovering the peace and joy that flows from it.
Step 1: Pray. Start by praying for the other person. It’s really hard to be mad at someone you’re praying for consistently.
Pray also that God will enlarge the capability of your heart to forgive. That He’ll make the desire of your heart line up with the desire of His heart. That He will make you more like Him.
Step 2: Identify with the wrongdoer. In his masterful book “Forgive,” my former pastor, the late Tim Keller, described the importance of viewing others in the very human way we view ourselves. He wrote:
“If somebody has lied to you, you tell yourself, ‘She lied because she is just a liar!’ But if you are ever caught in a lie, and someone asks why you lied, you say, ‘Well, yes, but it’s complicated. I didn’t mean …’ Yes, you did lie, but you are basically a good person. So while you continue to think of yourself as a three-dimensional, complex human being, you start to think of the person who lied to you as a one-dimensional villain.”
Keller gets at something profound. In most cases, seeing others as humans who are doing the best they can postures us to forgive.
There are cases when the wrongdoer is truly motivated by evil, and that requires a different perspective. But in most day-to-day situations where forgiveness is needed – the words our parent said to hurt us, the way our colleague held up our work project – we will do better to see the person through eyes of compassion and, thus, lower their status from a “villain” to a person. Just like us.
Step 3: Trade negative thoughts for positive ones. In a previous professional life, I helped someone by sharing an immense amount of my work. I didn’t get credit, and this really impacted me. But after an appropriate period of saying “ouch,” I realized it was important to not harbor negative feelings about it. Anytime I heard the person’s name from that point on, I thanked God for the good work they were doing and the people who were being impacted.
It set me free.
Rather than rehearse our grievances, let’s rehearse God’s goodness. Hurts and injustices are real, but when we take our eyes off God and put them on our unfair treatment, we actively give that unfair thing the ability to fuel unforgiveness.
Step 4. Take action as needed – but do so from a place of forgiveness (not unforgiveness). There may be times we must take action even as we forgive.
Recently, I was talking to an up-and-coming technology consultant. For the past year she has been working with her firm’s largest client, who is also the firm’s most difficult client. She described the client’s team members as regularly doing things like changing her programming without understanding the system – and then blaming her for the system breaking.
She is worried about being fired, becoming depressed, not sleeping, and snapping at her husband.
So what does she do? Well, from a professional development perspective she probably has to establish boundaries and start documenting performance – hers and theirs. She may need to walk away from the job for her own health.
But in our conversation, what never occurred to her was that the first thing she had to do was forgive. Otherwise, every other step could be driven by anger, self-justification, and even a need for a convenient place to put the blame for snapping at her husband.
“I need to forgive this client for all the emotional consequences I have suffered this year” is a change in motivation that can help this young professional take appropriate actions from a place of strength rather than from bitterness or blame.
Step 5: Make forgiveness a habit. How do habits form? Consistency. And trust me, there are times when people and situations will call us to develop forgiveness-consistency!
There’s a story in the New Testament in which Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive an offense. “Up to seven times?” he asks. But Jesus tells him seventy-seven times. Other translations suggest his wording meant seventy times seven times. I don’t think Jesus literally meant to keep count until Peter got to “77 times” or “490 times.” The idea He was expressing is that He forgives over and over (and over) and He wants us to be like Him.
I’ve had a person in my life for whom 70 x 7 has probably been literal! Maybe you can relate. When that person’s name emerges, I pray for them by name. It’s instinctual now. A habit.
Friends, cultivating the superpower of forgiveness is a habit worth building. Some injuries may have changed the course of our entire lives and others may simply be personal peeves. But in every case, we can make forgiveness a habit. A habit that is an opportunity to put teeth into our faith. A habit that allows us to take what was hurt, and bring healing instead.
And if you are interested in having Shaunti speak on kindness for your workplace, church, school or community group, please contact Nicole Owens at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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More from Shaunti’s Blog:
- What Wives Need Most From Their Husbands (Part 1)
- What Husbands Need Most From Their Wives (Part 2)
- What Husbands Need Most From Their Wives (Part 1)
- In Money and Marriage, Remember the Past to Have Faith in the Future
- What Forgiveness Can Teach Us About Creating a Thriving Life – part 2
- What Forgiveness Can Teach Us About Creating a Thriving Life