We’ve established that God has built into us the means to help us change our hearts from unforgiving to forgiving, if we have the “want to”. This transforming ability is designed into our brains, ready for us, even now. Typically, however, we end up praying to God to change our heart, wishing to move on, but not experiencing the change. Did God answer “No”? Or, is there more to be done? We may think that God will miraculously give us amnesia regarding the terrible infraction against us and we will find immediate release from this death-grip of “unforgiveness”. But is that how it actually works?
Remember from article #4 that forgiveness is a process. It’s more like taking off a garment and putting on another, then taking off a garment, and putting on another. It’s not a simple case of amnesia at all. The good news about the process is that just maybe, there’s something crucial to be learned in what we might see as a tedious process. That might be why God doesn’t grant an immediate and instantaneous release. Maybe spiritual health comes in the process more than the result.
The 24 activities of forgiveness presented in this article fall into four categories:
1) Activities to uncover our anger.
2) Activities to help us decide to forgive.
3) Activities to help us process our forgiveness.
4) Activities to release us from emotional pain.
To see the full list please go to the www.tidings.org website.
This is not a “To do” list starting from the first activity and proceeding methodically down the list.
There are parts of this that feed together and some you return to over and over. The aim of this article is to broaden the awareness of our participation in this process. There is much that can be done.
Activities to uncover our anger
In order to forgive we need to be willing to examine the anger we have as a result of someone’s unfairness to us. There are questions we will need to ask ourselves, and answer as honestly as we can without fear of condemnation, especially self-condemnation. The questions are probing and revealing and most helpful if we allow them to do their work. We may have hidden the truths about our hurt and anger under layers of rationalizations and emotional “stuff ”. After all, we have been taught that it’s “sinful to carry anger”. Some of the layers that are hiding the truth of our anger are about trying to live the Truth without actually engaging in truth. Because of our fear of sin we create shortcuts. Here are a few common ones. There are more that we can and do create, but these are the highlights:
- DENIAL: at first a healthy protection, but if not addressed, it can turn into an obstacle.
- SUPPRESSION: pushing thoughts about the event from consciousness; a false forgetting.
- REPRESSION: usually for major abuses; the brain can block things for you.
- DISPLACEMENT: transfers the anger to something or someone else, often in families; for example, anger at your father could transfer to anger at your husband.
- REGRESSION: engaging in behavior that is considered understandable in a child but is inappropriate for an adult. Here are some questions to assist us in exploring and opening up our denial, suppression, repression, displacement, and regression. How have we avoided dealing with anger? Have we faced our anger? Am I afraid to expose my shame or guilt (my part in it)? Has our anger affected our faith? My health? Our prayers? Have I been obsessed with the injury or the offender? Do we compare our situation with that of the offender? (Sometimes we see the offender as leading a “charmed” life and we are saddled with all the suffering.) Has the injury caused a permanent change in my life? (Those trying to forgive before they have accepted and grieved permanent losses may find that they need to forgive again.) Has the injury changed our outlook on life?
Regarding simple injuries to us at the hand of another, this section could be very easy to work with and through. But in the course of our lives there will be times we find we are seething with anger, and are not able to appropriately focus on it to get to who or how to forgive. Sometimes we can’t even recognize that there’s a deficit that forgiving would fill.
Activities to help us decide to forgive
This is not too different from when we decided to get baptized. Something, an inciting awareness, prompted us to take the step. The reason for baptism could have been a misfortune that came upon us and we could see the Truth in contrast; or maybe we realized Jesus is coming back soon and we didn’t want to miss out. Such awakenings or combinations help push us along towards a good direction. Correspondingly, if we have discovered or recognized our anger, here are some ideas that could help push us along:
1) Draw from a change of heart, a “conversion”, or new insights revealing that what we have been doing isn’t working.
2) Entertain the thought that forgiveness is the solution.
3) Make a commitment to God to forgive the offender. Our previous article talked about brokenness. An unforgiving heart is bad for our health! If we allow ourselves to feel the brokenness and how unsatisfactory the current situation is, we will be driven to the next activities. For most of us, making a commitment to change helps us actually move toward accomplishing change, even changing our minds. An excellent way to commit is to write it down on a piece of paper: “On (today) I commit to forgive _____________”. Writing it down is amazingly helpful!
Activities to help us process our Forgiveness
It would be easy to think that the job is done now, but on difficult forgiveness issues the work starts now. Certainly some of the activities would be to ask God to assist, making sure we really want to forgive. Another powerful idea is to pray for the offender, making sure to use their name. Let’s now explore another major activity: “reframing”.
Reframing is changing our perspective through role-taking. We reframe when we view the wrongdoer in context. Reframing is a Biblical concept. We are asked to view things differently from their natural context. To see ourselves as God sees us, we need to look through the frame of Scripture. To see other people, it’s the same. The incidents in our lives, good and bad, are better viewed in the frame of Scripture. It’s just like looking at a picture in a frame. The frame tells you what to notice. God’s frame will tell you to notice different things.
Here are some examples: Matt 5:11-12 speaks of persecution but it reframes it to joy and reward. James 1:2-4 speaks of trials but reframes them to joy, patience, and perfection. 1Cor 15:54-57 speaks of death but reframes it to victory.
Gen 50:17-21 is a prime example of reframing. In verse 17 Joseph’s brothers are imploring Joseph to forgive them for the despicable way they treated him. How does Joseph forgive them? Joseph says, “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (vs. 20). Joseph is reframing the smaller picture of betrayal, near-murder, and rejection to a bigger picture of the salvation of a family from starvation and ruin. Did Joseph figure this out as the events were happening? It took years and much suffering as the reframing process developed in his understanding, but reframing was the way he was able to forgive.
Understanding the forces that drive offenders is an important step in the reframing and forgiveness process. Here are some questions to help us reframe our perception of our offender:
1) What was it like for the offender as they were growing up?
2) What was it like for the offender at the time of the offense? (Not condoning, just understanding.)
3) Can we see them as a member of the human community or ecclesia?
4) Are we able to tell the story of our relationship in a broader sense than the offence? (What were they like in good times? Was it all bad? Did the person ever show good judgment?) Sometimes looking through old photo albums will help broaden our view beyond the offence.
The poet, Longfellow, wrote: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we would find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” Seeking empathy and compassion toward the offender goes hand in hand with reframing.
Another activity is to release our thoughts from the injury for longer blocks of time. An injury can become an obsession, or worse yet, our identity.
Bearing and accepting the pain releases you to heal. Given a serious injury, our bodies go into shock; a way of numbing and protecting us from the pain. However, being in shock is medically dangerous and definitely not a permanent solution. Accepting pain is to stop hiding from it. We discover that we can handle the pain, and then it lessens. As we become stronger we don’t have to transfer the pain to someone else. Accepting pain is a gift to those around us who have been uninvolved in the incident of hurt.
As this process continues we can do a few other activities. One is to speak to others in a kindly manner about the person who has done us an injustice; even more, to give a moral gift to the offender. In 2006 some Amish families experienced the horrible tragedy of a man killing five young girls. The community of the murdered girls was able to offer meals and financial aid to the widow of the killer, who had committed suicide after the shootings. It’s possible our offender has since died and then what can we do? It may be just to put their picture back up in our house or to visit their grave. The gift we decide upon will benefit us more than anyone else.
Activities to release us from emotional pain
This last section helps provide us with the ability to find meaning in the suffering and forgiveness process. It is well documented that many survivors of the concentration camps looked for a higher meaning in their suffering, and those who found it, fared better, at least emotionally, than those who lost hope. Another useful perspective-changer is to realize that we need God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of others, too; and that God has indeed, amply forgiven us.
We know there is strength in having partners in faith, in supportive ecclesias and with understanding family members. In our suffering there is also a community of like-sufferers. We will discover that we are not alone in this.
We can realize that we may have a new purpose in life because of our injury. Certainly in the earlier example of Joseph and his brothers the purpose of rescuing his family from famine came through loud and clear to him.
A final activity in this section, as we do our forgiveness work, is for us to become more and more aware of the decreased negative effect and the increased positive effect that this important work creates in our lives. This applies particularly to our experience of the offender but also to our own internal emotional release.
Interestingly, if you read books on forgiveness the activities we’ve discussed show up in all sorts of ways. For example, if you were to take Eph 4:31-32 you can find seven of these activities right there. Be sure to get the whole list from the website. These activities are not added burdens to our lives but actually burden-lifters. Let’s enjoy the progress.
Seven steps towards forgiveness
Sis. Robyn Henry of Australia lists what she calls seven steps to move towards forgiveness. Sis. Henry’s wording is very helpful and serves as a refreshing conclusion to this discussion:
1) Forget about the matter some of the time.
2) Do not actively wish the other person harm.
3) Let go of the idea that your suffering is touching the other human being or teaching them a lesson.
4) Come into the present. Think more about your feelings and needs and those of others close to you.
5) Feel that you can be patient with yourself.
6) Pray — be honest with God.
7) You cannot do it by yourself! Next: Forgiveness as a key to healing communities.
David Lloyd (Simi Hills, CA) and Joe Hill (Austin Leander, TX)