A slightly modified version of the following blog originally appeared on lindamkurth.com.
If you’re a Christian recovering from divorce, visit Linda’s website where you’ll find articles and resources to bring healing to your heart. A “Forgiveness Self-Assessment” link is included at the end of this post along with other helpful links.
—THE BENEFITS OF FORGIVENESS—
Forgiveness frees us
Maya Angelou called forgiveness “one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.” Unrelenting unforgiveness traps us in the past. Forgiveness breaks the cycle of pain and victimhood we’ve been carrying and frees us emotionally from the person who’s hurt us. Rooting out unforgiveness leaves room for joy in new experiences.
—THE STRUGGLE TO FORGIVE—
I hadn’t had any success in forgiving my ex for all the lies he told me and the hurts he visited upon me. His betrayal haunted my nightmares and sprung up unbidden during the day. I could barely function; “Betrayed” had become the narrative of my life.
I knew that, as a Christian, I was supposed to forgive, but I struggled. “Go ahead, Lord,” I urged, “roast him and toast him!”
I made an appointment with my new pastor, hoping he had the magic words that would help me with this task. “Forgiveness is absolutely necessary, and you should do it as soon as possible,” he responded. “Remember, God has forgiven both you and Jim.” He pointed to some of the passages in the Bible that deal with forgiveness.
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” Matthew 6:14
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:31-32
There were more verses, and I knew them all. He might as well have said, “Just do it.” Did that help me? Of course not! I felt more shame and frustration for not being ready to forgive.
—WHAT FORGIVENESS LOOKS LIKE—
Forgiveness is a process, not a onetime event
I hope by now that pastor has a better understanding of the forgiveness process. Forgiving doesn’t mean we immediately stop feeling hurt or we deny our feelings. I love what Nancy Richards wrote in her memoir Mother, I Don’t Forgive You: “Forgiveness is not an event of immediacy. It’s not a bolt of light that brightens the soul and burns the pain to ashes. Forgiveness is a process; one that we must honor with our own healing timetable.” By acknowledging our pain, not just with our heads but with our whole being, we open the door for healing and forgiveness. 1
Forgiveness does not mean forgetting
Forgiving, yes, but forgetting? I take exception to the “forgetting” part of “forgiving and forgetting.” If we forget, we might not retain the lessons we’ve learned. Perhaps there should be a partial forgetting of that which eats away at us and poisons our souls. I believe we must release what we carry in our bodies — the part that clings to hurt and the desire for retribution. Journaling can help in remembering and processing without attaching strong negative emotions to the situation.
Forgiveness is a gift freely given
I find the Definition of Forgiveness by the International Forgiveness Institute to be helpful: “The concept of forgiveness is not a matter of forgetting the terrible things that have happened. Forgiveness is a gift, not a deal. It is the abandonment of resentment and the offering of goodness toward the other. It is a choice and a process. It means trying to understand the other, to experience compassion for the offender, and to focus on forgiveness as a moral gift. It does not mean condoning or pardoning or forgetting about justice. Forgiveness and justice often exist side-by-side. 2
—HOW TO FORGIVE—
We need to forgive ourselves
In his book Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve, Lewis B. Smedes wrote: “[Forgiveness] cannot heal our narcissistic resentments toward people for not being all that we expect them to be … Nobody can forgive people for being what they are.” 3 I had to shed the illusion that I could have somehow changed my ex into the person I thought he should be. Eventually I realized my resentment toward him was a waste of my good time. If I had anyone to forgive, it was me for being wrong in my belief I could fix him. I also needed to forgive myself for staying so long and letting him get away with his treatment of me.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean we shouldn’t protect ourselves
We can forgive someone even when we don’t trust them. An ex-spouse who has hurt us and remains unrepentant cannot be expected to change because of our forgiveness. I was relieved when I decided to hand over my ex and his problems to God. My job was to take care of me and my stuff. I practiced dealing with my ex as I would a business arrangement, spending as little emotional energy as possible. When the situation called for it, I sought to remind him, in a neutral manner, of his better nature. (I confess it took me a while to get to this point.)
You probably know your ex better than anyone else. Try to imagine what drove him or her to the behaviors that hurt you so much. Would a healthy person do the same? Probably not. When I think of the parental abuse my ex endured during his childhood, my heart aches for him. That’s not to say I condone his actions, but it helps me see him as a vulnerable human being who didn’t have the capability of being the kind of spouse I needed or wanted. This realization has helped me forgive him.
I believe true forgiveness cannot be achieved in the midst of trauma. If you find yourself endlessly recycling hurt and anger as I did, get help. Many churches sponsor divorce recovery support groups led by people who understand what you’re going through. They’ll facilitate your learning how to heal and gain hope for your future. Individual counselors can be helpful, too. I took advantage of both. My counselor put me on anti-depressants until I was able to better cope. Through my divorce recovery group, I gained new friends as we negotiated our newly single lives. Healing and moving forward opened me to gradual forgiveness.
Understand your power to forgive
In a Psychology Today article, Lisa Firestone writes, “Learning to forgive helps us to control our story and our feelings to avoid unnecessary pain. As powerful individuals, we can choose between living in a victim mode or an adult mode. In the latter state, we acknowledge and feel the full pain of what happened to us without getting stuck in a triggered state in which we feel it is still happening. We can feel our feelings without letting them overtake us.” 4
Have I been able to forgive my ex, you ask. When some folks learn I’ve written a memoir about my marriage, divorce, and recovery, they assume I’ve done so to “get back” at him. Although there might have been some truth to that when I first began, revisiting my life has given me a more nuanced perspective. I see the whole man now, with both good and bad qualities. He’s someone I spent a great deal of my life with, and with whom I share a now-grown child. I have enough emotional distance now that he can no longer hurt me. I wish him the best.
Imagine you have the power to forgive. Can you feel your shoulders relax and your jaw unclench? Is your walk a little lighter? Just remember, forgiveness takes time. Be gentle with yourself as you to follow the path of forgiveness, looking ahead to the many blessings that await you.
- Richards, Nancy, I Don’t Forgive you: A Necessary Alternative for Healing, (Create Space 2017) 24
- International Forgiveness Institute, https://internationalforgiveness.com
- Lewis B. Smedes, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve, (HarperOne 1996) 112.
- Firestone, Lisa “Why Should We Forgive?: What Beyoncé got right about forgiveness according to science,” Psychology Today, Apr 29, 2016
Holocaust video on forgiveness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdgPAetNY5U
God, the Devil, and Divorce: A Transformative Journey out of Emotional and Spiritual Abuse: Amazon https://www.amazon.com/God-Devil-Divorce-Transformative-Emotional/dp/1631951505 or Powell’s https://www.powells.com/book/god-the-devil-and-divorce-9781631951503
Blog: “Help and Healing for Divorced Christians” https://www.lindamkurth.com/divorce-healing-blog
Free copy of Linda’s “Forgiveness Self-Assessment”: https://www.lindamkurth.com/uploads/1/4/4/8/14480324/forgiveness_self-assessment.pdf
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