Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Forgiveness Is A Gift; Trust Is Earned

October 13, 2007

Love is a choice. Anger is a choice. Forgiving is a choice. How could all these strong emotions be a matter of choice? They are choices because we have the power to decide our emotions by our thoughts, commitments and actions. Otherwise we would be passive victims of fate - of events and forces outside of our control.

We are not passive victims, but actors in shaping our own destiny. It isn't what has happened to us that matters; it is our reaction to those events that matter. It is through our ability to choose that we exercise control - we decide what things mean and how we are going to act or react.

Choosing to forgive. Victor Frankl, writing about his concentration camp experience in Nazi Germany, found that the one thing the prison guards could not take from him was his ability to choose how he would respond to the depravity and inhumanity around him. No one could put chains around his attitude.

It is this ability to choose our reactions, even in the most dire of circumstances, that is noble and liberating about humankind.

In "Les Miserables," by Victor Hugo, Jean Valjean is transformed from being a bitter victim of injustice to a loving, giving, forgiving human being by a priest who forgave him for his act of treachery and betrayal. The act of being forgiven by someone who had every right to require justice placed Jean Valjean into a state of moral indebtedness - of understanding the need to do likewise to his fellow travelers in life. The priest’s act of loving forgiveness multiplied itself many times.

"He that cannot forgive others, breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass if he would ever reach heaven; for everyone has the need to be forgiven." - George Herbert

Apologies are important. The ability to forgive is aided considerably by the offender's recognition of the harm done, expression of heartfelt remorse, an explicit apology, restitution where possible and a commitment not to repeat the offense.

For some hurts, there is no restitution possible. The harm is irrevocable. The most healing action possible may be an expression of true remorse and responsibility.

The reason people hold on to past hurts is because often there was never an adequate apology given. A sincere, heartfelt apology takes the burden of responsibility from the offender and puts the matter in the hands of the offended. A few humble and remorseful words may be all that are necessary to trigger forgiveness.

Working through pain and loss takes time. Sometimes it takes repeated and detailed pleas to salve deep wounds.

So what if an apology isn't forthcoming? Too often matters are left unresolved because the offender hasn't sought or asked for forgiveness. One reason for postponing forgiveness is waiting for the offender to acknowledge the injury and apologize. A delay, especially when no apology or remorse is forthcoming, causes wounds to fester. People remain stuck with grudges, anger, spite, bitterness, resentments and a desire for revenge. Some hurts are held onto for a lifetime.

The road to forgiveness is harder but still must be traveled. To hold onto festering and unrelenting hurt is to suffer unnecessary pain. We still need to forgive - for our own sake.

Dr. Sidney Simon says, "Forgiveness is freeing up and putting to better use the energy once consumed by holding grudges, harboring resentments, and nursing unhealed wounds." People who are able to forgive become less angry, more hopeful, less depressed and less stressed.

The person we hurt the most when we don’t forgive is ourselves. We choose to continue to allow the tragic act to rob our peace and happiness. Forgiveness is a truly liberating gift, not only for the offender, but as a gift to oneself.

It is easier to forgive than to trust. We can forgive unilaterally and unconditionally. Trust depends on the actions of another. Forgiveness is given; trust is earned. Scripture requires us to love and forgive our enemies, not to trust them. Forgiving means letting go of anger and hurt. It doesn't mean exposing oneself to further hurt. That also is a choice.

Forgiveness does not relieve the offender from consequences. By turning justice over to the criminal justice system, God, the ultimate judge, or to natural consequences, we free ourselves of living with pain while waiting for justice to happen.

However, if you wish to restore a relationship with an offender to its full potential, the remorseful apology needs to be followed by genuine changes. This will open the heart to risk trusting again. Changes have to be real and sustained. The offending action must not occur again. Once you have confidence that the offending act will not recur, then trust will begin to come back.

To hold back trust doesn't mean you haven't forgiven an action. It means that you are not ready to trust yet. Forgiveness is a choice. Trust is not. For the offender, there is a price to pay to restore trust. It is the consistent demonstration that the change is real and can be trusted.

Restoring trust takes time. Good intentions are not enough. A history of false of broken promises and repeated offenses makes trust much harder to achieve.

How often do we forgive? As often as necessary. How long does it take to trust again? As long as necessary.