A friend has wanted to talk lately about the hard work of forgiveness, so I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned about it over the past few years.

Matt Reinbold photo

Not long enough ago I hurt someone pretty badly and was hurt back as badly in return. We had cast down the china teacup of our relationship and it shattered. The best repair we could manage leaked through its glued seams. It wouldn’t hold and we came apart for good.

That experience taught me a lesson that seemed paradoxical at the time but is now so obvious that it’s elementary: Getting over being hurt means accepting the pain. It doesn’t go away as long as you deny it. It doesn’t go away as long as you ruminate on it, where it builds resentment. Acceptance is the only way through; acceptance accomplishes most of the healing. As I worked at simply letting myself hurt – and it hurt a lot – the pain diminished and disappeared, and I came to no longer hold anything against that person.

Because I’m given to foolish fantasies of a harmonious world, I also learned a second, more difficult lesson. I always thought that when I forgave, it was to be as though the wrong never happened and that I should be reconciled to the one who hurt me. God says that when he forgives, he remembers our sins no more. He gives second, fifth, ninety-fourth, and seventy-times-seventh chances. It was hard for me to see that while God loves reconciliation, he also does not want me to keep putting myself in harm’s way. Two people can simply not be good for each other. Maybe one or both have a nature that’s toxic to the other. Maybe the number or severity of past hurts make it too hard to rebuild trust. Maybe their needs conflict in too many ways. So sometimes the best way I can care for myself is to let the other person go. I’m sure that a few people are best off having let me go, too.


13 responses to “Unrightable”

  1. Leo Avatar

    I think I’m reading in what you shared some excuses to justify having something other than a forgiving heart. Excuses that rationalize not pushing oneself to forgive. Excuses that can keep someone in their comfort zone. Does authentic Christianity often exist inside our comfort zones? The Christianity I’ve experienced is too radical to live for very long inside of my comfort zone.

    Forgiveness is a gift, isn’t it? Yet forgiveness probably also takes some work on my part. I mean that I believe my ability to forgive others (and myself) is a manifestation of (first) God’s grace and (second) my cooperating with God’s grace.

    To be sure, our human nature gets worn out by some folks and we don’t want to earnestly seek God’s grace to forgive them. So the forgiveness doesn’t happen because we are the problem — instead of it not happening because God couldn’t help us forgive? Just a confused Catholic wondering outloud. :-)

  2. ant Avatar

    To forgive means simply to let go of resentment, to no longer hold something against someone. For instance someone who is abused can forgive their abuser, for their own sake, because resentment and hanging onto the past is poison. However nothing about forgiveness requires the abused individual to remain in the abusive relationship. Oddly enough, in a way it’s resentment that keeps a person enmeshed in a relationship, never moving on, rather than forgiveness, which sets both parties free.

  3. Dani Avatar

    I am struggling with differentiating between “simply letting myself hurt” and ruminating.

  4. ant Avatar

    Just IMO….ruminating means mentally replaying all the wrongs, which is like a movie loop that just keeps endlessly generating the negative emotions. Letting yourself hurt might mean sitting with the physical feeling of pain, and self-validating (ie, “Of course I feel pain right now”), which is inner directed rather than outer directed (“How could he do such a horrible thing??”)

  5. Jim Avatar

    Leo, please check Ant’s first comment, because that is the Cliffs Notes version of my post. There’s nothing more to read into it.

    Ant, I think your first comment shows that you got my point.

    Dani, I’ve found two things help when I want to ruminate. First is to use thought stopping or a distraction technique. Second is to practice empathy. What has happened in the life of the one who wronged me that makes it possible for that person to behave that way toward me? The difficulties, pain, etc., they faced that shaped them in that way — can I let that soften my heart?

  6. EB Avatar

    To err is human, to forgive, divine.

    Forgiveness is hard.

  7. EB Avatar

    I would add that while accepting the hurt is a good thing, so is accepting that we harbor the desire to seek vengeance.

    A difference between literature and, say, a sermon is that the sermon tells us what to aspire to. Literature tells the truth about who we are. Hence the delicious craftiness of the Blake poem:


    The benefit to acknowledging the very human desire to strike back is that it can force difficult questions about ourselves, if we let it. After all, if I can cultivate that bright apple in the poem (and we all can) and I can be GLAD that the foe is gone, that makes me as bad as the foe.

    And if we can acknowledge that ugly common ground, we can have some humility, which is part of forgiveness.

  8. Scott Palmer Avatar

    As always, you wrote a very thoughtful and enlightening article. May I add my two cents’ worth?

    I believe that God can “forgive and forget” because He is perfect and infinite. We are finite creatures and, as such, we can imitate but not duplicate His performance. You shouldn’t beat yourself up for being imperfect, as long as you’re doing your best and trying to do better. That’s all God expects of any of us. “Even the angels can do no more,” as the saying goes.

    Because we are finite beings, we have limited knowledge and understanding. We barely know our own motivations, let alone the motivations and viewpoint of anyone else. We blunder through life and sometimes hurt people without meaning to do so, just as they unintentionally hurt us.

    Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you ever want to see that person again. It just means that you’re doing your best to turn your pain over to God and let Him take care of it.

    If I can’t yet forgive someone because an injury is still too recent, I try to let go of the hurt, turn my back on it, and walk away. In time, the hurt diminishes and forgiveness becomes possible.

  9. Leo Avatar

    Jim: Thanks for your explanation. At the same time, I know what I perceived in what I read. I hope your Christianity meets your needs. It doesn’t appeal to the best part of me.

  10. Peter Avatar

    Your china cup metaphor reminds of this video about japanese art of kintsugi. You wrote about the same process of repairing relationships, with broken sofa as an example, but I think the video will be interesting nonetheless.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes! It’s beautiful stuff. I think my metaphor here goes to things that are beyond kintsugi’s ability to repair.

  11. The Trailhead Avatar

    Ant’s comment — and your post — are very wise. I’m also inclined to think that it may be irresponsible to pretend that reconciliation is always possible. Putting boundaries in place can be a means to protects all parties, not just ourselves.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes. We must protect ourselves and others from harm.

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