10 Keys to Forgiveness… A Christian Perspective
Emmett I. Aldrich
Have you ever said – I will never forgive that person? Or how about - I will forgive, but will never forget? If you lost a relative or close friend in one of the attacks of September 11th could you ever forgive the person(s) responsible? What if you were the victim of a crime, or had a relative who died as a result of a crime – could you forgive the person responsible? This doesn’t even address the question of whether others can forgive us for things we may have said or done in anger, where we regret it later, or wish that we could take it back and be forgiven for our actions or statements.
We hope that most of us may never experience something as devastating as the September 11th attacks or a crime, but we will no doubt experience hurtful situations everyday that will challenge our ability to forgive someone who we feel has committed an unforgivable wrong against us. Whether it is a specific act or just words that are very hurtful; chances are we will have a number of lifetime experiences that will raise the issue of forgiveness, consciously or subconsciously.
Forgiveness is perhaps one of the most emotional and psychological experiences we will ever encounter. It involves feelings of anger, revenge, resentment, hurt, hostility, sadness, bitterness, retaliation or retribution. At the same time, depending on whether we are seeking forgiveness, are asked to forgive someone else or forgive ourselves, it can also involve reconciliation, compromise, concessions, contrition, atonement, repentance or redemption.
This article proposes 10 ways in which we may be able to forgive from a Christian perspective. These 10 keys do not necessarily need to be done in any particular order. Rather, any one key alone may help you achieve some degree of forgiveness.
10 Keys to Forgiveness
1) Let Go Of The Anger – Holding on to the anger that may be associated with an incident or experience that causes us hurt, can lead to hate, and perhaps a lingering desire for retaliation or revenge. This is destructive and causes an emotional drain on us even if we don’t realize it.
Dr. Michael Obsatz, in his book, Healing Our Anger: Seven Ways to Make Peace in a Hostile World indicates that there are eight types of anger (page 12). These include:
Chronic anger is an ongoing feeling of resentment toward others.
Volatile anger is explosive but comes and goes.
Judgmental anger comes across in hypercritical statements.
Passive anger is suppressed anger that is expressed indirectly.
Overwhelmed anger arises when people believe they cannot handle the complexity of their circumstances.
Retaliatory anger is specifically directed at another person or persons.
Self-inflicted anger is directed at ourselves.
Constructive anger is anger we put to positive uses.
With exception of this last type, most of these angers are destructive. Continuing to be angry over something that happened in the past, can be all consuming and distorts our ability to focus on happiness. Consequently, letting go of the anger is in our own best interest. We must let go of the anger for our mental and emotional well-being. In the language of today’s common phrases - “Get Over It.” Forgiveness gives you peace of mind and helps to let go of the anger.
2) Don’t Be Stubborn - For some reason, it seems to be a lot easier to hold on to the anger and hurt feelings associated with an injustice, and we can become comfortable with the feeling of retribution because we somehow want to punish the person that hurt us. After all, why should we be willing to forgive someone when what that person did or said was not our fault? We feel justified in our anger with the other person, so we feel that we have every right to be stubborn and locked into the position we are taking.
Don’t get stuck on your position for the mere sake of maintaining a position. Be willing to compromise in order to move forward. Stubbornness, like anger keeps us from moving beyond hurt feelings, and it also perpetuates a strained relationship.
3) Stop Thinking Of Yourself As A Victim – Generally, if we are angry with someone, it is because we feel that they have committed a serious wrong against us. Whether this feeling is real or perceived, we still feel that an injustice has been done, and that we have been treated unfairly. We can’t help but feel sorry for ourselves to some degree, and we expect others to feel sorry for us as well. This is perhaps the classic “victim mentality” which is easy to fall into when we feel an injustice has been done.
While this mentality may be soothing for a short period of time, unfortunately it keeps us from moving beyond the hurt that we feel. We remain caught-up in a state-of-mind that makes us hostile, cranky, untrusting and keeps us “looking over our shoulder” for fear that someone else may come along to hurt us.
Bishop Desmond Tutu, in his book titled, There Is No Future Without Forgiveness (page 272) [By the way, I highly recommend this book if you want to do more reading on Forgiveness] – Bishop Tutu tells a classic story of forgiveness about former soldiers visiting the Vietnam War Memorial, when one veteran asks another, “Have you forgiven those who held you as a prisoner of war? He replied, “I will never forgive them!” The other veteran responded, “Then it seems they still have you in prison, don’t they?” Years later he was still holding deep-seated resentment for what his captors had put him through.
Perhaps his friend’s comment helped him to start to think of his POW experience differently and to take responsibility for his own feelings. If we cannot get beyond the “victim mentality” we cannot expect to think about forgiving others.
4) Focus On The Future - Usually what has been done cannot be undone and dwelling on the past only perpetuates the hurt feelings that resulted from what caused the problem in the first place. Continually bringing up sore points or issues of the past will only make the rift larger.
Some time ago, I received one of those many email messages from someone who had too much time on their hands and sends email to everyone they know, usually all of their family and friends. Most of the time, I will just delete them after glancing at it just enough to get the gist of what it is about. One of the ones that I received had the title of, “Sand and Stone.”
The story tells of two friends who were walking through the desert. At some point during the journey they had an argument, and one friend slapped the other one in the face. The one who was slapped was hurt but without saying a word, he wrote in the sand: “Today my best friend slapped me in the face.” They kept walking until they found an oasis where they decided to take a bath. The one who had been slapped got stuck in the mire of the water and started drowning, but his friend saved him. After he recovered from the near drowning, he wrote on a stone: “Today my best friend saved my life.” The friend who had slapped, and then saved his best friend asked him, “After I hurt you, you wrote in the sand and now you write on a stone, why?” The other friend replied: “When someone hurts us we should write it down in sand where the winds of forgiveness can erase it away. But, when someone does something good for us, we must engrave it in stone where no wind can ever erase it.”
In most cases, we may have an on-going relationship with the person that may have hurt us. Whether its family members, co-workers, a former spouse, church members or other settings - in most cases, we will need to deal with that person again in one way or another. The best ways to get past the hurt is to accept the fact that we have a continuing relationship of some kind with the person, put the past behind us, and focus on the future. Forgiveness can bring about a fresh start – a renewal of the relationship.
5) Re-Learn to Trust – Complete forgiveness means that we must re-learn to trust the individual that caused the hurt in the first place. In re-learning to trust, you must allow yourself to be vulnerable – open to criticism (hopefully constructive). You will need to appreciate feedback from those around you and not assume automatically that off-handed comments are intended to hurt. Listen carefully to the message the person may be attempting to deliver, and not so much to the tone or the mannerism in which it is delivered. Some people have problems with communications, but mean no harm in what they are trying to convey.
Additionally, re-learning to trust involves some degree of reconciliation with the person(s) that initially caused the injustice or hurt. Everett Worthington, Jr. is a prolific writer on the subject of forgiveness and has stated in some of his works that, “Reconciliation is the restoration of trust in a relationship where trust has been violated, sometimes repeatedly.” [Quoted from Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Templeton Foundation Press,
6) Be Reasonable in Your Expectations of Others – In the midst of anger, our emotions are high and frequently our judgment of fairness is clouded. We expect others to recognize the injustice they have done, and apologize immediately and profusely. We want the person to atone to us in some elaborate or excessive manner. The mind-set is that this is our way of ensuring that an apology is genuine if one is offered.
Most acts or words that hurt us are not done intentionally, so frequently a person may not even know that they have done something to hurt you. If the other person does not feel that they have done anything wrong, or does not realize it, we may have unreasonable expectations of their behavior. We have to recognize that no one owes us anything, the world does not revolve around us as an individual, and we should not attach expectations to a situation that may be impossible for the other person to meet. We have to leave room for reasonable attempts at reconciliation to occur.
7) Expect That It Will Take Time To Forgive – At this point in time in human evolution, we have grown accustom to, and expect “quick fixes” and “instant gratification” for solutions to almost every problem. Healing from a hurt may generally come with the passage of time, but you must allow yourself time to reach the level of forgiveness appropriate for the circumstances. Deeply emotional circumstances or extremely sensitive hurts (such as the loss of a child or spouse to crime or spousal infidelity) will take time to move beyond the hurt before a person can even begin to consider forgiving those who caused the hurt.
Lesser transgressions on the other hand, such as hurtful words, comments or some actions are likely to be forgotten in a shorter period of time. Have you ever had another driver cut you off in traffic, and for an instant you are very angry because you felt that the person jeopardized your safety. But after a few blocks (or maybe even sooner) you have forgotten about it and refocused your attention on your driving. Generally, by the time you get where you are going, you have completely forgotten about the incident and may not even remember what kind of car the other person was driving.
Have you ever forgotten why you were angry with someone? You know that at the time, the person did something to make you angry, but months later you can’t remember what it was that made you so angry at the time. You may even feel that you should still be angry with the person now because whatever they did must have been so horrendous because you were really upset with them before. You remember that you are angry, but can’t remember why. If you can’t remember what it was about, perhaps you have already forgiven that person at least subconsciously in your mind – and perhaps in your heart you also let go of the anger without really acknowledging or realizing it.
8) Examine Your Heart – [This is one of the hardest] - Look within yourself to see if you are contributing to situations that you may later regret and will need to seek forgiveness. Is your behavior or off-handed comments contributing to a strained relationship? Think before you speak. While we have a constitutional right to the freedom of speech, we do not have an “inalienable right” to say what ever we want, any time we want, particularly if it may be hurtful. Would you be willing to forgive someone for the same offense you committed against someone else? – And would you expect the person offended to forgive you? The concept here is to be honest with yourself in considering your own behavior and whether it contributes to strained or hurtful relationships.
There are a number of every day values that we can follow to examine our hearts and take this inward look. These are not new to us, but we can use occasional reminders. While there are many more, here are 10 of those values to consider:
· Be tolerant of others
· Treat others like you want to be treated
· Be polite with your interactions
· Treat others with respect at all times
· Avoid criticizing others
· Don’t jump to conclusions
· Give others the benefit of the doubt as a matter of routine
· Be willing to overlook minor offenses
· Have a positive attitude
· Be willing to apologize
9) Let Forgiveness Become An Everyday Practice – What a transforming experience it would be in our lives if we were able to forgive someone immediately upon them committing the offense – without hanging on to the anger for a much longer period of time. This might be possible if we let forgiveness become an integral part of our lives and a guiding value to live by.
It takes a lot of energy to maintain resentment, anger or distrust. Instead of holding on to those negative feelings, why not refocus and redirect that energy into making a contribution of time and effort to a special cause or ministry? Why not use the energy to serve God? Let the focus become what you can do for others, rather than dwelling on the hurt and anger you feel because of an injustice. Count your blessings. Remember the good things about your life and don’t dwell on hurt feelings. Let forgiveness become an essential part of your life.
10) Ask God For Guidance – Being able to forgive or seek forgiveness is not just an intellectual decision, but there is also a spiritual dimension involved. In the parable of the unmerciful servant in the book of Matthew in the Bible, we find some guidance on how we should deal with forgiveness.
“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? Jesus answered, I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
This tends to suggest that forgiveness is limitless, and that we must be willing to forgive someone for a transgression time and time again without seeking retribution. This is a powerful message. For most of us, this standard may seem impossible to meet. Nonetheless, it sets-forth the objectives we should attempt to achieve in our lives. In order to achieve this level of forgiveness, we must pray for strength, patience and perseverance in our relationships that may require forgiveness.
In Mark 11:25, Christ tells us,
“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
In Luke 6:36-37, Christ admonishes us,
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.”
In the Book of Psalm we find this passage,
“If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.”
If God kept an account of our sins, we would all be in trouble. But God both forgives and forgets our sins by not keeping a record of them. In turn, we receive power from God through Jesus Christ to forgive others, and to forget the hurts they might have caused.
In 2 Corinthians 5:14-21 Paul writes about the Ministry of Reconciliation. From this we learn that “God reconciled the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” The passage continues: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God was making his appeal through us.” This calls for us to be Christ-like in our behavior, and requires us to forgive others for the offenses they may commit against us.
In her book, Do it Yourself Conflict Resolution for Couples, Dr. Florence Bienenfeld points out that, “Forgiveness is a great healer. This involves forgiving ourselves, forgiving others, and seeking forgiveness from others.” (Page 157).
While this article does not address self-forgiveness in any detail, we are called by God to forgive others and to seek forgiveness from others as noted in Matthew chapter 18 earlier. Furthermore, we cannot overlook the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer – “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12).
Even if direct communications are difficult with a person we would like to forgive, we can forgive them in our heart without ever talking to them. When we realize that we have committed a wrong, we are compelled to express sincere regret and ask the person to, “please forgive me.”
On July 23, 2002, NBC News reported on the sexual abuse scandals that have shaken the foundations of the Catholic Church. The reporter noted that a sign in front of a Church displayed this phrase: “Its not about forgiveness, it’s about justice.” While the child abuses that have occurred are despicable, I don’t believe this is the posture God would have us take on forgiveness.
In Ephesians chapter 4:31-32, Paul tells us,
“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
Paul repeats this requirement in Colossians Chapter 3:12-14, where we find Rules for Holy Living. Paul writes,
“Therefore as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. ”
These passages from the Apostle Paul call for us to use the example of God’s forgiveness and love for us, as the model for our own behavior in forgiving others. Above all, while God has already forgiven us for our sins, we must continually ask for his forgiveness in order for us to model his love.
Forgiveness ensures the presence of God in our lives. As Christ died on the cross for our sins, we receive divine forgiveness from him.
So there you have it…. 10 Keys to Forgiveness:
1) Let Go of the Anger
2) Don’t be Stubborn
3) Stop Thinking of yourself as a Victim
4) Focus on the Future
5) Re-Learn to Trust
6) Be Reasonable in your expectations of Others
7) Expect that it will take time to Forgive
8) Examine your Heart
9) Let Forgiveness become an Everyday Practice
10) Ask God for Guidance
Perhaps you can find something in these keys to help guide you in your personal quest associated with forgiveness - Whether you are seeking forgiveness from others, giving forgiveness to others, or working on forgiving yourself.
A Prayer of Forgiveness
Heavenly Father, we know that you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. (Nehemiah 9:17).
We thank you gracious Lord for your unfailing love and grace that protects us and binds us in unity in forgiveness.
Merciful father, give us the spiritual, emotional and psychological strength to apologize to others and seek their forgiveness when we have offended them.
Help us dear God to put aside resentment, hurt, hostility and bitterness so that we may have reconciliation with those who have offended us, and whom we have offended.
Almighty Father, help us to practice forgiveness in our everyday lives, and turn our anger to a ministry that will glorify your name.
We thank you Dear Lord, for forgiving our sins and we ask that you help us to do the same for others as your Ambassadors.
We ask these blessings in your name. Amen.
Helmick, Raymond G. and Rodney L. Petersen, Editors, Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Forward by Desmond M. Tutu, Templeton Foundation Press,
NBC Evening News television report, July 23, 2002. (Report on Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church).
Obsatz, Michael, Dr., Healing Our Anger:
The Holy Bible, New International Version, Zondervan Corporation, 1995,
Tutu, Desmond M., No Future Without Forgiveness, Doubleday (Random House),
About the Author
Emmett I. Aldrich is a specialist in facilitated discussions, is a certified Mediator and has been involved in community, employment, and interpersonal conflict resolution since 1986. Mr. Aldrich serves as member of the Board of Directors for the non-profit Center for Dispute Settlement, in
More recently, Mr. Aldrich has devoted considerable time and study to developing a Christian response to conflict resolution, and is promoting Biblically based mediation programs for Churches. Mr. Aldrich is a third generation Lutheran, and has been a life-long member of Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church in Washington, DC, where he has served as the Congregational President, Treasurer, other ad hoc positions; and currently serves on the Board of Trustees and the Board of Elders.
Copyright © 2008 Emmett I. Aldrich. All Rights Reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce copy or distribute part or this entire article with attribution to the author.