This is certainly not an authoritative guide. I’ve had to do a lot of forgiveness, and this is what I’ve found works for me.
1. Recognize the need to forgive
This may seem obvious, but often it’s not. We may be suffering from anger, depression, and hurt over offenses that happened many years ago. Often facing those buried issues from the past and forgiving is the key to releasing that pain.
I personally can take a while to recognize the need for forgiveness even in current situations. Sometimes this is because I’m so angry and hurt that forgiveness is the last thing on my mind. Or, it can be because the offense is not something the person has done deliberately “wrong”, but it has had an effect on me nonetheless. If we are holding anger and resentment, the answer is forgiveness, whatever the cause.
If we’re continually thinking about a person or situation, it causes us stress, we are angry and hurt, we find ourselves reliving certain events, we fantasize about getting back at someone, we have imaginary conversations where we convince them of their wrong, we can’t “let it go”—these are all indications of the need to forgive.
If you are feeling general stress, lack of peace, anxiety, anger, or other negative emotions, often the root is unforgiveness. You can take it to God and ask him to show you if there’s anyone or anything you need to forgive.
2. Decide to forgive
As I mentioned in my previous blog post, forgiveness is a decision. It’s an act of the will, a choice made to obey God, whether we feel like it or not. Often the things we have to forgive are so monumental we may struggle with coming to a place where we are willing to. We may recognize that we need to, but we are honest about the fact that we can’t. That’s ok. It’s all right to struggle with God, and ask him for help. He doesn’t expect us to do anything we aren’t ready to do. The important thing is to be willing to obey him and to ask for his help.
We may say, “I can’t forgive, I hurt too much.” OK. But you will continue to hurt until you are able to release the bitterness through forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t an instant answer, a magic solution to wipe away all pain at once. It’s a process. We may have to forgive many times, as the pain comes up again. But we can do it, God will help us, and it will get easier.
Once we’ve made the decision to forgive and we are fully behind it with our will, 99% of the battle has been won. The only thing that remains is to follow through.
I find it helpful to write out a list of things I am forgiving the person for. I recognize all things or aspects of things that I am angry for, and write them down.
Again, some of these may be things the person didn’t specifically do “wrong”. They may have let you down through no fault of their own. The point isn’t their intent, the point is your reaction. If it hurt you, you need to forgive. Forgiveness is releasing your resentment and your demand that they pay you back, whatever their intentions were. If you know you have anger about something, write it down.
Next I go through the list and pray: “God, I forgive so-and-so for...” and name each offense. Consciously and as a choice, release this thing to God. Decide that you are not going to hold on to the demand for repayment for this particular offense. You are letting it go.
The good news is that though forgiveness may be difficult, it is miraculously releasing and healing. You will feel a burden lifted, and you will feel peace, maybe for the first time in a long time. Even if you fall back into negativity and bitterness, you can forgive again to come back to this place. Eventually the pain will completely lift.
I have found that forgiveness often brings a new clarity and a new understanding of the person and the situation. Rather than seeing them as someone evil who has done you harm, you are capable of seeing them in a more sympathetic light, as a fundamentally broken person who was attempting to function and meet their needs in a broken way. This does not excuse what they did, but it does allow you to extend the same grace to them that you’d want extended to yourself. It allows you to pity them rather than to see yourself as their victim.
This may seem like a funny thing to put in a forgiveness process, but I find that as I forgive, God very often convicts me of ways I’ve sinned against the other person. If this comes up, confess and ask for forgiveness yourself.
In some situations, the fault is solely on the other person’s side. For example, in child abuse, the child is never at fault. We have to be careful not to take on false guilt, but also ready to face up to any wrong we realize.
5. Continue to forgive
Forgiveness usually isn’t a one-time thing. If a hurt has been major or ongoing, you will probably find the pain coming up again. It’s ok to feel hurt and grieve over an offense, even if you have forgiven it. But if you find anger, bitterness, and resentment creeping in again, forgive. If you remember other things they have done, forgive. If it’s someone you’re still in relationship with and fresh hurts come up, forgive.
The good news is that the initial forgiveness is like a “ground breaking”. The major work is done. Once you’ve positioned yourself in an attitude of forgiveness, the rest will follow.
6. (Possibly) express your forgiveness to the other person
This is optional. This can be a major breakthrough in restoring relationship. But it’s not helpful in every situation, and sometimes it’s impossible.
The person you’re forgiving may be dead, or unreachable. They may want nothing to do with you. They may not know that they hurt you, or the thing you’re forgiving them for may not be their fault. They may be completely unrepentant and telling them you’re forgiving them may simply make them angry. You may put yourself in further harm by contacting them. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
I believe each situation requires guidance from God. The key factor is whether expressing forgiveness would be beneficial to the other person and/or to your relationship. If not, keep it between yourself and God. Forgiveness is an act of your heart before him. It doesn’t require the other person’s knowledge or cooperation.
Alternatively or additionally, you may feel that you need to ask the person’s forgiveness for anything you did wrong to them. Ask God to show you.
Even if it is not possible or helpful to contact them, you may want to write them a letter. Say exactly what you would say to them if you could. If you aren’t sending it, you have the freedom to say anything. Fully express your anger and your hurt and how the offense affected you. Express your forgiveness. Ask their forgiveness for anything you’ve done wrong toward them. You may find this very healing and releasing.
If you decide you ought to contact them, keep the letter and write a second draft. Remove anything from the first one that would be hurtful or unhelpful, and write it for them to see. I express myself best through writing, so this is what I usually do. You may prefer a face to face or phone conversation. Do whatever works for you.