Because I believe (and have experienced) how important it is to forgive in order to be set free . . . I think I have sometimes jumped too quickly to forgive. Sometimes I have failed to recognize important steps in the process.
The old phrase “names will never hurt me” is completely false. Even if the wounding was just verbal, the pain can be deep and long lasting. When someone hurts us, we may also have lost something—either materially or emotionally. If we don’t acknowledge that loss (at least to ourselves) it undermines our own value, and also our potential for healing.
Sometimes it helps to name those losses in front of a trustworthy, neutral person in order to fully come to terms with what happened. We heard a strong example of this during our bookclub on Even the Sparrow. Author Jill Weber described the process she went through to forgive her first husband for his abuse. She said her breakthrough came during a prayer session with an older couple in her church. One by one, she named each circumstance of abuse as she remembered it—out loud—and then prayed to forgive him for it. That couple provided a godly, safe space for her to uncover the pain and injustice. Their accepting presence affirmed her as a person of worth; they were human confirmation that this should not have happened, that it was not part of God’s desire.
Jill wasn’t truly free until she forgave . . . but she couldn’t fully forgive until she had acknowledged and grieved what had happened. You can’t have deep healing if you only have shallow acknowledgement.
2. Discovering and pulling up weeds
When someone hurts us deeply, false beliefs can be implanted deep within us. We are vulnerable to false beliefs about God (such as, “he doesn’t care”). Remember the disciples in the storm—they asked the Saviour of the world, “Don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:38)
We are also vulnerable to false beliefs about ourselves (such as, “I am unlovable;” “I am a failure; etc.) I have noticed that Satan’s lies often come in the form of blanket statements. Anytime I start to think things like “I am always . . .” or “they never . . .” or “No one . . .” I stop to look for what might be untrue. If I accept those false statements, the lie gets buried in my mind and heart. Then it goes on to impact how I react to other people and situations, but it is very hard to see the root and remove it.
Elijah is an example for us. Remember when he said to God, “I alone am left” (I Kings 19). He felt all his ministry had amounted to nothing (in spite of the great victory he had just experienced) and he was depressed to the point of having suicidal thoughts. God mercifully corrected that false belief, though first God gave him lots of rest and food, and got him to a safe place. Then Elijah was in a better state to accurately hear from God.
At that point God came to him and asked a question—twice— inviting Elijah to repeat his desperation (v 9 and 13). In other words, God did not jump to the solution, but created ample space for Elijah to grieve his situation. (It seems that for some reason, Elijah did not anticipate that Jezebel would be angry when he killed all her prophets. Perhaps he expected that God would intervene and prevent negative consequences from his ministry.)
In any case, God eventually corrected Elijah’s false belief—there were actually 7,000 of God’s people in Israel who had not bowed to Baal. God also paid attention to Elijah feeling overwhelmed by isolation. He sent him to anoint Elisha as a partner. (Now I used to think that God was replacing Elijah for complaining. But in the same encounter, God gives Elijah the important tasks of anointing new kings in both Israel and Judah, plus Elijah is still seen as the prophet of God and giving God’s word to kings in 2 Kings 1. Now I see, when God called Elisha, it did not end Elijah’s ministry—it expanded and extended it.)
If the person who hurt us is dangerous, a healthy response is to get to safety. Forgiveness does not mean we allow them to hurt us again (or allow them to hurt others we are responsible for). It does mean we are no longer bitter or trying to punish someone ourselves. In other words, there may be someone we need to set free from our judgement . . . but also break contact with.
But what if the perpetrator is truly contrite, and they don’t have a habit of hurting us or others? Suppose they take responsibility for what they have done and acknowledge how it has impacted us. Perhaps they offer assurances about a change in the future, and they make restitution if the situation calls for it. Depending on the offense (and what has happened before) this could be an opportunity to begin rebuilding a relationship. The truth is that often our deepest hurts come from the people most important to us. If we could build a mutually beneficial relationship with them, that could be deeply healing.
. . . but keep in mind the distinction between forgiveness and trust . . .
Forgiveness is required by God—we declare their account clear with us in the same way God has declared our account clean with him.
Trust is situational. We can forgive someone but still be careful. Forgiveness means we are open to starting over, so that person can begin rebuilding trust step by step. In wisdom, we trust people in accordance with their pattern of action over time.
That is why we can trust God so completely. He is always loving, always good. Day after day he is worthy of our trust.