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How to forgive someone

Learning how to forgive someone is much more than just a learned skill or technique. You can learn how to forgive someone in a matter of minutes. But getting to the point where you’re willing to forgive someone is where the real struggle takes place. Forgiveness is never easy.

After all, if someone has hurt or offended you why should you forgive them? Especially if they’ve done so intentionally and with malice. Forgiveness is essentially letting go of anger, resentment, or any other intense negative emotions that you may have toward someone that has hurt or offended you.

How do you forgive someone that has done the unforgivable?

So hard to forgive!

How do you forgive a spouse that has had an affair?

How do you forgive an addict that has relapsed yet again?

How do you forgive the abuse or neglect of a parent?

How do you forgive a friend or co-worker for destroying friendships or your career?

How do you forgive an ex-spouse that has destroyed your relationship with your children?

How do you forgive rape, murder, incest or other horrible crimes?

Does anyone that would do any of those things deserve forgiveness?

What if they’ve hurt you so deeply that you just can’t forgive them? What then?

Fortunately, forgiveness is a decision not a feeling

Learning how to forgive someone is simple, but often hard to do. More than anything else, forgiveness is a decision. Not a feeling. Decide to forgive and the feelings of forgiveness will eventually follow. You need to master your feelings and thought life, not be victimized by them. Forgiveness is a choice.

Do feelings matter?

If you’ve been deeply hurt or offended by someone and you wait until you feel like forgiving them, it will likely never happen.

Does that mean that if you’ve been hurt, disrespected, betrayed, or abused by someone that you shouldn’t feel anything in response to that? Absolutely not. Intense feelings of hurt, resentment, anger, betrayal and not wanting to forgive the perpetrator are totally appropriate.

In fact, we’ve probably all fantasized how we would “get back” at someone that has hurt or offended us. Forgiveness is the last thing on our minds at these times.

But learning how to forgive someone despite those feelings is crucial.

Why you should forgive

Forgiveness is crucial to your own well-being. Un-forgiveness is a poison that can destroy you and everything good in your life. Forgiveness is the antidote to that poison.

Forgiveness is an important component in all our relationships. Sometimes forgiveness is needed by us and other times we’re the one forgiving others.

Refusing to forgive someone that has hurt you can affect you in a variety of negative ways, your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health are all being affected in adverse ways by un-forgiveness.  

The wounds you’ve sustained can leave lasting feelings of resentment, bitterness, and anger, in extreme cases even hatred. But if you choose to hold on to resentment, you’ll be the one who pays the greatest price. Only forgiveness can set you free from the bondage to these intense emotions.

From a Christian perspective forgiveness is not only the right thing to do – it’s required. But the good news for followers of Christ is that He already set the example of how to forgive. And He empowers us through His Spirit to be able to forgive others as He forgave us. Jesus Christ will enable you to forgive in a way that you could not do in your own strength.

Refusing to forgive can result in:

  • Harming other relationships by bringing anger and bitterness into them
  • Becoming so focused on the past that you can’t enjoy the present
  • Depression, irritability, or anxiousness
  • Feeling and acting in ways that conflict with your spiritual beliefs and relationship with God
  • Avoiding building life-enriching relationships with others because of trust issues
  • A dismal and sad outlook on life
  • Negativity (no one wants to be that person)
  • Becoming aggressive or defensive with those that had nothing to do with your wound
  • People you love and care about start avoiding you because of your unresolved issues
  • Living as a victim – giving your antagonist control over the quality of your life
Results of refusing to forgive

Choosing to forgive can result in:

  • Improved physical, emotional and spiritual health
  • Peace of mind and spirit
  • Healthier, richer, and fuller relationships
  • Walking in harmony with your spiritual beliefs and relationship with God
  • Vastly improved and positive outlook on life
  • Less stress, anxiety, and hostility
  • Fewer symptoms of anger and depression
  • Lower blood pressure and improved heart health
  • A stronger immune system
  • Feeling better about yourself
  • A release from the bondage of bitterness and resentment
  • Embracing forgiveness allows you to embrace peace and hope
  • Living free – no longer a helpless victim of someone else’s intentions, words, or actions
What forgiveness looks like

The real winner if you choose not to forgive

We need to make an important distinction here. This next section is not about someone that unintentionally blows it because they’re having a bad day or they lack people skills; like inadvertently stepping on your toes or accidentally hitting your car in a fender-bender. Even though both events cause pain and injury, neither of these had malicious intent.

But if your antagonist has intentionally and maliciously hurt or attacked you (or you believe they have), why in the world would you willingly amplify and extend the pain they’ve already inflicted?

Aren’t you tired of spending so much time and emotional energy focused on them? And now you’re enabling them to continue to inflict pain, not only with your permission but with your help. You might as well be working for them!

How does that make you feel?

Why it’s so hard to forgive

Being hurt by someone (especially someone that you love and trust) can cause anger, sadness, and a sense of betrayal. But if you dwell on these hurtful events, resentment, hostility and even hatred may take root.

These intense feelings are hard to overcome. Notice I didn’t say set aside or ignore. Burying these strong emotions doesn’t work; these types of feelings demand to be dealt with. And believe it or not, it’s actually good for us that they do. We will never achieve peace and health until we do. And we certainly won’t be motivated to heal relationships with forgiveness.

People often think that forgiveness means forgetting or excusing the harm done to you. It doesn’t. Many also believe that forgiving someone means giving that person unrestricted access to their life without appropriate boundaries being set. It does not.

Many times, the offended person feels like forgiving someone is giving them a “get out of jail free” card. Or worse yet, seeming to be being okay with what happened. It is not. And remember, you are the one in a self-imposed jail if you hold onto resentment not them.

It’s hard to forgive because of the injustice of the situation. After all, they deserve to have you angry with them for what they’ve done to you right? Forgiving them would be letting them off the hook wouldn’t it?

And to make matters worse, they probably haven’t even acknowledged that what they did was wrong let alone asked for forgiveness. Where’s the justice in forgiving them, especially if they haven’t confessed their wrong and asked for forgiveness? 

Unforgiveness is Poison

The problem is that you holding onto your “right” to be angry is hurting you way more than them. Holding onto a grudge and refusing to forgive them to “make them pay” for what they’ve done is literally like you drinking poison to get back at them. Anyone thinking clearly understands that this strategy destroys the one drinking the poison and not the other person. Forgiveness stops you from drinking that poison.

Another factor that can make it hard to forgive someone is that forgiveness is a process not a one-time event. This is especially true if they’re a repeat offender as in the case of an addict.

Forgiving an addict is one of the most difficult situations to offer forgiveness in. They typically lie, steal and break trust repeatedly, destroying the relationships they have with others daily. At the very least, they break promises to themselves and family to give up whatever addiction is destroying their life.

But even if they’re not a repeat offender, the memories and feelings associated with whatever hurt you’ve experienced will come back to you from time to time and need to be dealt with again until you’ve truly worked through your pain. True and lasting forgiveness is a process but deciding to forgive is the first step.

It may also be the case that the person that hurt you has died since the offense transpired or that you’ve lost contact with or removed yourself from the person because of safety concerns. It may seem like forgiveness isn’t possible. The good news is that you can still be set free to forgive in both of those circumstances. We’ll discuss how to do that in a moment.

The last reason it’s so hard to forgive is the most difficult but most necessary to address.

We as humans can be self-centered and at times very judgmental and defensive toward others. Fortunately, those tendencies don’t rear their ugly head every day but we all need to guard against them in order to have better relationships and a better society. Forgiveness requires us to overcome those tendencies.

Sometimes the first step to forgiveness is humbly admitting that you aren’t perfect either and you’ve likely hurt other people as you’ve moved through this life. Welcome to the club. We all have.

But when those times occurred, what were you hoping for from the person that you hurt or offended; grace, understanding and forgiveness, or anger, justice, and un-forgiveness? Sadly, we often want and need forgiveness but we’re reluctant to forgive someone when they need our forgiveness. 

Are you ready to release yourself from the bondage of pain, bitterness, and un-forgiveness?

Let’s talk about specific steps you can take to set yourself free. 

How to forgive someone

Decide to forgive. You can’t help what someone did to you, but you can decide how to respond. Forgiving someone that has hurt you stops you from living like a victim. A victim is helpless before their attacker. Forgiving them takes that power away.

Ultimately, forgiveness might even lead to feelings of understanding, empathy and compassion for the one who hurt you.

If you’re a Christian, the path to forgiveness begins and comes to completion through Jesus Christ and His revealed word in scripture. He set the ultimate example of what forgiveness looks like by choosing to come to this earth to save us from our sins.

How to forgive someone

The Holy Bible in Romans 5:8 states “But God demonstrates His own love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Notice that it doesn’t say “when we got our act together” or “after we recognized our need for forgiveness from a God that we had deeply hurt and offended by our sins”. God initiated the way to forgiveness and a restored relationship with Him, not us.

Even more astonishing is in Luke 23:34 it records that while Jesus was on the cross submitting Himself to crucifixion to atone for our sins, He said “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

No matter what you’ve experienced, it’s hard to imagine a more difficult circumstance in which to offer forgiveness than the one Jesus did when on the cross. There are many other teachings in scripture about us forgiving one another.

Colossians 3:13 states, “Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” 

In Matthew 6:12 when Jesus is teaching the disciples what has become known as The Lord’s Prayer, He taught “and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us.”

Notice the strong correlation between our seeking His forgiveness and extending forgiveness to others. God knows our need for forgiveness and wants us to consider that when forgiving others.

Forgiveness may seem impossible at times but Philippians 4:13 teaches “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”.

In Matthew 5:44 Jesus commands us “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Ask God to extend his love and healing to your offender (they obviously have their own issues) and to replace the negative emotions and thoughts you have about that person.

Ask Him to help you forgive them as He has forgiven you. Is there any more powerful witness of God’s transforming grace than someone who can display true forgiveness to the “unforgivable”?

Regardless of whether you’re a Christian or not the following principles apply:

The path to forgive someone

  • Make the decision to forgive the person that hurt you regardless of how you feel.
  • Appreciate the value of forgiveness and how it can improve your life.
  • Choose to let go of resentment and anger before it destroys you.
  • Break the power that the offending person and situation have had in your life.
  • Forgive the person even if they never apologize for what they’ve done.
    Fortunately, forgiving someone doesn’t depend on any action or confession from them.
  • Acknowledge your emotions, recognize they’re hurting you, and work to release them.
  • Practice empathy. Step back and honestly assess the situation with a fresh perspective. Try seeing the situation from the other person’s point of view.
  • Write a list of qualities or things said or done by the other person that you appreciate.
  • Reflect on times when others have forgiven you and how grateful you are that they did.
  • If you’re a person of faith pray and ask God’s help to soften your heart and change your feelings and thoughts toward the person that has offended you.
  • Talk with a person you’ve found to be wise and compassionate, such as a spiritual leader, a mental health provider, or an impartial loved one or friend.
  • Remember that forgiveness a process. These hurts may need to be revisited and forgiven numerous times until painful feelings are fully resolved.
  • Get help from your church or a counseling professional if needed.
  • After you have made significant progress on your emotions and perspective attempt to contact the person to work towards restoration of the relationship. In many cases this step will not be appropriate or necessary. Thankfully, you can reach a state of forgiveness without ever interacting or reconciling with the individual you’re forgiving.

Additional thoughts about forgiveness

Empathy

Empathy brings forgiveness

It isn’t necessary to fully understand why the other person hurt you. However, it can be helpful and insightful to put yourself in the other person’s shoes for a moment when reassessing the event from a different perspective. Instead of seeing the other person as the enemy, try to understand the factors that may have influenced their words and actions. Doing this will usually make forgiveness much easier.  

  • Were they going through any difficulties in their life at the time?
  • Have you ever said or done anything to hurt or offend them?
  • Is it possible that you over-reacted because of other stresses in your life at the time?
  • Are you perfect?
  • Have you ever said or done anything to hurt or offend anyone?
  • How did you hope they would treat you when you blew it? (Judgment or forgiveness)
  • Make a list of qualities or things said or done by the other person that you appreciate.
  • Unless you have strong indicators otherwise, give them the benefit of the doubt, and don’t assume that their motives were to cause you pain.

Assess the value and safety of the relationship

Is the person that you’ve chosen to forgive a core member of your life; a spouse, child, or family member that you need or want to maintain a relationship with? If so, forgiveness is the only way to restore and heal the relationship.

If they are, you’ll need to separate their words or actions from who they are and what they mean to you. You’ll also need to work towards reconciliation, if necessary with the help of clergy or a counseling professional.

Does forgiveness require reconciliation?

Forgiving someone doesn’t mandate letting the person back into your life; at least, not as closely as they were before.

Has the person attempted to make things right with you by apologizing or asking for your understanding or forgiveness? Have they declared that their intention wasn’t to hurt you? Have they asked for your forgiveness? If so, your chances of forgiveness which includes reconciliation are much higher.

Forgiveness may lead to reconciliation. But that’s not always the case. Reconciliation won’t be possible if the offender has died since the offense transpired or if you’ve lost contact with or removed yourself from the person because of safety concerns.

Forgiveness is still possible in cases where you’re unable to communicate with the offender though. A great method to do this is to write (or type) a letter to them about what happened between you. Tell them how this made you feel. Make sure you fully express yourself and be honest about your feelings of pain, betrayal, and anger. If applicable, let them know how much they meant to you and that you wish things would have ended differently.

Tell them that you willingly forgive them and release them from the pain and anger they caused you. And if applicable share any apology you might have about something you may have said or done to harm the relationship. That may be as simple as holding onto un-forgiveness as long as you did. Or maybe lashing out at them or cutting them off in your pain as a response to what they did. Be sure to forgive yourself for any mistakes you may have made.

When you’ve finished, read the document aloud to yourself. You have several choices when this is done. You can keep the letter to review if you’re struggling with old feelings in the future. Or as a symbol of finality, you can shred the letter or burn it. Following this process will bring you to forgiveness and more peace and relief than you can possibly imagine.

The importance of setting healthy boundaries

Forgiving someone doesn’t always include reconciling or maintaining an ongoing relationship. Ask yourself what boundaries you need in place to help yourself move on. 

Appropriate boundaries may include not giving that person access to your life at all or limiting your emotional or physical exposure to them for a period of time. You may choose to only see them in group settings or in a neutral place such as a restaurant.

It may be as simple as limiting the topics you’re willing to discuss, or feelings or thoughts that you’re willing to share until trust is regained.  Don’t feel bad about giving yourself time to find forgiveness. 

Setting boundaries allows you to protect yourself while building the relationship to whatever level you’re comfortable with moving forward. This is especially important with someone that has repeatedly shown themselves to be an unsafe person.

Boundaries provide a safe way to work on the relationship and to either accept a change in the dynamic of the relationship (less intimate and transparent) or realize that the person is more important to you than the previous offense and to leave the offense in the past.

Forgiveness in marriage

Now that you know how to forgive someone let’s apply that to marriage. Marriage has its own unique set of challenges, but it also has advantages that you won’t find in other relationships.

Forgiveness in marriage

To begin with, many of us make a vow to each other and to God that we will love and stay with our spouse no matter what until death separates us. That clearly sets the standard for forgiveness high. Loving unconditionally isn’t easy. But it is worth it.

Even if that wasn’t part of your personal journey, you chose to marry this person because you loved them and wanted to spend your life with them. Hopefully you were honest and mature enough to realize that no one is perfect including you. And that in every marriage there will be hurt, anger, disappointment, and difficulty as you work through issues.

But in either case, you’ve invested a great deal in the relationship, and it would be wise to extend grace and forgiveness to each other throughout your marriage. So, if you’re committed to your marriage, you really only have 2 choices. One is to endure a grueling and loveless marriage because it’s the right thing to do. The other is to work hard on building the best marriage possible and both of you reap the benefits.

All of the principles and strategies above still apply. But deciding whether to forgive your spouse or not has a much more profound impact on your life for good or for bad. What are the consequences if you refuse to forgive them?

Sometimes your spouse just gets on your nerves or wears you out. Occasionally they say or do something that you find embarrassing or disappointing. This is a normal part of every relationship. Forgive the little things as quickly as possible. Don’t let things build up.

Instead, share your feelings and thoughts about what needs to be resolved so it doesn’t build up and destroy the relationship. Forgiveness works both ways. You may forgive your spouse today and need their forgiveness tomorrow.

Learn or implement conflict resolution skills when addressing issues. Reach out to a pastor, counselor or trusted mentoring couple to help if needed. Both are skilled in helping us to forgive others.

An excellent resource for learning great communication and forgiveness skills for marriage relationships is a book called “Love and Respect” by Emerson and Sarah Eggerich.

What if trust is broken?

Forgiveness of infidelity is one of the hardest betrayals to work through. Certainly, it’s much more difficult to forgive someone for having an affair than for a mistake like forgetting to put gas in the car.

Forgiving after trust is broken

If you’re the one that has broken trust and is seeking forgiveness

It’s up to you to initiate healing the relationship. The first step is to honestly assess what you’ve done and acknowledge how it has hurt your spouse.

Then, share your sincere sorrow or regret with them and ask for their forgiveness without making excuses. Even if you believe that your spouse said or did things that contributed to why you broke trust, now is not the time to deal with those issues.

Make a commitment to not hurt your partner again by repeating the behavior. This may include a plan of action like getting help from a professional or putting boundaries in place to assist you in staying true to your commitment.

Listen. Really listen, to what your spouse shares about what has happened and how it’s made them feel as well as how it may affect the relationship moving forward.

Be patient with your spouse. Don’t dismiss their deep hurt by telling them to “get over it”. Accept the fact that your actions have consequences which likely include your spouse distancing themselves from you emotionally and possibly physically until a level trust is regained.

Remember, forgiveness is a process. You can’t force someone to forgive you. Everyone moves to forgiveness at their own pace.

If you’re the one that needs to forgive a betrayal of trust

Use all of the tools you learned earlier in this article; especially separating what has transpired from who they are and what they mean to you. If you’re unsure an affair has occurred, got to Signs of an Emotional Affair to help you discern if forgiveness is necessary.

Make a decision to forgive regardless of whether your spouse is repentant or not. It’s much easier if they are, but still necessary (for your sake) even if they’re not.

If you’re a person of faith ask God to help you see your spouse through His eyes and not your own. Share your pain and betrayal with Him. He already knows and will help get you to forgive in a way that only He can.

Discuss what has happened with your spouse and be honest about how it makes you feel. Afterward, listen to your spouse carefully (without interrupting), and see if they are remorseful and willing to work on repairing the relationship.

If they don’t present a plan of action to get professional help or put boundaries in place to prevent a repeat of previous behavior, you have every right to request these things yourself. This not only helps hold them accountable, but also assists both of you in healing and restoration of the relationship.

You’ll also need to work towards reconciliation, if necessary, with the help of clergy or a counseling professional. Forgiveness can be achieved without reconciliation, but reconciliation cannot be achieved without forgiveness.

It’s important not to give into the temptation to use what happened in the past as a weapon against them the next time you’re in a heated discussion. True forgiveness means that you forgive the transgression and put that incident completely behind you.

Always remember that none of us is perfect. Not even you. You may find as you work through the forgiveness process that you may need to forgive yourself for something you said or did that contributed to the problem. Or you may simply feel bad that it’s taken you so long to forgive the other person.

If you need more help to forgive and experience feelings of forgiveness, I suggest the following books. “What’s so amazing about Grace” by Phillip Yancey and “The Bondage Breaker” by Neil Anderson.

Forgiveness is a gift that you willingly extend to yourself and the other person no matter how badly you’ve been hurt. Choosing and working toward forgiveness is hard work but it’s one of the greatest decisions that you will ever make!

Freedom in forgiveness

Now that you know how to forgive someone, you can be set free from the self-imposed prison of bitterness and un-forgiveness. Choosing forgiveness will let this joyous truth change your life!

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