What are the costs of forgiving?

When a person is not used to forgiving, this is not unlike a sedentary person starting a physical fitness program.  It can be uncomfortable thinking kindly about the other.  It takes work.  Bearing the pain that the other caused you also is painful, but as you bear the pain, it lessens and lifts.  The questions of whether or not to return to a relationship can be painful as can the other’s rejection of your forgiving.  All of these might be called “costs,” but they do pay the dividends of emotional healing and possibly relational healing.

I read your book, Forgiveness Is a Choice, and it became a revelation to me just how angry I have been toward my mother when I was growing up.  Is this common, to be angry, to be aware of the anger, but not have a clue about the depth of that anger?

Yes, it is common because of the psychological defense mechanisms of denial, suppression, and repression.  These defenses are not problematic if they keep unpleasant issues from us when we are not ready for the full brunt of those issues.  The defenses can get in the way of emotional healing when they prevent us from seeing the truth: I have been treated unfairly and I am angry about this.  So, in the short run, the psychological defenses can protect us from being overwhelmed.  In the long-run, slowly becoming aware of the depth of anger is a first step to healing from the effects of serious injustices.

I sometimes hear that a lack of forgiveness can have physical ramifications.  What is the most common health issue that you see in people who have been treated very unjustly and yet will not forgive?

The most common health issue that I see is fatigue.  It takes a lot of energy to keep resentment in the heart and to keep fueling that resentment by replaying in the mind what happened.  Forgiving can reduce the resentment, reduce the rumination, and increase energy.

My husband is hesitant to forgive because he says he does not want to act as if the problem (with his brother) never happened.  Do you have some advice for me?

It may help if your husband realizes that forgiveness and justice exist together.  One can and should seek justice, and in my view, the quest for justice works well once a person already has forgiven.  At the same time, once people forgive, they do not want to keep bringing up what happened. There is a tendency toward moving on.  Thus, your husband, if he forgives, will not want to keep bringing up the injustice and, in all likelihood, he will want to leave it in the past.

I have started the forgiveness process, stopped, begun again, and stopped again.  I am feeling guilty for not just following through and finishing the job of forgiveness.  What do you think?

We have to keep in mind that the forgiveness process is not the same as taking a journey in the car from point A to point B in the next 20 minutes.  Forgiveness takes time, sometimes months.  People need to take breaks to refresh.  There is nothing wrong with taking your time and sometimes stopping.  For how long do you stop?  If you stop, say, for months at a time, then you might benefit from asking yourself if there is something getting in your way of forgiving.  Are you afraid of forgiving?  Are you simply distracted by life’s tasks?  If so, then you might consider setting aside a certain amount of time each day or every other day to do the work of forgiving.  Try to ascertain the reason for the stopping: the need for temporary refreshment, fear, discipline?

What is the most difficult unit of your 20 forgiveness units?

Research has shown that the initial decision to forgive is the hardest because it includes change and change can be a challenge.  By change I mean this:  The forgiver now has to start a journey, one that may not be familiar for the one who just made the decision to forgive.  Those who decide to forgive know that they are committing to some hard psychological work.  The decision, while difficult, involves courage.

You probably have heard the expression, “No pain….no gain.”  I sometimes wonder if forgiving, which reduces pain, gets in the way of growth.

The expression “no pain….no gain” does not imply that one must be in constant pain to grow as a person.  In weightlifting, for example, the pain is temporary for more long-term growth of muscles and strength.  I think it is similar for a person’s psychology.  The pain from unjust treatment is our forgiveness-gym as we develop our forgiveness muscles.  The point, as it is in weightlifting, is to stop the pain so that one can grow.  So, we do grow as we go though the pain.  We also grow in character as we forgive. In other words, pain, working through pain, and finding relief from the pain all work together to help a person grow in virtue and character.