This is an important question precisely because many people hold onto at least a residual of anger when they recall deep injustices against them. Having some anger left over after you forgive is normal and not a sign of unforgiveness—-if—if the anger is not so intense that it is dominating your life. Is your anger controlling you or are you in control of your anger? If the latter, then take heart, you are probably on the road to forgiveness, especially if you have committed to “do no harm” back to the one who hurt you.
Some of the best wisdom I have heard regarding when a person has truly forgiven comes from the late-great Lewis Smedes in his book, Forgive and Forget. He says that if you wish the other well, then you have forgiven. As a point of clarification, you need not wish the person well as your boss now or as your boyfriend now if reconciliation is not possible. As you wish the other well as a person, you have entered into the spirit of forgiveness.
With mid-morning temperatures approaching 86° on Palm Sunday in April 2017, the security guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the seaside Mediterranean city of Alexandria, Egypt, approached and redirected a young man rushing for the church’s main entrance. Seconds later, the bomb strapped to the man’s body detonated, killing both him and the guard while dozens inside the church were spared harm by the guard’s quick actions.
Just days later, after the bomber had been identified as an ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) terrorist, the widow of that security guard was interviewed by an Egyptian television station. As she pulled her young children close to her side she announced:
“I’m not angry at the one who did this. I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’
“You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of.”
While millions of Egyptians across the country marveled at what the grieving woman said, it was far from the first time in recent history that Coptic Christians have expressed forgiveness rather than revenge.
A 2011 New Year’s Eve attack in Alexandria’s Church of Two Saints killed 23 Coptics, for example. In February 2015, the Islamic State in Libya kidnapped and beheaded 21 mostly Coptic Christians on the shores of Tripoli.
A December 2016 attack at a chapel of the flagship St. Mark’s cathedral in Cairo killed 29 mostly women and children–the deadliest terrorism attack against Egyptian Christians until attacks at two Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt’s Nile Delta killed more than 45 people and injured more than 100 others during Palm Sunday services in 2017.
But even in death, the Copts forgive. While Egypt’s president pledged retaliation following those tragedies, Coptic Christians continued to spread their message of forgiveness and love. .
On the night of the Palm Sunday bombings, for example, Coptic priest Fr. Boules George said he thanks and loves those who did this crime. Speaking to a congregation in Cairo’s Cleopatra neighborhood, he first addressed the terrorists and said:
“I long to talk to you about our Christ, and tell you how wonderful he is.”But then he asked those in the church, “How about we make a commitment today to pray for them? If they know that God is love and they experience his love, they could not do these things—never, never, never.”
(Watch Fr. George’s entire sermon including his explanation of why he thanks the terrorists, at this video link with subtitles.)
The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the most ancient churches in the world, founded in the first century in Egypt by Saint Mark the Apostle during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero. A conservative Church that shares many beliefs and practices with both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, it has carefully preserved the Orthodox Christian faith in its earliest form. Today the Church has 18-22 million members worldwide with more than 75% of them in Egypt–the country’s largest Christian denomination.
This article was inspired by a blog post titled “The Scandal of Forgiveness in a Time of Terror” by R. H. (Rusty) Foerger on his website More Enigma Than Dogma.In his post, Foerger asks if forgiveness is ever wasted. He answers his own question with this: “On the surface I suppose forgiveness is a losing game; so is terrorism and retaliation. But go deeper and you will find forgiveness comes from a endless well – available for an ocean of need.”
False forgiveness in essence is not about a moral response to someone who has hurt you. It is more about power than leveling the moral playing field (seeing the other and the self as precious, unique, special, and irreplaceable). There are two kinds of power-plays that someone practicing false forgiveness might show: 1) dominating the other person by constantly reminding him or her that, indeed, you have forgiven….and plan to do so tomorrow…and the next day…and the day after that. You keep the other under your thumb by reminding them of how noble you are and how ignoble they are; 2) being dominated by the other person by giving in to unreasonable demands, hastily reconciling, letting the other have power over you. True forgiveness is gentle and kind, honoring the humanity of the other person and the self. It does not dominate or allow others to dominate in a relationship.
You are not alone when you say it is hardest to forgive yourself. Most of us are harder on ourselves than on others. So, welcome to a large and not-so-exclusive club. The pathway to forgiving oneself is actually not that different from forgiving other people. That pathway, of forgiving others, is discussed in detail in the book, Forgiveness Is a Choice (available for purchase from this website). I recommend that book because the forgiveness pathway described there has the most scientific support of any forgiveness model out there.
OK, now to self-forgiveness. When you forgive yourself, the complication is that you are both an offended person and an offender. At the very least, you have offended yourself, you have broken your own standard in what you did or said. And, I might add, we rarely offend ourselves in isolation. So, a first step may be to go to those whom you have offended and say you are sorry and ask for forgiveness. Please realize that those whom you approach may or may not be ready to give the gift of forgiveness. Thus, please be patient and understanding. A second step then is to offer to yourself in forgiveness what you offer to others when you forgive them—compassion, gentleness, understanding, and love. Yes, even love. Give yourself permission, as an imperfect person, to love yourself despite what you did to offend yourself. You are larger than your actions and words. You are more important than only your unjust words and actions, as is every person in the world. Allow this perspective toward yourself to gently wash over you until you believe it. This is the essence of self-forgiveness.
Yes, I do think that you are on the path of forgiveness when you realize that your friend deserves your love. I say that because one of the first steps of forgiveness is to commit to doing no harm to the one who hurt you. When you say that your friend deserves your love, it seems to me that you will not then deliberately do her harm, even if you are not feeling or expressing love just yet toward her. Love is a more advanced form of forgiveness than committing to doing no harm. This is the case because doing no harm is refraining from the negative; love is deliberately instituting the positive toward your friend.
Relaxation is important and so I am not criticizing it as a way of reducing tension. My critique comes when mental health professionals use relaxation as the primary way of reducing resentment. Relaxation can reduce tension but it cannot cure resentment, or a persistent ill will toward another person or persons who acted unfairly. Why? It is because once the person is finished with the relaxation exercise, the resentment likely will return. Forgiveness, on the other hand, can directly target the resentment so that empathy and compassion toward the other person grow in the heart, literally reducing or eliminating the resentment.
When you forgive in a genuine way, it always is for the other. Why? This is because forgiveness, as a moral virtue, is other-focused. A motivation to forgive may be one’s own emotional, physical, and relational well-being. This is not dishonorable because, if you are hurting, it is reasonable to try to alleviate the pain. If one is not focused at all on the other person during the process, then this is not a true forgiveness process.