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To Forgive or Not to Forgive: That is Our Question

By Awa Jangha

What does it take to forgive? 

I know as good Christians that we are supposed to forgive.  But, exactly how do we do that when our thoughts and feelings engage in stubborn refusal?  Everett Worthington describes forgiveness as having two steps: decisional forgiveness and emotional forgiveness.  To achieve decisional forgiveness all you need to do is determine in your mind and soul to forgive the offense or the offender. It does not mean that the work of healing is complete, but that you have become intentional about seeking the healing of forgiving.  Decisional Forgiveness is the first step in the process and emotional forgiveness is the second step as it facilitates access to a deeper level of forgiveness.

Emotional forgiveness is the hard work that has no timeline.  It is being intentional each day to apply decisional forgiveness and release the feelings that may pop up when you think of the offense or see the offender.  Forgiveness does not always require reconciliation (as this may not always be safe or beneficial for both parties), but it does ask of us that we be willing to grow beyond our present negative feelings.  It is certainly not easy, and most certainly is a process.  When you get to the point where you do not wish vengeance on the offender, or where you can recall the offense without the intensity of the emotions you initially felt when the event occurred, then you are in the realm of emotional forgiveness.  Deciding to forgive allows you the access to move towards emotional freedom and peace.

What happens when we do not forgive?

Often when we do not forgive we hold ourselves captive and can be overcome by emotions such as bitterness, anger, tension, and pain.  All of these can consume us if we let them.  Have you ever known someone who refused to forgive?  They might still hold a grudge against someone years after the event occurred.  Chances are, if you asked them, they may not be able to tell you the root cause of the grudge because it has been so long.  At this point what remains is not the offense but the feelings of betrayal, anger, distrust, or bitterness.

This may even be your experience.  Living without forgiving can be like a slow self-poisoning (a poison that is only digested by you as you are held hostage to those feelings).  The person who may have offended you may go on to live their lives without being affected by your feelings of bitterness or anger.  Here we see the maddening component of a lack of forgiveness because it can punish us and wear us down, when in fact we want it to punish the other.

Sadly, one of the few times when being unforgiving really serves the role of “The Punisher” is when the offender is ourselves.  Self-forgiveness can be a taxing growth experience.  Often times we are not aware that we have not forgiven ourselves because we ignore and deny the offense.  This may lead to internalizing those negative feelings with their punishing negative cognitive distortions (negative things we think or believe about ourselves).  When we do become aware of a need to forgive ourselves, we can then begin the work of emotional forgiveness.

Called to Forgive

What forgiving does, is free you from those negative feelings.  Forgiveness loosens you from the hold that bitterness and anger can create.  Taking the first step to decide to forgive and then engaging in the hard work of emotional forgiveness can ultimately improve our emotional and spiritual health.  I do not think that we are expected to instantaneously forgive when there is an inner turmoil of emotions.  Doing so ignores our soul’s call for us to pay attention to the inner work that needs to be done.  When this turmoil is present, we can acknowledge it every time it visits us (i.e. daily, hourly, etc.).  As we begin the work of feeling it and letting it go each day, the turmoil decreases its frequency of visits to us over time.  I like to think that during this engagement with turmoil, we are not alone and that God is there with us, mediating our emotions with His grace and with reminders of His mercy.  This process can shift our attention away from the intensity of the turmoil and create fertile ground for spiritual growth and emotional freedom.

 

What does it mean to you, to forgive?

What does it mean to engage in self-forgiveness?

How has God met you in the work of emotional forgiveness?


Dr. Awa Jangha is an Assistant Professor of Counselor Education at Seminary of the Southwest. Dr. Jangha earned a Ph.D. from Loyola University Maryland in Pastoral Counseling (a Counselor Education and Supervision Program). Her research focuses on experiences of power in the pastoral counseling identity development of African-American female pastoral counselors in training and utilizes art as the means of exploration. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), National Certified Counselor (NCC), and has a background in art therapy. Her training in pastoral counseling reflects her passion for spiritual integration in counseling and in counselor education. As a member of both the Association for Spiritual, Ethical, and Religious Values in Counseling (ASERVIC) and the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) she infuses creativity into her teaching of spiritually integrated practices within the classes she has taught (such as Clinical Practicum, Professional Orientation and Counselor Identity, Addictions Counseling, Assessment and Testing).

 


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