All that's needed for forgiveness to take place, sometimes, is for the victim or survivor to have permission not to forgive.
The Rev. Anne Robertson discovered this to be true early in her ministry when a young woman came to her office, saying she couldn't be a Christian any more because she couldn't find it in her heart to forgive her abusive father.
"‘I can't forgive him, and the Bible says I have to. I can't, so I can't be a Christian any more,'" Robertson said the woman told her.
But forgiveness is not something that can be forced, Robertson told the woman.
"She had a choice. He was not entitled to her forgiveness," said Robertson, a United Methodist clergywoman who is director of the Massachusetts Bible Society. "She left my office forgiving him and sort of floating on a cloud. All she needed to forgive him was the permission not to. She was physically different when she left that office. It wasn't anything I did. It was just letting her know that forgiveness is a gift."
Forgiveness will look different depending on the specific details of each person's circumstances and relationships, says the Rev. Marjorie Thompson, but there are common aspects in every situation. Thompson is the author of two books on forgiveness.
"I think the outcome of forgiveness is a sense of peace, a sense of empathy and compassion for the other person, and a sense of inward freedom from carrying around the burden of feeling wounded or resentful," Thompson said.
A way of life
Sometimes forgiveness is viewed in its simplest form as accepting an apology, but the Rev. L. Gregory Jones of Duke Divinity School says there is much more involved.
Forgiveness "is a way of life that involves words, feelings and gestures," he says. "We often think that forgiveness is largely about saying something, and we don't pay enough attention to both the emotions that are involved and the actions or gestures that need to be offered."
Everett Worthington Jr., a clinical psychologist and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said he thinks forgiveness, unlike reconciliation, "happens inside people's skins, not in relationships."
Worthington offers two categories of forgiveness. Decisional forgiveness, he explains, occurs when one person makes "a decision to not seek vengeance and to treat the person as a valuable and valued person, regardless of what the person has done." Emotional forgiveness, he continues, is "a gradual erosion of negative unforgiving emotions – resentment, bitterness, hostility, hatred, anxiety and anger – and their replacement by positive emotions like empathy, sympathy, compassion or love."
Forgiveness is a choice
Some Christians sometimes perceive that Scripture teaches forgiveness is required, but these experts say it is not something that can be extended out of obligation.
"God makes us free to forgive or not forgive," Thompson said. "There is nothing automatic about forgiveness. It is either from the heart or it is not real. Forgiveness costs us something, as it cost Jesus. Most forgiveness involves a journey of some kind. I don't think we should expect ourselves to instantaneously forgive someone when we are wounded."
While the journey toward forgiveness should not be rushed, there is plenty of evidence to prove forgiveness is a good thing for which to strive.
"We forgive because we will never really find freedom or peace of heart without it," Thompson said. "Holding onto bitterness is corrosive to our own soul."
According to research, Worthington said, forgiveness contributes to better physical health – such as better immune function and less risk of heart problems; better mental health due to "less rumination, and thus less depression, anxiety and anger;" and better spiritual connection.
There are biblical reasons to forgive.
"We forgive because that has been modeled for us," Thompson said. "God's design ultimately is for reconciliation and harmony within and among the human family. Forgiveness isn't just about amending the past; it's about building a road into the future. I think the design of God is reconciliation, and God is urging us toward that greater harmony and empowering us to engage with each other for that purpose."
Jones, author of Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis, agreed, saying forgiveness is "the only way in which we can show what it means to be forgiven and to be people capable of love. We need to be committed to developing the habits and practices of forgiveness as a way of life."
Knowing the specifics of those practices is, he said, "a matter of wisdom and discernment in any situation."
And there are certainly times when forgiveness should not be given unconditionally.
"There are lots of contexts in which I would say we need to practice loving enemies," Jones said, explaining that unconditional forgiveness of those who intend to do harm only perpetuates a dangerous cycle.
In instances of abuse, for example, he said, "the fullness of reconciliation can't be experienced because the other person is not repentant."
"For Christians, we can and should forgive everything, as a decision," he said. "But, we might not reconcile with many people. If it is dangerous, risky, unwise, reconciliation is not called for."
Forgiven again – and again
Ultimate forgiveness and reconciliation are found in Christ. Though we have already received his forgiveness, we come to him again and again, acknowledging our failings and our need for grace.
Confession helps us grow, Robertson said, as we examine our imperfections and strive to be more like Christ.
"What God is looking for is honest repentance, that we honestly want to change," she said. "The only way we become better is if we are conscious of the things we've done wrong. When we hear ourselves repenting of the same thing night after night, week after week, that can begin to speak to us in a way that it doesn't if we push it aside. While it may not make a difference in the forgiveness we get ultimately from the hand of God, it does make a difference in our becoming more Christ-like in our daily lives."
Worthington, who is a fellow in the Religion and Spirituality division of the American Psychological Association, shared similar thoughts.
"While Christ's death for us, and Resurrection, are free gifts, we receive the gift by acknowledging our neediness of forgiveness, by asking," he said.
"It's not a question of whether God is willing to forgive us; it's a question of how we need to be reshaped in our lives," Jones said. "It's not that we are changing God or that somehow God is maybe not going to forgive us. Our own change of life is part of what it means to receive forgiveness, and that is learned by us naming it in relationship to God in prayer and to people."
There are two reasons to ask God for forgiveness, Thompson said.
"One is to recognize and acknowledge our failing and our need for the forgiveness that is already given in Christ," she said. "There is the necessity to recognize those moments when we need it and to seek it, understanding that the gift is already given. The second is to appropriate it - to take into our minds and hearts again that gift, to really allow it to give us courage and to heal us and restore us so that we can learn and grow from our mistakes."
Emily Snell is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, March–April, 2015.