Photo by Igor Miske on Unsplash

(This article is written for an invited talk at the Methodist Youth Fellowship of Trinity Methodist Church, Petaling Jaya on Feb 4th, 2018).

Forgiveness is like drinking a bowl of Chinese medicine. You know it’s probably going to bring you healing inside, but it’s bitter like hell!

In Matthew 18: 21-22, Peter asked Jesus “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” 

And Jesus replied, “No, not seven times, but seventy times seven!” 

Forgive the same person 490 times??? Jesus, are you kidding me?! Sometimes it’s hard enough to forgive even once! Well, surely Jesus knew what he was talking about…

We know, from personal experiences, that forgiveness is good for the soul. We feel set free when we receive forgiveness, and when we can forgive someone from the heart.

Forgiveness has been shown to be positively associated with better health, in terms of the heart, hormones, and immune system. Forgiveness also predicts a longer life. Psychology research shows that being able to forgive oneself and others improves overall wellbeing, both intrapersonally (feeling good about oneself) and interpersonally (reestablishing the relationship).

But if forgiveness is really so good, why is it so hard to do?

In my clinical work, clients often share with me their struggles to forgive. And almost always, the hardest person to forgive is yourself! Another recurrent theme is how often they are told by other well-meaning people to “forgive and forget” or another fashionable saying is to “let go and move on”!

Among those who are religious, many believe that they must forgive because their Holy Scriptures say so. And when they can’t forgive, they feel guilty towards their God and religious leaders, and some eventually leave their faith community when they can no longer reconcile between their personal experience and the religious teachings. 

Genuine forgiveness is partially a grieving process. It needs to be deeply felt, and typically occurs through a slow organic process. We each grieve according to our own pace. Hence, we need to be sensitive to each other’s emotional readiness, lest we impose unnecessary burden on the very person that we are trying to support. When forgiveness is rushed, forced, or externally influenced, it can be superficial and often causes more harm than good to the person!

Let’s clarify what forgiveness is, and what it is not:

Forgiveness is NOT about choosing to forget the hurt or pain.

It is in Re-Membering our hurts and pains, that leads us to want to do the most humane thing to ourselves: to find healing for our wounds. And in finding true healing for ourselves, we are set free to love ourselves and to love others unconditionally.

Often, those who have been forgiven much, love much (refer to what Jesus said in Luke 7:47). Sometimes, their love is so big that they can even begin to forgive those who have previously hurt them.

I see this beautifully demonstrated in the lives of many recovering addicts and ex-prisoners that I used to work with in a men’s halfway home. When these troubled men were deeply immersed in God’s love, they were so filled with love and joy that they began to work on themselves and seek reconciliation with their own families and friends, despite many years of cut-offs and disengagement.

Forgiveness is NOT about relieving someone’s guilt or condoning the wrong that was done.

It is a GIFT to ourselves and to the other, when we are ready to face our pain. It would be nice if the one who has hurt us shows some remorse and beg for forgiveness. But because it is a GIFT we give ourselves, we can choose to forgive, even without any initiatives or reciprocal efforts from the other party.

Indeed, it can feel really unfair and unjust, that the one who chooses to forgive has to do all the hard work and heart work! Hence, it is pure GRACE that we choose to forgive.

And grace is a GIFT that we must first receive, from God and from the people who love us unconditionally, before we can offer it to those who need our forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is NOT the same as reconciliation.

Often the thought of having to reconcile with a violent or abusive or hateful person is enough for any sane person to pull back from pursuing forgiveness. But they are not the same.

Forgiveness is merely the first step whereby one or both parties choose to open the door for reconciliation. True reconciliation can only occur when there is true remorse demonstrated through concrete actions.

Trust has to be rebuilt and earned through the conscious efforts of both parties, working together for a new and more solid relationship! The old way of relating has to die, in order for new possibilities to emerge.

Here are a few PREREQUISITES before we can embark on the journey of forgiveness:

1. Know your emotions

Before you know your own emotions, you cannot begin to forgive, or else your forgiveness is meaningless.
All emotions are merely messengers. They reminds us that we are mere humans, not robots!

Fear tells us that there is real or potential danger, so we can be more careful. It also reveals where our “treasures” are!

Sadness tells us that we have lost someone/something significant, or we are hurt. It tells us that we need to be comforted.

Anger tells us that something unjust and unrighteous has occurred. It protects by drawing boundary with external harm, and energizes by giving us strength to fight back.

Which negative emotion is hard for you to identify and connect within?
Which negative emotion is hard for you to accept from others?

2. Know that everything is interpersonal

Where there is conflict, it is never just about you, or just about the other person. It is a “dance” between two or more parties that create the tango (or the entanglement)!

It is also important to keep in mind that relationships are usually quite complex. There is seldom a simple one-way relationship of perpetrator and victim. More often than not, the victim can also be perpetrator, and the perpetrator may also be a victim. 

In Japanese Naikan therapy, the therapist will ask the seeker to reflect on 3 questions in relation to a difficult relationship in his/her life. Maybe these questions are relevant to us as well:

What have I received from this person?
What have I given this person?
What troubles have I caused this person?

3. Reconnect with your relationship history

Often in conflictual relationships, we can become tunnel vision on the current problem. Systems theory reminds us that things always happen in context. Hence, it is a challenge for all of us, while in the heat of the moment, to be able to step back and consider the larger context, and see how things are interconnected, resulting in the present problem.

Almost always, you will find a “story” that you tell yourself, which can be quite different from how the other person may tell their story. And if you look far enough, more stories may unfold from your family-of-origin, ancestors, culture, religion and socio-political history. We are all influenced and shaped by our history and “stories” that are passed down through generations.

Where do you see yourself trapped in your own “story”?
What old and new stories we need to tell ourselves, so we can open up ourselves to receive and offer forgiveness, just a little bit more?

Interesting Readings on Forgiveness:


Published On: February 5th, 2018 / Categories: Blog Post /