As Part 1 of this series focused on unforgiveness (https://graceinmentalhealth.wordpress.com/2020/05/17/role-of-forgiveness-in-healing-1/), Part 2 will focus on the antithesis, with specific emphasis on the role which empathy, reconciliation and (most importantly) Christ-likeness plays in the process of forgiveness. But first, it may help to clarify a few common misconceptions:
- Forgiveness does not mean forgetting or avoiding the wrongdoing. We are allowed to feel righteous anger (Ephesians 4:26), as Jesus did (John 2:15-17).
- Forgiveness does not mean you are approving of the offender’s behaviour or giving him / her the opportunity to hurt you again. In approaching a painful memory with greater acceptance, however, we are acknowledging that we cannot change the past, but we can change our perspective of it and therefore our response towards it (Brown, 2012).
- Forgiveness should not be dependent on the offender; s/he may never apologise, validate your experience of hurt, or accept your act of forgiveness. S/he may no longer be in your life. Rather, forgiveness in the Bible is unlimited and unconditional (Matthew 18:22).
- Forgiveness is a change of heart between you and God, while reconciliation is a process of restoration between yourself and the offender. Exercising forgiveness does not necessarily mean you should trust or reconcile with the person, especially if doing so could put you at risk of harm.
Jesus as the Example
Jesus showed amazing grace and compassion even towards those who sought to harm Him (Luke 22:50-51), empathised with those who persecuted Him such that He was able to see naivete even in their malicious intent (Luke 23:34), and taught the radical command of responding to hate with love and to curse with blessing (Luke 6:27-28).
Given that a hallmark of being a Christian is a life of obedience to Christ (Galatians 2:20), this extends to the realm of forgiveness. Undoubtedly much easier said than done, we fortunately do not need to rely solely on our own efforts, because our transformation to Christlikeness requires the power of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).
In fulfilling our part in the process, begin in prayer by thanking God for what you are going through (Philippians 4:6) and how He can redeem your experiences (Lamentations 3:58), however counter-intuitive it sounds. Unforgiveness is anchored in a sense of loss associated with the offender, while thankfulness is anchored in the grace of the Giver. Even though it is not in God’s will for people to go through abuse or suffering at the sins of another, He had allowed it to happen and can work everything – including your deepest and darkest pain – for His glory in His sovereign purpose (Romans 8:28). In submitting ourselves to God’s hands, we can ask for the eyes, heart and mind of Christ, such that our will aligns with His will (Romans 12:2), and so that we can come to the realisation that what Christ has done for us on the cross is – and will always be – far greater than what anyone has done to us (Caine, 2018).
Having considered Jesus’ example of grace, and how we should prayerfully position ourselves to follow this, it is worth reflecting on a cornerstone of forgiveness termed empathy. Empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else, allows us to see beyond our reality and into a more expansive perspective that encompasses someone else’s reality; as the old saying goes – “to walk in someone else’s shoes”.
Every fault in a person has a history behind it, which includes events that were beyond their control or events with which they found difficulty coping. Examples of this include the person who denigrates others to compensate for their deep-seated insecurity, the parent who was disproportionately harsh in their discipline because that was how they were raised, or the individual who uses manipulation and control to avoid the abandonment they intensely fear.
In considering the other person’s perspective, we are not agreeing with all of their choices, but we are acknowledging that had we lived the history of the offender, we too may have made choices similar to him / her. So with consideration of the notion that some of our hurtful behaviour can originate from our history at which we felt arrested at a younger physical and mental age , here is a visual exercise (Meyers, 2018) with a list of guiding questions that may help with exercising empathy:
- From what mental age was the offender acting at the time they had hurt you? Can you mentally superimpose the face of the offender’s younger self on him / her at an age that is commensurate with how they were acting in that instance? Can you also visualise the offender as 2 feet shorter than their current height?
- As anger is usually a mask to fear, what is the offender’s fear saying? With regards to the notion that “hurting people hurt people”, what is his / her pain saying? Can you see these emotions in their facial expressions, while maintaining the imagery of this person at their younger self?
- If Jesus was there, what do you think He would see in the offender? How would Jesus respond to him / her? (Smith, 2004)
- Having exercised your empathy, is there at least one new revelation you have learned – either about yourself, the person who had hurt you, or the situation?
Inasmuch as empathy considers different perspectives, we should not ignore the common thread that binds us: the offender has innate needs and vulnerabilities, as does the offended; the offender inevitably sins and is in need of God’s grace and redemption, as much as the offended does; the offender is created in the image of God who loves him / her unconditionally, as is the case of the offended; and if we could be honest with ourselves, every offender has been in the position of an offended, and likewise the offended has been in the position of an offender.
Empathy and forgiveness can be exercised independent of another party. Reconciliation, on the other hand, is a joint venture, in which both parties come to an agreement to restore a relationship as equals.
As mentioned previously, forgiving someone does not necessarily mean reconciling with them. Consider some of the examples in which reconciliation may not be the most appropriate choice: if the person had severely abused you in the past and whose actions come from a difficulty that is more permanent in nature (Ben-Zeev, 2011), if resuming the relationship could perpetuate harm, or if reconciliation could cause a hindrance to your Christian walk. The decisions around reconciliation require prayer and discernment.
If you have felt compelled by God to pursue this route of reconciliation, here are a few recommended steps:
- If you wish to reconcile with someone who is very important to you (such as an estranged family member), please speak to one or two seasoned Christians in advance, so that they can support you with counsel (Proverbs 13:10).
- Pray for a heart of godly love and of grace (1 Corinthians 13:4-7), and for this to be reflected in the words you say.
- When you have made an arrangement to speak with the other party, make an agreement to speak out of love and out of selfless humility (Philippians 2:2), as this agreement entails accountability to yourself, to the other party, and to God who is central to the process. If the other person is not a Christian, find a common ground on which to work from, be it a shared hope or value.
- Allow yourself to express your emotions in an honest manner, but be mindful of how you communicate this. For example, saying “You made me feel sad when you did __________” would convey greater blame and likely elicit greater defensiveness, than if it was reframed as “I felt sad when you did __________”.
- When the other person speaks, listen with a nonjudgmental and validating stance before giving your response (James 1:19). Try to employ the visual technique previously mentioned to help you empathise with the person.
- As counter-cultural as this may sound, seek forgiveness if the circumstances are appropriate. To avoid any misunderstanding, I would like to emphasise that this is not a matter of victim blaming. At least from my personal experience, I have found that in reflecting on how to extend forgiveness to someone else, I had come to realise how much I need to be forgiven. As arduous as it may be to say the words “I forgive you”, I wonder if it is just as challenging (if not more) to say the words “I am sorry”.
- As you have extended and sought forgiveness, exercise self-compassion in forgiving yourself too.
In reconciling both posts in this series, there is a myriad of benefits to exercising forgiveness. Psychology identifies this in the realm of physical health (reduced blood pressure, cholesterol levels, risk of heart attack, pain and disruptions to sleep), emotional health (reduced levels of anxiety, depression and stress) and mental health (cognitive flexibility and increased social functioning), with credit given to the forgiver. Christianity provides an added dimension of spiritual health, where the forgiver is also the forgiven. I pray that you will follow the footsteps of Christ as you walk in forgiveness and freedom.
by Constance H, Clinical Psychologist
 If the offense committed against you is severe, such that it continues to cause considerable level of impairment to your functioning, it is recommended that you process the memory with a clinician who is trained to work with trauma.
Ben-Zeev, A. (2011). Is the romantic reconciliation worth the effort? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/in-the-name-love/201108/is-romantic-reconciliation-worth-the-effort
Brown, T. (2012). Healed and set free. California, United States of America: Seek First Publications
Caine, C. (2018). Unexpected. Michigan, United States of America: Zondervan
Meyers, S. (2018). How to keep peace with the narcissist: Visual techniques. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/insight-is-2020/201805/how-keep-the-peace-narcissist-visual-techniques
Smith, E. M. (2004). Healing life’s hurts through theophostic prayer. California, United States of America: Gospel Light Publications