Forgiveness is powerful, difficult, and often misunderstood. Forgiveness is much more complex than simply saying the words “I forgive you.” So what does it actually mean to forgive? And how do we do it?
Forgiveness can be understood in four stages*:
Stage 1: The Uncovering Stage
What it is: Recognizing that we have been hurt, offended, or impacted negatively in some way by another. This requires us to embrace the emotional pain of the offense and gain insight into how the offense is negatively affecting our life.
Feels like: Anger, shock, sadness, sorrow, rage, disbelief, shame, exhaustion, etc. There is no wrong emotion.
Where we go wrong: Robbing ourselves of this stage. Particularly in Christian circles, we tend to rush this stage and not let ourselves go through this stage properly. Sometimes we think that it’s not okay to feel angry at our offender or feel negative feelings toward them. We tell ourselves, I just need to forgive them because Jesus told me to. The truth is that being in this stage is part of forgiving. We can’t offer true, meaningful forgiveness until we experience the weight of the offense made against us. We can’t find freedom and healing if we don’t let ourselves feel. We might find ourselves being afraid of staying in this stage for too long. Your mind, body, and the Holy Spirit will tell you when it’s been long enough. If you’re still processing through these feelings, that’s what you need right now. We typically need to stay in this stage for longer than we think.
Stage 2: The Decision Stage
What it is: Making the cognitive decision that you want to forgive the offender. Emphasis on cognitive. Our emotions likely do not follow our will at this point. This is simply recognizing that you want to forgive the offender, or that you want to want to forgive the offender.
Feels like: Lingering negative emotions combined with a sense of peace knowing that God will help you even though forgiveness may seem overwhelming.
Where we go wrong: Thinking we have to feel kindness toward our offender or have positive feelings in order to make the decision to forgive. This is an act of the will, not necessarily an act of the emotions.
Stage 3: The Working Stage
What it is: Gaining perspective, compassion, and empathy; seeing the offender for more than their offense, while not excusing their behavior. This is not saying it was okay that someone hurt you. This is not excusing the behavior of the offender. This is gaining compassion and perspective and seeing this person as a human being who is flawed. This is about gaining understanding.
Feels like: Softening of your heart. I often hear people say “I feel sorry for them” at this point in the process. This is letting yourself get to the sorrow and grief beneath the anger.
Where we go wrong: Telling ourselves it was okay what the other person did to us; not letting go of anger and bitterness; labeling the offender as an evil or bad person; lacking humility to see that we, too, are flawed.
Stage 4: The Deepening Stage
What it is: Finding meaning in the forgiveness journey.
Feels like: Finding deeper peace, no longer avoiding memories of the painful event, no longer experiencing resentment, and feeling greater compassion.
Where we go wrong: Telling ourselves that everything happens for a reason. God doesn’t let awful things happen just so that we can learn from them. But he does promise to bring about good from the sufferings we experience. This stage is about growing in our understanding of the mercy and love of God. God allows suffering to happen because we live in a broken world and allowing sin and suffering is the only way we can have free will to truly love Him. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him.” This stage is about finding and appreciating that good. We were meant for the Garden of Eden, but out of original sin came the death and resurrection of Christ. Out of our deepest sufferings, God promises to bring glory.
These stages are not always linear. We will often find ourselves moving back and forth between the stages. The more we uncover about the offense often requires more work in the process. Going backward in the stages is not failure; on the contrary, it usually means we are going deeper in our own healing.
Forgiveness is releasing the debt that was owed to us. Forgiveness is grieving. Forgiveness takes work. Forgiveness offers us freedom and peace. Forgiveness is worth it.
*Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2004