You Don’t Have to Forgive Them Just Cause They’re Sorry
Something that has always bothered me is the way we Christians bang the “forgiveness” drum. Someone legitimately hurts you, and within weeks or months, people are sermonizing your pain by telling you to let it go and forgive. If you are still angry and grieving, the problem is you, they say. “The Bible says you have to forgive them,” they say. And now not only were you unfairly victimized, but you also must take responsibility for letting them off the hook?
Here is the thing, physical pain and emotional pain are one in the same in your brain. A broken heart is not an abstract idea. We use words to describe what others cannot physically see, but there is a physical component to pain. When you are cut, or get hit in the head with a hammer, the anterior cingulate cortex area of your brain is stimulated. This is the exact same region of the brain that is activated when you experience emotional pain. Your physical pain and emotional pain aren’t that different. Your brain experiences it similarly. This is evident in the way we describe emotional trauma: “it was a slap in my face,” “it was a punch in the gut,” “they ripped my heart out.” We use physical descriptions to describe emotional experiences.
If you were in a car accident and broke several bones, no one would tell you to hop on your bike, or get back in the car. They would expect, in fact they would demand, that you lay down, be still, and take time to heal because we understand that it is unhealthy to walk on broken feet.
But when it comes to emotional trauma, we don’t allow others, or ourselves, time to heal. This is absurd, because your brain is processing your fathers rage, or your partner’s affair, the same way it would if they had hit you in the face with a crowbar. I don’t think you should have to stand on broken feet. It’s okay to sit down. It’s okay to be furious that someone you trusted would violate you. It is okay to want them to feel what you are feeling. In fact, it is normal. What is abnormal is walking toward someone who broke your feet, or hugging someone who burned your hands.
One study found that partners who forgive too quickly often lose self-respect in the process. The same study found that partners who took their time to forgive hurts in their marriages reported less instances of future pains inflicted by their spouses. Apparently, making people wait for your forgiveness is important for their own growth. It trains their brains for what is acceptable in the relationship.
People who forgave before they were emotionally ready also tended to suppress anger, which leads to depression. People who forgive too quickly are almost twice as likely to repeat the same mistreatment patterns in relationships.
Professor James McNulty notes in his study, “The Dark Side of Forgiveness,” that there is validity in a victim confronting their offender. Not only do people not always realize the full ramifications of their bad behavior until someone calls them out on it, it is also empowering for people who have been hurt to vocalize what has happened. Sometimes harnessing anger is exactly what you need in order to grow. Anger can be what calls you to action, and even emboldens you to make sure you speak for others who perhaps don’t have the social status or means to speak for themselves. Anger can propel you to change your circumstances.
When my son hurts my daughter, he’ll apologize immediately, and when my daughter is upset, I tell her she doesn’t have to forgive him until she is ready. For minutes my son is forced to live with the consequences of his actions. He has time to recognize that when you hit someone, they may not want to be your friend anymore. My daughter takes time to realize that she is justified in being upset. What my son did to her was wrong, and she doesn’t have to forgive him just because he feels bad. Eventually, when she is ready, she approaches him with an olive branch. That’s when I do the normal parent move of, “hug each other and move on.” I don’t want my daughter to think that forgiveness is a burden someone else can put on her. I want her to grow up feeling worthy of time and space. We don’t get to choose how or when people hurt us, but we do get to choose how and when we are ready to forgive them. Forgiveness is not for them. Forgiveness is for us.
People push forgiveness because we know that people can’t stay stuck as victims. You can’t live in the past, you can’t keep reliving the same pains, and you can’t focus on the brokenness because that prevents you from moving forward. It keeps your brain frozen on pain, and that’s unhealthy. It’s like digging at the same scab because you don’t want to see a scar. There are stages to healing. You are allowed to grieve. You are worthy of space and time.
Lily Tomlin made this brilliant statement on forgiveness that I can get behind: “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.”
Forgiveness is recognizing that they cannot undo what they have done, and that you also can’t keep reliving it. It is allowing yourself to sink into the realization that what happened hurt, and was horrible, and inconceivable, but you also can’t change it. Forgiving them won’t change your pain, but it may allow you to make peace with it.
So no, you don’t have to accept their “sorry” just because they offered it. And it doesn’t make you a bad person to give yourself time to heal. Forgiveness is not for them. Forgiveness is for you.
Dr. Heather Thompson Day is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Andrews University. She is the author of five Christian books, including Life After Eden, and writer for The Spilled Milk Club. Facebook her, or check her out on Twitter.