Lately, I have been giving a lot of thought to the power of forgiveness, in relation to mental health and healing. As Christians, we are often reminded that we are to forgive others, as Christ has forgiven us. This makes it seem as if forgiveness should come as an automatic response, as if no thought or processing needs to take place before it is offered. Forgiveness is rarely this straightforward and attempts to forgive without doing the hard work often add more damage to the person that was harmed.
All too often, forgiveness is framed as an act that frees the offender from the damage they caused, essentially absolving them of their actions. It can be a very powerful and life changing gift to offer to a person that has caused harm. However, I have learned that the words “I forgive you” are perhaps more of a gift to the person who speaks them, a gift of radical self-care. Rather than framing forgiveness as something we give to another, I am learning to view forgiveness as an intentional act of self-healing. It is a process of freeing ourselves from the toxicity of emotions that are created when our woundedness traps us in the spin cycle, changing the way that we view life and move out in the world.
Forgiveness is a process through which the anger and resentment created by the harm done by another is released, so that true healing can take place. It is about the person who has been harmed taking control of their healing, setting themselves free of the bitterness, hurt, and trauma caused by the actions of others. Releasing the trauma can have a positive impact on mental health by reducing anger, stress, depression, and anxiety, as well as improving self-esteem. It has the power to restore relationships and outlook on life. It can be seen as a gift we give to ourselves for our own well-being. Activist and author Bryant McGill explains “Forgiveness has nothing whatsoever to do with how wrong someone else was; no matter how evil, cruel, narcissistic, or unrepentant they are. When you forgive a person, you break the ties with their ill deeds that keep you in anguish”.
While it is helpful to understand that forgiveness is the ultimate destination that we are moving towards after we have been wronged, each of us must learn on our own how to get there as part of our own growth towards becoming more like Christ. For some, empathy can be the key to forgiving; the ability to connect to the lived experience of another to understand why they acted as they did. For others, separating the person from the deed, forgiving the person so that all energy can be focused on healing, is the best way forward. Other people find totally different paths to forgiveness. Beginning the journey is more important than the path taken.
Experience tells me that in most instances the road towards forgiveness can be one of the most difficult we travel on our life’s journey. There is no straight path or time frame that can be applied across the board to each situation. Instead, learning to forgive is a personal journey in which there is no one size fits all instruction manual detailing the steps to take. I don’t profess to have perfected the practice, but the wisdom that I have gained along the way has helped me to process the experiences that have hurt me in a more productive, life affirming manner.
Rev. Lisa LeSueur
Rev. Lisa LeSueur is the Pastor of Congregational and Staff Care at Coral Gables United Church of Christ and a member of the Board of Directors of the UCC Mental Health Network. She serves as the UCC Florida Conference WISE Mental Health Coordinator and the Suicide Prevention Initiative Coordinator for Nami Miami. She lives in Coral Gables, Florida with her wife and their two children.