Human behaviour suggests that people are “hard-wired” to retaliate when they have been hurt by another person. Our pride or self-esteem is injured. Our expectations or dreams are disappointed. We lose something very valuable to us. We want recompense for the damages.
But there are other resistances which block our motivation to forgive. Automatic thoughts or beliefs impede us from forgiving others. We tell ourselves, “I won’t forgive because he/she never accepts responsibility for what he/she does,” or “I would be a hypocrite if I forgave because I do not feel like forgiving,” or “Forgiving is only for weak people.”
Explanations for behaviour can also get in the way. When someone hurts us or lets us down we tend to assign internal causes for behaviour to others. We argue that it is based on personality or character traits. We tell ourselves, “he’s just so forgetful or careless,” or “She doesn’t appreciate me,” or “She did that purposefully.” We judge them harshly.
But when we do something wrong or hurtful or disappointing, we tend to excuse our own behaviour by attributing external causes. For example, in those cases we may excuse lateness: “My child made a mess,” or “There was a car accident on the highway.” We tend to let ourselves off the hook and give ourselves permission to fail.
This is what psychologists call the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” We assign total responsibility or blame to others for their behaviour while explaining away our own negative actions in terms of situational factors. In other words, it’s not our fault because….
It’s important to note that understanding and accepting the error in behaviour does not relieve the offending person of moral responsibility. Forgiving someone does not cancel out the consequences of their actions. The goal is to promote empathy and forgiveness and look more realistically at the hurtful events from their point of view. This involves thinking the best of people rather than jumping to harsh conclusions about their character or intentions.
Lack of empathy (empathy is the psychological highway to forgive others) for others can also get in the way of our ability to forgive. We can develop empathy for others by beginning to change our way of thinking. It is impossible to fully know why a person acted the way that they did. Make room from grace.
When have you been able to have empathy for someone who has hurt you? Ask yourself, “Do I want things bitter or better?” Forgiveness has a huge impact on our own health and feelings. It is not so much about the other person as it is about our own hearts. Forgiveness is for our benefit, but so often things get in the way. Think of a time when you have needed forgiveness.
Don’t let resentment imprison you for life; it will destroy you and your other relationships. Lewis Smedes wrote: “To forgive is to set the prisoner free… and to discover that the prisoner was you.” Let go of the pain. Give it to God. For God alone understands more than anyone the pain and humiliation you feel. Jesus felt more pain, rejection, and humiliation than any person.
Letting go of your hurts is often not an overnight experience. It takes time, but as you work toward it, you’ll find that it is worth the effort. Ask God to give you the grace to forgive.