Click below to listen to this post about the ten steps to forgiveness on the Candidly Kendra podcast:
Once there was a young man who loved a woman. He married her. He treated her well. And she left him. No apologies; no hope for the future. Betrayal.
Have you ever been hurt like that?
The above story is actually the true story of Hosea, the prophet of God who took a prostitute as his wife. But she betrayed him. I can’t imagine any greater pain than pain given by the person you’ve invited to the be the most intimate companion.
But the Lord said to Hosea:
“Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.”
God asked Hosea to bear this pain of betrayal , this mistreatment by his own wife, because he wanted to show Israel the depth of his love and forgiveness to them.
We are Israel. We have betrayed the One who loved us the most – God Himself. Every time we chose to go our own way, every time we shrugged in the face of his great sacrificial love for us, we spat in the face of his grace.
But rather than turn his back on us, God said:
“My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—
the Holy One among you.”
God forgives us, his bride, when we betray him.
To Withhold Forgiveness Is Ungodly
God has given us these incredible examples of his forgiveness. He forgave us, knowing we’d hurt him again. He forgives exhaustively, even when we have only half-heartedly owned up to our sin.
That is who our God is. The Forgiver.
It follows, then, that unforgiveness is not from God.
Even if it still hurts.
Even if I was right.
Even if they’ve never apologized.
Even if they never will.
To Withhold Forgivess Hurts You
You’re probably familiar with the quote, “Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” (This quote is attributed to Buddha and Anne Lamott and Marianne Williamson. I don’t know who said it first!)
Dr. Henry Cloud in his book Boundaries said it this way: “Nothing clarifies boundaries more than forgiveness. To forgive someone means to let him off the hook, or to cancel the debt he owes you. When you refuse to forgive someone, you still want something from that person. It keeps you tied to him forever.”
And I believe that unforgiveness takes root in our wounded hearts and grows into bitterness there. Like a choking weed, it steals life and joy and becomes incredibly difficult to uproot.
Before that bitterness takes hold, take a slow, careful walk through the Ten Steps of Forgiveness.
The Ten Steps of Forgiveness
Before you begin, I want you to be aware of a few things about the nature of forgiveness, and particularly reluctant forgiveness.
- Start each day by praying that God would soften your heart. That’s all. Don’t fake forgiveness. I don’t think it’s helpful to start telling God you forgive someone just because you hope saying it will make it true. Just pray and trust God to work in your heart.
- Move at your own pace through these ten steps. Don’t rush them, but continually evaluate if you are ready to move on. You will find that forgiveness in some situations moves much faster than others. I will admit, even as I write this article I haven’t made it through all the steps in one particular relationship.
- Walking through these ten steps might actually make you feel more angry or more sad. Don’t be afraid, and don’t back off. These feelings will become part of your healing process.
- These ten steps will likely not be a linear process. You may progress to number 8 and then the next day find yourself stuck at number 6. This is alright. Evaluate your feelings and start every day where you are, without expectations of where you should be.
With those things in mind, let me walk you through the Ten Steps of Forgiveness.
1. Name The Pain
Sit with a pen and paper and name the pain that was done to you. Be honest about how you were hurt by the other person. Admit freely the physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, or mental pain that their actions or words caused you.
2. Name Its Effects
Next, sit with that pen and paper and process through what effects the actions or words have had on you. This may be an altered view of the world, a resistance of love, a fear of friendship, a lack of trust, or something else.
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3. Listen to God
Sit with your Bible and look up the following verses. With your pen and paper, write a quick summary of the ones that capture your attention the most.
- Ephesians 4:32
- Psalm 86:5
- Colossians 3:13
- Matthew 18:21-22
- I John 1:9
- Hebrews 8:12
- Proverbs 17:9
- Psalm 103:12
- Daniel 9:9
- Isaiah 43:25
- Psalm 130:3-4
- Ephesians 1:7-8
- Colossians 1:13-14
- Luke 23:34
- Luke 17:3-4
- Isaiah 1:18
4. Talk To God
Now what you’ll want to do is to have an open conversation with God about the verses you’ve just read. Tell him if you feel like those verses about forgiveness don’t apply to your specific situation. Tell him if it makes your stomach hurt just thinking about forgiving them. Tell him if you’re mad that he even wants you to forgive. Tell him everything.
When you are ready, confess your unforgiving heart to him. Remember that “if we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
Pray this prayer or one like it. Lord, I need your help. I see in your Word that you are a forgiving God and I know that I should forgive, too. I don’t want to! But I want to obey you. But I can’t imagine how. I’m going to need your help, God. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Next, repent of your sin against the other person, either before or after their sin against you. I usually pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).
I sit (with that pen and paper, again) and try to think of any ways I responded sinfully to them. Did I say something mean-spirited? Did I gossip about them to another friend, trying to fortify my “fight”?
I confess these sins in prayer to God. Then I thank him for his forgiveness given so freely by Jesus.
6. Extend Graces
Open up your heart to empathy for the person who hurt you. This might be the first truly difficult step. But ask yourself how you might begin to be more understanding of the situation from the other person’s perspective.
Were they going through a difficult time?
Are there wounds from others that they’ve suffered that may have led them into their behavior?
What has their life been like?
It’s important to know here that you aren’t trying to excuse their behavior. This isn’t intended to minimize their sin against you. The answers to these questions will never make their behavior “okay.” But this step is designed to soften your heart and prepare you for the next difficult step.
7. Accept and Absorb the Pain
Ouch! Do I gotta?
This step right here is the reason that we don’t want to forgive. Instead we hold grudges and wait in vain for the other person to be terribly sorry, or say the thing to make it right, or somehow suffer enough that we feel even.
It won’t work. Watching the other person writhe might feel good for a moment (Lord, forgive us), but it won’t make anything right.
Sin comes with an eternal cost. Nothing on earth will satisfy that debt.
Forgiveness is accepting that it hurt. It is accepting that the hurt was a part of your life; and absorbing the cost for now. And trusting that the eternal cost is in God’s hands.
Lord, help me to accept the pain, and to leave debt up to you.
You will probably find that you have to revisit this step often, and always with God’s help.
(Actually, go ahead and read this one again while you’re here. It is the most important.)
8. Make A Redemption List
Another very important part of the healing process is to acknowledge that God has taken this painful experience and used it to create beautiful things in your life.
Take that pen and paper and make a new list. This time, make a Redemption List. List every good thing that has come from this trial in your life. It might look like this:
- I’ve prayed more
- I’m closer to my kids now
- I told *** about it and then she told me about something that happened to her, and we’re closer now.
- I’m beginning to learn about forgiveness
- I learned how strong I am
(You’re doing so great to make it this far! Whatever else happens, keep talking to God about your feelings.)
9. Define The New Relationship
For this next step, It’s time to consider what forgiveness should look like. What will your relationship look like from here on?
Take that pen and paper again, and consider very practical questions, like:
- Will we be friends when I forgive him/her?
- Will I avoid them? (You could forgive and still decide that it’s best not to interact with them.)
- Will I be alone in a room with them?
- Can I be in the same small group with them?
- Will I interact with them on social media? Will I “follow” them on social media?
- What will I do if they text or call?
- To what extent will it be healthy or wrong for me to vent with other victims of this person’s sinful behavior or abuse?
- Will I tell people what happened to me? (This is an important question to consider in the case of abuse, when others may need to know about your experience for their safety.)
You may not have the answers to these questions, but it is a good idea to begin to think them through.
10. Take A Forgiveness Step. One Step…And Then Another.
In many ways, I think the real forgiveness happened in your heart at number 7. And yes, you may need to repeat that one a few dozen times to “make it stick,” but accepting and absorbing the pain of their behavior and trusting the rest to God is the heavy lifting of forgiveness.
But number 10 is putting that forgiveness to work. What is one thing you can do to move toward them (literally or metaphysically) in forgiveness?
Here are some possibilities:
- Begin praying for their good. (Consider a practice of praying every time you feel anger towards them – and revisit number 7.)
- Let an opportunity to vent about how you’ve been hurt by them pass, and instead don’t say anything.
- “Like” a photo on social media.
- Don’t avoid them.
- Say hello.
- Apologize to them for your sins against them (see step 5).
And Repeat As Needed
You may find that certain situations make you feel hurt all over again. If a friend asks you about that difficult time; if the weather is gloomy just like it was that day; if a song plays on the radio that made you cry when it first hurt, all those feelings may come back. I’m sorry to say that it may hurt just as much as it did the first time.
But now you have the tools. Now you know how strong you are.
And now you know that God can get you through, just like he did before.
Other Helpful Articles on Forgiveness
Great Good In Action. “Nine Steps To Forgiveness.”
Greater Good In Action, “Eight Essentials When Forgiving.” https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/eight_essentials_when_forgiving
Shindeldecker, John. Peace Pursuit. “Forgiving in Two Dimensions”
Enright, Robert. Greater Good Magazine. “Eight Keys To Forgiveness”
“Finding Hope When Church Hurts”
“When Forgiveness Hurts”
“Grace Comes Easier Up Close”
Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend
Changes That Heal by Henry Cloud