I grew up in a world where I was obligated to forgive. You must or else. The “or else” was never clear. God holding a grudge, me teetering on the edge of hell was a threat. As a child I just knew it was bad and my salvation was at risk. I must forgive and it must be fast.
If I didn’t forgive I was as wrong as the perpetrator, equal now in our sin. Nevermind the wound. Soon the greater wound would be my lack of mercy.
As I got older some of that teaching changed, softened. Letting go can heal and it is good for you, the forgiver. It provides closure. Hanging onto blame is unhealthy. The hurt in your heart could grow until it takes over, crippling you more than the person who harmed. You don’t want to be consumed by anger. Yes, but, and.
Do you have to forgive in order to heal? Some wrongs are easy to pardon. We make mistakes. Everyone hurts. I’ve apologized to loved ones and they to me. We extend grace. Other wrongs are not as easy.
I have stories of forgiveness and healing, some tied together, others far apart. I shared one of these stories with a group of high schoolers, a story I’ve told a thousand times. How I came to forgive the person who shattered my life. I have been a speaker for the road safety program in my province and part of my job was to talk about the consequences of dangerous driving. I was hit by a reckless driver. My friend died in the crash. I was badly burnt which resulted in a seven month stay in the hospital and the loss of my legs. During the Q&A a student asked, “What if you don’t want to forgive?”
My childhood church tells me it is best to forgive. My evolving belief is that it can be a part of healing for the injured person and an act of compassion. What came out was, “You don’t have to.”
I explained what forgiveness meant to me, how it found me. I wasn’t interested in forgiving and then I did. Years after the offence there was relief, looking up and seeing the sky through the trees. It was unforced and my choice. But, I was whole before and after my decision. I was not, as I was warned, devoured by bitterness.
Heartbroken and courageous, this student shared a sentence, a fraction of her story. Ending with uncertainty, a sigh. Maybe she will one day forgive. Maybe she won’t. We need, she needs to feel. It’s okay to be sad and angry. The wound is deep. I don’t get to tell her what to do or how to feel. This is her story. Not mine.
Just as healing takes time, so does forgiveness. I don’t know if we need to forgive to heal. Forgiveness is personal, a journey. It is there for all of us. Religion doesn’t own it. Sometimes forgiveness is ongoing. A daily compassion. It can’t be covered in one act or prayer. It takes place in pieces, a shedding. It can be powerful and it can be quiet. It can help. It can take as long as you need. There is no rush. Forgiveness will wait.
HEIDI CAVE is an author, motivational speaker and mother. She is devoted to coffee, family, TV and all things lemon; not necessarily in that order, but feels that all of these things are vital to a fulfilling life. You can learn more about Heidi at her site heidicave.com and you will find her memoir Fancy Feet: Turning my Tragedy into Hope in bookstores and Amazon.