The Secret to Forgiveness: Focus Within
Letting go of resentment can be difficult. A United Methodist counselor offers tips on moving from a grudge to forgiveness.
– A UMC.org Feature by Joe Iovino*
Forgiveness is hard.
United Methodists know we ought to be forgiving people. The Bible instructs us, “As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other,” (Colossians 3:13), but that is often much easier said than done. Letting go of resentment can be difficult.
“Overcoming harm is not a comfortable process,” Joshua Bynum, Clinical Director of the Methodist Counseling Center in Boise, Idaho acknowledges. “It’s a painful one.”
Grudges happen when we avoid that difficult process, and offer no movement toward healing. The hurt lingers.
“No matter what harm has happened in my life,” Bynum continues, “resentment about it is never going to help me; not forgiving is never going to benefit me.”
For those longing to come to a place of forgiveness, Bynum recommends two things. First, we should examine ourselves to identify the harm done to us. Then, we work to change that which we control.
What am I holding onto?
“The first step for me in anything that has to do with resentment or forgiving of others,” Bynum shares, “is to recognize your own physical feeling of discomfort associated with that person or situation.”
He often asks clients to describe the physical sensations in their bodies when they think about the person or situation that harmed them, rather than talking about emotions.
“The words fear, anger, sadness, and others, are symbols that represent or symbolize a physical feeling,” he explains. “My face gets hot. My hands get tense. I get a lump in my throat and a hollow feeling in my stomach or a tightness in my chest. Then I call that combination anger.”
Those sensations are unpleasant, so we avoid stimuli that bring them on. We dodge the person who hurt us. We refuse to think about what happened. We pretend, and say everything is okay when it isn’t.
“People aren’t trying to hold on to their resentments,” Bynum explains. “They are trying to avoid thinking about the things that give them a physical feeling of discomfort.”
Forgiveness, however, requires entering those uncomfortable feelings to arrive at a place of healing on the other side.
What can I control?
When one holds a grudge, “the focus is very much on that other person,” Bynum explains. We want them to apologize, to show remorse, to recognize that they hurt us. Then we will forgive them, we say.
“You can never guarantee that another person is going to offer you all of the things you want so that you’ll be able to forgive them,” Bynum soberly advises. “I can’t make somebody else be forgivable.”
Bynum instead encourages us to turn our focus inward because “the only person who has any control over whether or not I let go of resentment, is me.”
Reconciliation is not necessary for forgiveness to occur. Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.
This may sound like we are letting the other person off the hook. We’re not. Instead, we are choosing to turn our attention toward things we can change in ourselves and letting go of that which we cannot change in the other person.
“There are things I can do to forgive another person that include interacting with that other person,” Bynum explains. “I may be able to go and tell them why I have a resentment against them—what I feel they did wrong and what I’m trying to deal with—and maybe that would be helpful.”
Other times, however, that is not prudent or possible. The perpetrator may be a threat. A parent may no longer be living. The coworker may have moved on to another job.
None of this means we no longer have an opportunity to forgive. “You can have forgiveness without repairing a relationship,” Bynum states.
Forgiveness is about addressing the hurt within, and that work is not dependent upon anyone but us.
You are a beloved child of God
Forgiveness requires a difficult, inward journey, but as people of faith we know God travels with us.
“When we’re in community with God, when the Spirit is at work, there’s no other place to look but inward,” Bynum adds.
It also helps during this tough time, to remember that you are one of God’s beloved children, especially when the harm tempts you to think otherwise.
Letting go of resentment is not easy. The journey can be long and unpleasant. A counselor like Bynum can be a helpful guide along the way.
“It’s very difficult sometimes to do this work,” Bynum concludes. “That’s why it takes a little bit of time.”