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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Forgiving Can't Heal You

I know. I know. I know. I felt the shock waves reverberate across my Facebook landscape. The title of this blog is almost blasphemy. I get it. I just need you to hear me out on this one.

First, pour yourself a cup of coffee. This may take a couple reads to fully grasp what I am saying. We have knee jerk reactions to the concept of forgiveness that are deeply embedded in our thinking. I may not be saying what you think I am saying. You may think I don’t believe forgiveness is important—that is not true.

When I was working on my dissertation, I had to define my terms. That was incredibly difficult since those who came before me had defined many of the terms I used in various ways. That was why defining terms was so important and why I have to begin by laying the groundwork for what I have come to believe so strongly: Forgiving Can’t Heal You.

Some define forgiving as a choice. They say, “Choose to forgive and eventually you will feel it.” I say, you haven’t forgiven until you feel it. Therefore all those days you chose to forgive didn’t actually count as forgiving—all you did was make a cognitive choice to SAY you had forgiven. Due to the fact that the feeling does eventually come alongside the choice, many believe that it was the mere choosing to forgive day after day that caused (resulted in) the forgiveness. That is a Psych 101 principle—just because two things correlate doesn’t mean one causes the other.

Then I hear, “Didn’t Jesus say we should forgive 70 x 7?” Well, he was the master of psychology and he knew it wasn’t going to feel like forgiving for a very long time. He could have talked to them about correlation and causation, but that might have had a worse effect than saying he was the Son of God. (Hear the crowd scream, “He truly is mad!”) All he could do is say, “It is going to take a long time.” (We understand that is what he was saying right? He didn’t literally want us to count the number of times we tried to forgive, right?)

So, if you have something really, really bad happen to you (like sexual abuse) and you believe you need to forgive in order to heal, you say it in your head, but there is absolutely no way you feel it. If you think you are supposed to feel it (maybe because you think that would be more spiritual), then, you have no choice but to suppress your feelings. You can do that. Ask me. I know. It feels like forgiving because it isn’t gnawing at you any longer, but it isn’t true forgiving. Repression and suppression are survival coping skills and they work—but they do not heal.

I asked Siri to define forgiveness and she said, “The action or process of forgiving (or being forgiven).” Right there I have a problem. Is it an action or a process? What does an action of forgiving look like? Do I go hug them and say, “You are forgiven?” That is not something someone who has suffered sexual abuse should EVER be asked to do. Never. If that is true in the case of abuse, (and I think every reader agrees at some level), where is the line between ‘this calls for a hug and this does not?’ You will drive yourself over the edge trying to figure that one out. It is better to use the other description—forgiving is a process. Isn’t that what Jesus was really saying?

Yes, forgiving is a process, but it is not our continual decision to choose to forgive that causes forgiving to finally happen. It just seems like it because we are convinced it is our effort that brings the result we desired. The truth of the matter is forgiving is the result of healing. Healing is not the result of forgiving. Some people never forgive because they never heal. Some never heal because they need help and for one reason or another, help is not accessible. It may be because they choose not to get help.

Therapists who work with victims of sexual abuse do not ask clients to forgive. (Maybe there is one out there but I would tell them not to do that!) The purpose of therapy is healing and healing takes time. When Jesus healed the blind and lame, it was instantaneous, but when he was asked about forgiving he said it would take time. In the case of trauma, the pain lives inside of us for a lifetime. Unless healed, it is truly necessary to choose ‘forgiving’ every single day. You can choose and say you have forgiven, but the feeling of ‘not forgiving’ never goes away until healed.

This is my point: You haven’t actually forgiven until the ‘not forgiving’ FEELING goes away. Forgiving is a feeling not a choice. You can try to say “I am healed,” but if it isn’t true, it just isn’t true. It is like recovering from a really nasty bout with the flu. One day, you do feel somewhat better so you decide you are well. It only takes one lap around the bed to realize you cannot ‘will’ yourself to be well—or forgive.

Healing and forgiving take time. I spent a lifetime forgiving and still feeling I hadn’t. Then I healed and one day I woke up and realized I didn’t need to try to forgive anymore. Wrong was wrong. I wasn’t going to go give hugs, but what happened didn’t cause the ‘not forgiving’ feelings. The feeling of ‘not forgiving’ was gone. I had forgiven. Now when I get a sense that there is something more to forgive, my immediate ‘go to’ is healing—not cognitively deciding to forgive.

Forgiving cannot heal you. Healing heals you. When you get into a car wreck and break a leg, forgiving the other negligent driver never heals your leg. You can’t leave the operating table and say, “I am healed because I have forgiven the driver!” You can’t even feel forgiveness until the leg is healed. It is absolutely natural to be angry with the driver when the leg hurts. When the leg heals, you can move past the anger and feel forgiveness. We understand physical healing, but inner healing seems different. It really isn’t. The principle is the same. Once the pain stops and it feels like forgiveness, it is. At that point, the wrong can be acknowledged, but it no longer controls you and requires continual forgiving. The result of healing is forgiving. Forgiving can’t heal you, but healing sure can help you forgive!

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