The Top Ten Myths of Forgiveness

“The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” 
—James A. Garfield 

Among the many challenges my parents had with our large family was feeding this army on my dad’s modest salary. My mother could have written a bestselling cookbook, 101 Ways to Prepare Bologna. She had to be very creative, but she also had to use cheap substitutes to save money. I was content with instant mashed potatoes. Ice milk was much cheaper than ice cream, and I was happy with the cheap substitute. These knockoffs were all I knew as a kid. 

But then one day I ate real mashed potatoes. And then I tried Häagen-Dazs ice cream. I was no longer content to eat the substitutes. Once you’ve tasted the real thing, there’s no going back to the cheap stuff. 

The same is true with forgiveness. We try to resolve deep wounds with quick fixes and cheap substitutes rather than face the truth that can set us free. We do this by accepting myths, which are easier to believe and follow but keep us enslaved. I’ve worked with hundreds of people over the years, and I’ve noticed myths keep popping up in how they respond to the idea of forgiving, so let’s take a look at the top ten of them, in no particular order. 

Myth 1: Forgiveness Is Not an Issue for Me

I’ve met many people who dismiss forgiveness as something they don’t need or they believe there is nothing new they can learn about such an old concept. At a recent forgiveness session I was leading, a man told me, “I hope your stuff about forgiveness will help some of the people in our church, but this is definitely not something I need.” Interestingly, his wife stood behind him and rolled her eyes in disbelief. He had fallen victim to the myth that states we don’t have this issue—either we think we’ve “forgiven” in the past or we simply don’t think we need to offer it, when that may not be true. In this case, his wife definitely knew he hadn’t forgiven other people. This myth keeps us stuck because we haven’t truly dealt with the deeper issues of what has happened to us. 

Fortunately, after my session the man thanked me for sharing. He realized he had more than one person he was struggling to forgive. That’s what happens when we face the myth, see it for what it is, and work to resolve it. Just as that man realized the truth, he was able to open himself to his need to forgive, which set him free. 

Part of the allure of this myth is that it brings with it a sense of complacency. Complacency keeps us content with the status quo. I like how defines it: “a feeling of quiet pleasure or security, often while unaware of some potential danger.”1 How does a sports team of superior athletes lose to an underdog? How does a business that soars in the beginning become stagnant and eventually close up shop? How does a marriage that once thrived end in misery and divorce? Most of the time, the issue was not a lack of talent, skill, or resources. It is because we have become complacent. I see this all the time from people who are so convinced and confident they are living in total compliance regarding forgiveness that they never seriously consider if this may be an issue for them. Consequently, they can drift for years in emotional mediocrity and never experience life to its fullest because they consider forgiveness irrelevant to their lives. 

We need to combat this myth with truth. And the truth is we may have thought we had forgiven because we once spoke the words, and yet we still find ourselves stuck. But just saying the words and not doing the hard work that comes with that will not set you free. I must confess that after I’d completed writing the first draft of this book, I realized there were two people I needed to seek out to ask for their forgiveness. Even we “experts” can fall for this myth. 

So let me lovingly ask you: Have you truly worked through the difficult process of forgiveness? Is there someone you still need to forgive? Perhaps you’ve hurt someone and you need to seek their forgiveness. My friend, nothing can harden our hearts faster than unforgiveness. And what’s worse is we can feel justified to harden our hearts because of the way we’ve been hurt. As I shared earlier, may God give you an open mind and a soft heart as you walk this journey. 

Myth 2: Forgiveness Is Only for the Benefit of the One Who Hurt Me

I’ve heard the old story about two former prisoners of war who stood silently at the great Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., when one asked, “Have you ever forgiven our captors who kept us in prison for so many years over there?” 

The other veteran replied, “Never! I will never forgive them for what they did to me!” 

His friend put his hand on his shoulder and compassionately replied, “It sounds like they still have you in their prison.” 

If we are the victims of someone else’s abuse, rejection, or exploitation, extending forgiveness to our offender goes against every fiber in our being. It makes no sense to give something so precious to the villains in our story when they’ve already taken so much from us. And the last thing we want at this point is for someone to suggest that the way we’re feeling about the scoundrel who hurt us could be wrong. 

But forgiveness is not about the person who hurt me, it’s more about me. No one grows more, learns more, and benefits more than the one doing the forgiving. When I refuse to forgive, not only do I have to deal with the pain that was inflicted upon me originally, but now I place myself in my own jail cell with bars made of anger and resentment, which makes it even worse. However, I can choose to forgive and set myself free from the pain that would linger in my heart. 

That’s what Steven McDonald discovered about forgiveness. 

In 1986 NYPD officer Steven McDonald was shot three times and left for dead. Though he miraculously survived, he was left paralyzed from the neck down. He and his wife, Patti Ann, had been married for less than a year and she was three months pregnant. Steven became completely helpless for even the most routine of tasks. 

After their son, Conor, was born, Steven realized that harboring unforgiveness was only affecting him—and he didn’t want to be a father who was bitter and angry, so he began to pray that God would change him from the inside. “I wanted to free myself of all the negative, destructive emotions that [the] act of violence had unleashed in me: anger, bitterness, hatred. . . . I needed to free myself of those emotions so I could love my wife and our child and those around us.”2 

This journey included forgiving Shavod Jones, the young man who had shot him and was now in prison. As he worked to forgive, not only did he find freedom, but incredibly, the two became friends and corresponded. “I forgave Shavod because I believe the only thing worse than receiving a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart. Such an attitude would have extended my injury to my soul, hurting my wife, son, and others even more. It’s bad enough that the physical effects are permanent, but at least I can choose to prevent spiritual injury.”3 

Offering forgiveness is for our benefit. Don’t think of it as doing a special courtesy for the bad guy in your story. This is about and for you. 

Myth 3: Time Heals All Wounds

I once worked with a self-sufficient stud of a guy who was as stubborn as they come. He had no problem calling a plumber if a pipe broke or a mechanic if his car broke down, but when it came to his broken heart, he was convinced it would all work out in time. I marveled at how much unnecessary misery he chose to carry in his life simply because he didn’t want to deal with the pain of facing the issue and working toward forgiveness. 

While time is an important component of any healing process, some wounds are so deep that time alone cannot heal them. It takes time to recover from the trauma of verbal, physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual abuse. And yet some people buy into this myth that eventually, if they just wait long enough, the ache will go away on its own and they’ll be free. 

There are no quick fixes or misguided platitudes to hurry the healing process of a genuine victim. But neither should extended inactivity and neglect be confused for healing. 

The truth is that time alone does not heal all wounds. There comes a time when we need to take action to seek the healing. That may be through family, our friends, our church, or professional help. Even reading and applying the principles of this book are progressive steps toward the healing and freedom you need. 

So yes, give it time and don’t rush the process, but at some point we must take responsibility for our pain and resolve it once and for all. The Bible tells us in Ecclesiastes 3:1–8: 

  • There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: 
  • a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, 
  • a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, 
  • a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, 
  • a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, 
  • a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, 
  • a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, 
  • a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. 

Is it now time for you to forgive or to seek someone else’s forgiveness?

Myth 4: I’ll Forgive When They Apologize

Legendary boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier thrilled sports fans for years with their battles in the ring, but Frazier’s greater scars came from the ugly taunts and biting mockery that Ali degraded him with over the years. Ironically Frazier once lent Ali money when he was broke, and he pleaded to have Ali reinstated back into boxing after Ali served time in jail. And many would argue that it was the epic fights with Frazier that made Ali so great. Yet as Ali rose to American sainthood, Frazier lived his final years in obscurity and bitterness. He kept holding out hope for the day that Ali would apologize for the awful names he called him. Although Frazier ultimately forgave Ali, it wasn’t until after years of pain he carried inside. 

Though our forgiveness issues aren’t as public and well reported as Frazier’s, we still cling to that same myth that our offender must repent before we are required to forgive. Anytime we set conditions, we surrender control and become dependent on someone else doing something before we can move on. In essence, we hand over the power to that person. This kind of flawed thinking leaves us stuck indefinitely and can impact other areas and other relationships in our lives. 

The truth is, there are no conditions to forgiveness. If you want true freedom, then you must forgive regardless of your offender’s response. This is the one thing you get to control. You have no control over your offender’s behavior, but you do have total control over how you choose to respond. Don’t wait for something that may never happen. Begin the forgiveness process toward freedom now by your power of choice. 

Myth 5: Forgiveness Should Be about Justice

Oftentimes we don’t want to forgive because we think forgiveness lets people off the hook. But for this myth, I’m not referring to criminal justice. If you or someone you love has been the victim of a violent crime, you have every right to prosecute the alleged offender to the fullest extent of the law. After due process, seeing the guilty brought to justice can help provide peace and closure. In time after your loss, my hope is that forgiveness can provide you freedom. 

When God forgave our sins, He still demanded justice, which is why Jesus died on the cross. The Bible says, “Christ didn’t have any sin. But God made him become sin for us. So we can be made right with God because of what Christ has done for us” (2 Cor. 5:21 nirv). Though God wanted to forgive us, someone still had to pay for our sins so justice could be obtained. Christ’s death on the cross allowed God to extend forgiveness and justice when we believe that Jesus died for our sins. 

Where we go wrong is when we create our own sense of justice and set ourselves up as judge, jury, and executioner. But because of our troubled minds and broken hearts, we are the last person who can administer justice toward someone else. I’ve encountered so many examples of how someone in a family was genuinely hurt, but their sense of justice was to never speak to the other family member again. Still others have broken off a relationship with someone, and they’ll tell everyone else about what happened—except the person who actually hurt them. How is that justice? That’s why it is always best for us to do the loving and let God do the judging. 

And yet it isn’t just not forgiving others because of justice; sometimes we can hold unforgiveness over ourselves for what we’ve done in the past. But the same thing is true: we must forgive ourselves and accept the grace God so willingly offers.

I love the movie The Mission. Set in 1740s Argentina among the Guarani tribe, the movie tells the story of a Spanish Jesuit priest, Father Gabriel, played by Jeremy Irons, who works to convert the native people to Christianity. Among his converts is mercenary and slave trader Rodrigo Mendoza, played by Robert DeNiro. Before his conversion, Mendoza made a good living kidnapping the Guarani people and selling them as slaves. Struggling to accept that he has now been forgiven and unable to forgive himself, Mendoza demands a penance as justice for all his evil deeds. So Father Gabriel forces him to carry an extremely heavy load around his neck up the mountains to face the Guarani tribe that he so wronged. 

Upon his arrival, Mendoza falls to his knees before the chief of the Guarani tribe as the heavy load tied around his neck spills to the ground at his feet. The chief, who is also a convert of Father Gabriel, fiercely looks down in stoned silence at the guilty Mendoza as his tribe looks on. He grabs a knife and holds it to the throat of Mendoza, who fully expects to receive the justice he deserves. Instead, the chief uses the knife to cut the heavy burden tied around Mendoza’s neck to set him free. Realizing what just happened, Mendoza begins to weep tears of joy as the chief and his entire tribe shout in celebration. In this story, they all forgave their way to freedom. 

The truth is, justice has absolutely nothing to do with forgiveness and everything to do with mercy. This is such a big challenge for all of us when every fiber in our being is crying out for justice when we’ve been hurt. Forgiving goes against everything we believe about fairness. If you’re still demanding justice for how you’ve been hurt, is it bringing you the peace and freedom you desire? 

Forgiving our way to freedom means letting go of those things we cannot control, especially our expectation for justice. God did not give us justice when He forgave our sins, and we need to extend this same grace to those who sin against us. This doesn’t mean those who have hurt us by breaking the law should be allowed to escape justice in a court, but when it comes to personally forgiving them, there is a higher court that can handle this better than we ever could. The apostle Paul put it this way: “Leave room for God to show his anger. It is written, ‘I am the God who judges people. I will pay them back,’ (Deuteronomy 32:35) says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19 nirv). 

*Adapted excerpt from chapter 2 of Forgive Your Way to Freedom by Gil Mertz © 2018.
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