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Why forgiveness is essential to every relationship

Most Americans will say that forgiveness is important, but when you have something to forgive, it becomes really difficult to do. The way in which you give and extend forgiveness can really shape a relationship. In this podcast, we explore what forgiveness is and isn't, and take you through the process of dealing with deep hurts.


Transcript

Chris Grace:

Hey, welcome to our podcast on The Art of Relationships. We're your hosts.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I'm Tim Muehlhoff.

Chris Grace:

I'm Chris Grace. We're with the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships. We're here to talk about all things relationships.

Tim Muehlhoff:

In today's episode, we're going to talk about how forgiveness is an essential part of every single relationship. My favorite quote, Chris, from C.S. Lewis is that "Forgiveness is a great idea until you actually have something to forgive."

Chris Grace:

It's extremely humbling when you think about that, because Americans say this, and I'm one of these. In fact, 95 percent of Americans say, "Oh, it's important to forgive," right? They always say that forgiveness is one of the most critical things you can do. However, when you find out how often do you forgive, or is it easy to forgive, they say only about half of Americans will admit that this is something they do regularly.

 

We got this gap somewhere. Forgiveness, as we talk about it today, becomes one of those topics for us that has a whole lot of implications for relationships, doesn't it? We have the way in which you process and deal with deep hurts or deep injury. On the other hand, the way in which you give and extend forgiveness can really shape a relationship.

Tim Muehlhoff:

It's almost two things. One, I can know how to forgive, but lack the motivation to do it. I don't think you deserve it. I think it'd be unfair if I forgave you for this because you've not done your part in acknowledging the hurt. Then, I think if people have the motivation, how do you actually do this in a way that will salvage the relationship and put us on a healthy path towards working on the relationship? It's the mechanics of it, and it's also the motivation of it. We need to address both of those.

Chris Grace:

Yeah. There's an underlying heart issue in a lot of this that we just have a hard time admitting sometimes and dealing with things, deeper emotions like pain, or anger, or resentment. Then, when we turn that against ourselves and we say, "I'm just not simply worthy of receiving or being able to get forgiveness for myself," then, you deal with now issues that come up that can plague relationships.

 

It could be as simple as ... Seven words can actually do this very quickly, and yet they're very hard to speak. We always talk about in a marriage, we say, "Let's practice these seven words." All they are is "I'm sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me." It'd be simple if we could get people just to feel those, mean that, and they could revolutionize a lot of our relationships.

Tim Muehlhoff:

You know what's important, Chris, is all seven of those words are important. If you only skimp and do a couple of them ... I have a friend of mine who's a psychologist. He says, "When I counsel couples, I never let them say, 'I'm sorry.'" Just that, because it could be, "Hey, I'm sorry you don't have a sense of humor. I'm sorry you're so easily offended." I love all seven of those words. "I'm sorry, I was wrong" is incredibly important for forgiveness.

Chris Grace:

Maybe it's even eight words now that I count them. I was wrong. Please forgive me.

Tim Muehlhoff:

We're not math professors, we're not.

Chris Grace:

That's right. When we talk about forgiveness, there's a little bit that involves both the way in which it seems our minds, that is our thoughts, are involved as much as our hearts in this, and then to apply that and actually do something about it. Granting forgiveness to somebody requires us to make a decision. I have to decide, "You know what? I am going to forgive this person."

 

That's almost a thinking process that is started with a deeper heart process that says something like, "There's a lot of anger, and there's a lot of resentment. For me to acknowledge that pain and anger oftentimes requires a lot of work, and a lot of time, and a lot of prayer," for some people. Then, it's that process of then making that decision based on that, and then actually communicating forgiveness, which is what we're talking about, those eight whatever words.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah. I think sometimes people want to get past this so quickly. I think the words that we don't want to give people would be the words, "Oh, it was nothing. Forget about it" if, in fact, it was something to you. If that anger is lingering, if that feelings of hurt is lingering, then the worst thing you can do is look at person and say, "Hey, that wasn't such a big deal. Forget about it. Let's just move on." Latent conflict can be some of the hardest conflict to deal with, the conflict that's below the surface, because we've never directly dealt with it.

Chris Grace:

That's right. It's one of those emotions that underlie a lot of our pain and conflict. Yet to pull it out at times, and to be honest about it, and to share, "This deeply has bothered or this has hurt me," requires a little bit of sophistication in our prayer life, right, and our time. We just can be plagued with even guilt now that we're going through this process without really being able to deal with it.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I hate when Paul writes to the Colossians. He says, "I want you to forgive as Christ has forgiven you." To me, that's thoroughly convicting. If I think at the times when, and I'm going to use a technical phrase here, my nose was out of whack, I'm just mad at you and I don't want to forgive. It could be because I felt like you betrayed me. I shared something with you and you betrayed me. It could be my expectations weren't being met. It could be my justice meter is out of whack.

 

Here I’m saying, "I do not want to forgive you." That's when the Holy Spirit comes and brings up this verse from Colossians saying, "Hey, as much as Christ has forgiven you, you need to forgive." To me, that's a hard issue, and that's really hard. I had these conversations with the Holy Spirit where the Holy Spirit says, "Okay, Tim, when Christ forgave you 2000 years ago, did he leave any sin unforgiven?"

 

It's like, "Well, no." "Okay. Take that forgiveness and give it to your spouse." "Well, she doesn't deserve it." "Okay, go back Calvary. Did you deserve the forgiveness of Christ?" "No." "Okay. Then, you take this forgiveness that you didn't deserve, in a way, to give it to another person." That's what Christian compassion and forgiveness looks like.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, boy, it is challenging. I think that a passage in Colossians 3 can be one of those painful realities that we face, that this is something that we have been forgiven so much. We have been the opportunity to have clean, fresh starts with God that it doesn't matter oftentimes how often even we can be sinned against or we can sin against God. Now, we just clearly want to live a life that is in obedience. We really want to stop this cycle that some of us get involved in, where we find it easier or easier to sin. Of course, we're aiming toward that.

 

Tim, it just feels like at times, to admit some things that we've been hurt, or that we're wrong, or that we've hurt somebody, it's just hard to do. I think for a lot of us, we wish that this could just maybe go away. Let's just stop thinking about it, and it will get better. What you're saying is that just, doesn't it, it just ruins and wrecks things because it's latent, and it gets buried in there.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah. Maybe we should talk about what forgiveness is not, right? Forgiveness is not sweeping it under the carpet. If I say to you, "Okay, I'm going to forgive you for this offense," then we never have to deal with the offense, right? Let's say I need to forgive you for misusing the credit cards, or I forgive for forgetting an anniversary or a birthday, or I forgive for saying something to me that was really harsh and critical." Some of us have the mistaken notion that if I say, "I forgive you," then, we can't address the issue because that's bringing the issue back up.

 

No. When I give forgiveness to you, then we have a conversation about what led to this. I think that's totally legitimate, and it's not fair. Some people misuse this Corrie ten Boom quote, right? I know you've used this before correctly. The quote is, "God will forgive us. He sticks in the deepest ocean, and then He sticks up a sign that says, 'No fishing.'"

 

Some people mistakenly think, "Well, if I spouse forgives me for this issue, then why do we have to talk about it again?" You need to talk about all the precursors that led up to the offense, and let's change some of these so we're not back in that cycle wherein I'm going to have to forgive you again, because it just happened over and over and over.

Chris Grace:

That's right. I think you're right. There's some mistaking notions of what forgiveness is and what it is not. We know forgiveness, for example, is not simply ignoring the injustice. You don't just let someone treat you badly, ignore it, and then gloss over the wrongs. That's never been part of forgiveness. Even that notion of pretending that things are okay. People say, "Oh, I've forgiven you. I'm just going to go on as if it's okay." It's not. It's not having amnesia. It's not just simply forgetting, right? It also doesn't meant that all of a sudden, now, I'm going to trust you.

Tim Muehlhoff:

That's right. That's good.

Chris Grace:

Or that you're even going to, "I'll forgive you and therefore, if I forgive, he'll change or she'll change." It's also not a magic trick. What is forgiveness then? Those are some of the things it's not. It's not ignoring the injustice. It's not glossing over the wrong. It's not pretending things are okay. What is it? What do you say if you had to say, "This is what forgiveness is"? We know it takes effort, right? It takes courageous effort. It takes this almost letting go of a grudge requiring me to exercise a moral muscle that can be hard. It requires empathy.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah. I think forgiveness is a commitment I make to you. Let's say you've offended me which, by the way, has happened. That could be another podcast.

Chris Grace:

I'm sorry. [Crosstalk 00:10:14]

Tim Muehlhoff:

It's my commitment to you. One, I say to you this particular offense that happened, I forgive you for this offense. Then, it's a commitment on my part to not withhold affection towards you, not to punish you indirectly. Third, it's actually a commitment to me that I make with myself to say, "When I start to have bad thoughts about Chris, I'm now dealing with that." It becomes my issue. If I really do grant forgiveness and these bad thoughts come up, I'm now praying through those thoughts and saying, "No, Chris is forgiven."

 

That doesn't mean that you and I can't talk because we obviously work together with the center and with Biola faculty. It'd be crazy not to have a conversation about, "Hey, what led to this that caused this offense to happen?" Forgiving you is a commitment to the present. It's a commitment to the future that I'm going to cultivate good thoughts towards you.

Chris Grace:

I think it's okay to recognize that when you do forgive somebody like this, there are going to be times in which you're still feeling angry. It could come up, right? It is this notion. I think what forgiveness really becomes then is this desire, or understanding, or recognition that I am going to give up the angry feelings that I'm having. You begin to realize, "Okay, hold on. This is now falling back on ... This is something I'm dealing with. This is something that God is going to help me with." It doesn't mean they go right away, right? In other words, it's not erasing the memory. It's healing that and allowing God to come in.

 

Corrie ten Boom has another great quote, right? She said that when she learned from a minister one time, she asked him about the inability to forgive what have happened to her and her family. She said there was a situation that brought up some of these feelings and this person that really hurt her. This minister friend of hers told her, "You know, it's much like pulling on a bell, one of these large bells. As you pull down the rope and the bell swings back and forth. There's loud noises. It just makes you the whole uncomfortableness of the feelings that come up."

 

He says, "If you keep tugging on that, that bell is going to keep ringing. Eventually, when you stop tugging, that bell is going to slow down to eventually where it's going to slow the process and you're going to have less of these feelings." She talked about how relieving and powerful that was to realize, "If I stop tugging on this, eventually, time will heal this. I will be able to begin to recover from of this that I've been struggling."

Tim Muehlhoff:

The ways that we tug on it would be everything from me grabbing my friends and saying, "Hey, can you believe what this person did to me?" That's a yank on the bell. It's also a yank on the bell when I have these internal conversations with myself, where I relive the hurt and I think, "Oh, how could that person do that?" That's reliving it and yanking the bell again.

 

I think what's hard, Chris, is if I say, "I forgive you for something," and then I later want to bring it up not to punish you, but I want to process it. That can feel like I'm sure to you like, "Hey, why are you punishing me again for this? Why are you doing that?" That's where, I think, the trust has been re-established between us. The intimacy that, "Hey, I'm bringing this up not because I haven't forgiven you. I have, but I want to process some of the hurt feelings that tend to linger." That's a pretty sophisticated relationship that can do that.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, it is. I think in close relationships, you underlie something like you have a foundation of trust, you have a foundation of a built history, and there's enough motivation to say, "We are going to make this work. Just come back now to a commitment, right? I'm committed to this relationship. I'm committed to you. Therefore, I'm willing to go through this work with you and to process, because there are some times in which we just need to talk about it."

 

Let's ask this question. When we do have to grant forgiveness, we need to extend it. There are a couple of key things that we need to do. What would you say, or some of those keys, if people are struggling with this, "I know I need to do this." Let's give them some simple steps. What do you think?

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah. I think the first step would be acknowledge our pain and anger. We don't gloss over that. We just talked about that. We don't sweep in underneath the carpet. I think it's totally fine. As I'm about to grant forgiveness, I think it's fine to think not in a vindictive way, that's where the tone is so important. To say, "Chris, it did hurt when you did this." Or I say to my spouse or children, "Hey, when this happened, I want you to know that hurt my feelings."

 

After acknowledging your pain and anger, I think the second thing would be is to be specific about your future expectations, which would be ... In our family, birthdays are important. When you forgot my birthday, it hurts. What can we talk about the future, what is reasonable? Because, again, my feelings might get hurt because I have an unreasonable expectation of what I think celebrating your birthday ought to be.

Chris Grace:

I think if you end with taking those two steps, you're going to go a long way to helping ... Let's say a third step would be I think giving up your rights to get even.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Let's skip that one. Let's skip that one, oh, man.

Chris Grace:

Giving up that right to get even is something that you have to really think. By the way, many of these six steps that were given, one of the ways that we've seen this is from a study that they did with a number of different couples out there. They listed these six. That one was hard because it doesn't mean, by the way, that you can't insist upon being treated better in the future. That's fine. I do expect to be treated better in the future. You could set, as you mentioned, some of those expectations, but you do give up that right.

Tim Muehlhoff:

For me, this is the one that's the hardest for me. Here's my subtext. Here's what my internal dialogue is saying. "If I forgive you for that offense, you got away with it. You got away with it." I think, for me, my justice meter gets out of whack. I think, "No, you need to pay for what you did. " I think that shows that I don't trust that the Holy Spirit's at work and using my forgiveness even to convict the person of sin. For me, number three, is the hardest because I feel like, "Man, you just got away scott-free. I'm holding a whole bunch of hurt emotions and you just walked out the door with my forgiveness." By the way, I'm a Christian, so I have to forgive you eventually. I feel like you just skirted, and walked out the door, and got away with it.

Chris Grace:

Tim, I think you just explained every human conflict that has ever gone on, that has gone on for years and generations, if not longer, generation after generation. It's this feeling like we are going to make things right by getting even, and even maybe getting ahead. I remember one time, my wife made us this great comment. We were out there messing around. I just squirted a little bit of water at her one day. We were actually only engaged.

 

I remember we're out to this cool restaurant and I squirted a little bit of water at her. She looked at me and she said, "I wouldn't do that if I were you." I said, "Oh, okay. You're not that big. I don't think this is going to scare me that much." I made the mistake of doing it a second time. She goes, " I'm just going to tell you, I wouldn't do that again." This just doesn't really scare me all that much. I made the fatal, or it may not be fatal. I made the mistake of doing it a third time. Within probably a half of a second after I did it, I was covered in a whole cup of water in this restaurant that she had just dumped on me.

Tim Muehlhoff:

She took a cup of water.

Chris Grace:

Yeah. No, she's going to say, if she's up around this podcast, that it was one-quarter full. I'm going to say, "Your cup is half-empty." Then, she said these famous words to me. She said, "Chris, I just want you to know, I don't get mad and I don't get even. I get ahead." That shaped a whole lot of our relationship, I'll be honest with you. Of course, we were just teasing.

 

Here's the point. Ultimately, as you deal and navigate these things, that feeling about getting even can be very important. I think a fourth point in helping us to grant forgiveness is to let go of things like the blame, and the resentment, and the negativity. That's, I think, part of even number three. We just simply let go of it. It takes time letting go of blame, and resentment, and negativity. Also, just this notion of number five, which is to communicate your act of forgiveness. You've gone through these steps at some point.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Let me say number five, Chris, that I think people screwed over this one, right? Life and death is in the power of the tongue. If I say to you, "Hey, don't worry about it. Forget about it," that's not communicating forgiveness. I have to read into that. "Well, I assume if we're going to forget about it and move one that you've forgiven me, is that correct?" I think number five is really important to say, "Hey, I want you to know I forgive you for doing this specific act." I think that's important.

 

Then, number six, we work towards reconciliation. When it's safe, right, we have to talk about what is the particular thing that we're forgiving a person for, but we work towards reconciliation. That is a process. It's not a magic phrase. When I say, "You're forgiven," that doesn't mean that the trust has been rebuilt, that the intimacy has been rebuilt. That's a process that takes time.

 

Let me add one to this. It's kind of a test to see if I've really done all of these different steps. I remember reading an article where a guy said, "Let me give you one quick test to see if you've really forgiven a person." That test is, you can pray for blessing towards that person. I got to tell you, there was a situation that happened years ago where a friend of mine was deeply hurt by another person. It wasn't even me, but my justice meter was out of whack.

 

If you were to say to me, "Have you forgiven that person for hurting your friend?" I would have said, "Yes." Then, I read that article. The guy says, "Can you pray a blessing?" Chris, it was immediate. It was like, "No. She doesn't deserve it." I'm back at square one, where God's saying, " Colossians 3, but did you deserve it at Calvary?" Again, that, to me, is a great litmus test. Can I actually pray a blessing over you? Is my heart in that place where I can actually do that?

Chris Grace:

No. Tim, that's really good. It's a powerful gauge, almost a litmus test for us to check our heart. Let's ask this question. That's in the process of granting forgiveness. How about this process of receiving forgiveness? I think this is one of the hardest things that people deal with. That is, I have done something wrong and I know that. In fact, I'm so aware of it that the guilt and the shame is so powerful that I would rather just simply run away. Nobody, not even God can forgive me. Nobody would do it this way. That's hard to do.

 

When we receive or seek forgiveness, there's a couple of steps that we have to take in order to do that. If you're dealing with this, if you're dealing with such an overwhelming amount of guilt, this feeling like, "Yeah, well, 70 times 7, that's about where I'm at. I'm about ready to hit that edge." What would you recommend? How do people process this notion?

Tim Muehlhoff:

I think the first two steps would be, one, I have to admit that I was wrong. Again, I'm not just doing that to make peace. In other words, "Hey, I'm going to admit that I was wrong, and to be honest, I really wasn't that wrong but you obviously got your nose out of whack about this issue." I'm going to admit that I was wrong, but I don't really feel that I was wrong. The first one is to own what you did that you think was an offense. Second, I need to do what we call perspective-taking. I need to try to imagine what my actions did to you. If I forgot an anniversary, or a birthday, or something like that, how must that had made that person feel that I forgot something that's really important?

Chris Grace:

Yeah. That's the beginning steps, right? Then, you'd put into action. You say, "Okay, I'm going to take responsibility for what I've done. I know that this behavior, these things are causing these problems. Sometimes, it even requires making restitution. There might be ways of which I need to go to somebody. Then, if it's to another person, of course, then I just simply assure them that I'm not going to do this again. I want you to know that I may not be perfect," but you make that notion that this is ... That idea very clear in your behavior and actions.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I would change one thing in what you just said, Chris. I would change it maybe to say, "I'm going to really try not to do this again." My intent is, just a little bit, if I look at a person and say, "I just want you to know right now, I'm never going to do this again." Wow, that could set you up. If you do it again, that could be-

Chris Grace:

It's a long 40 years.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Then, I think, another 10 years, you apologize and ask for forgiveness. "I'm sorry. I was wrong. Would you please forgive me?" With that step, I would allow the person time to process. In other words, as Christians, sometimes we play this forgiveness tag game. Like, "Okay, I'm asking for forgiveness. You're a Christian tag. You have to forgive me. We both know that. Now, it's on you, and you just get back to me when you're godly and you're ready to forgive me." You got to allow a person time if they're just not ready to bestow forgiveness.

Chris Grace:

The other part to this, Tim, is that process of then it becomes forgiving yourself, right? That notion that going ahead, and saying at that point, and not holding this against the way in which we feel this and deal with this. In Luke 17:11, there's a process we'll talk about in a minute. What are you thinking about that notion of forgiving yourself?

Tim Muehlhoff:

I want to give to you a hypothetical situation. My wife and I speak at marriage conferences. We get hit with this one all the time. I don't know if I have a great answer to it, so I'd love to get your thoughts. What happens when you have a situation where one spouse feels offended, and absolutely feels like, "You owe me an apology." The other spouse honestly doesn't feel like I did anything wrong. What am I going to apologize for?

 

That's where we can into that pseudo-apology we mentioned at the beginning of the podcast, where I can actually say to you, "Okay, I'm sorry your feelings were hurt." Subtext, "They shouldn't have been. I'm sorry they were, but what did I do?" Sometimes, people get stuck in that trench warfare where I'm expecting an apology and I'm saying, "Apologize for what?" How do you break that stalemate?

Chris Grace:

There's two things that come to mind for me. I would say we'd put into practice Philippians 2, 3, and 4, right? It says, "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit." I'm going to challenge myself. If I'm in that situation, I just don't simply feel that or see it the same way. There is something I'm going to be committed to. It's like, "Okay, hold on here. I might be missing something in the way I'm feeling, so help me. Help me understand because I want ... They're obviously feeling something very hard and painful that maybe I've done that I just don't feel that."

 

I think you start with that. Maybe another prayer, one that I'd challenge myself to try and do this in Psalm 139, where the Psalm says, "Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way." You ask God to search your thoughts, see if there's these anxious things that are going on, and anything that's hurtful that could be pretty revealing. That's just a posture that we take of saying, "Okay, God, I might be missing something. I don't feel this the same way, but search me, and know me, and help me to see this from their perspective."

Tim Muehlhoff:

Let me push that even further. Let's say I actually do that. I [inaudible 00:26:22] Psalm 139, and before the Lord, honest to goodness, I do that. I say, "Lord, search my heart." In this particular instance between me and my spouse, I come back and say, "My heart's good. I did not intend that." Maybe that's what you say to your spouse. "I didn't intend to hurt you. I didn't. You're one of the most important people to me. Honestly, if I'm hurting you directly or indirectly, then I need to address that. I need to take a look at that." That's the kind of posture, I think, you're advocating.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, I think that's what it is. There may just simply be a time in which those eventually become to feel that together. Sometimes, it's just a commitment and decision for the sake of the relationship. "I'm going to try and live in this and figure it out, and be there. Mostly, it's my attitude towards you is that I love you. I'm committed to you. I'm going to make this work." It's that general way in which we run relationships.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Hey, let's close out. You have a great thought about Luke 17 with Jesus and the lepers that I've heard you say before.

Chris Grace:

Yeah. I think it's this connection that we have between feeling thankful and grateful in forgiveness. There's a powerful little story that many of us know or are familiar with in Luke 17, where Jesus cleanses the 10 lepers. Then, what happens next is fascinating. Only one of them returns, the gentile returned and praised God. Jesus said this. He said, of course, "Go to the 10 lepers," and they were healed physically, right? All of a sudden, they became clean. When the gentile returned and praised God, Jesus said, "Your faith has made you well."

 

That is a powerful notion that there is something else about being made well beyond even physical healing. That is this almost spiritual healing, this sense of recognizing that God is there. We do that in gratitude. We do that when we express thanks to our God, or we approach it with a posture, " God, thank you so much because you have made this possible for me to live this way." That connection could be very deep and very powerful.

Tim Muehlhoff:

That's why we're going to have a whole podcast on gratitude. One of the hottest research topics in the field of communication and psychology is this whole idea of gratitude and happiness. There's a ton of New York Times best-selling books that are out there today. I think it'd be fascinating to take a look at gratitude in and of itself.

Chris Grace:

Hey, we're out of time for today. We're really glad you joined us on this podcast. It was awesome to be here. Thanks again. If you want more information, check us out at cmr.biola.edu.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I'm Tim Muehlhoff, and we'll see you next time on The Art of Relationships.

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