“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

It’s a command that’s familiar to Christians. Immediately after Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer, he stressed the importance of forgiveness. And while the Lord calls us to do many things in our lives, none may be as difficult as forgiving those who we believe have done us wrong in small and large ways. Counselors and ministers often see families and relationships shatter because of past hurts that haven’t been forgiven. In most cases, before any kind of a relationship can be repaired … whether it’s a marriage, a parent and child, or a friendship … some forgiveness is needed.

But forgiveness is a tricky thing. We like to think of it as something instant, in which we utter the phrase “I forgive you,” and the hurts and distrust instantly evaporate. We hope that we speak those words, we erase the bad feelings we hold so deeply. And when that doesn’t happen, we assume there’s something wrong with us.

Forgiveness is special, but it’s not instant, and words alone won’t accomplish it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Being able to forgive can free us from the bonds of past slights and acts. It can be the first step in building bridges back to those we once held close. It’s one of the most powerful tools for helping ourselves and those around us begin to heal.

Effective forgiveness involves a process, one we think the evidence-based Prepare/Enrich curriculum captures especially well. It’s what we use when helping people learn how to forgive others. Prepare/Enrich says you need to follow several steps when seeking forgiveness, and several others before you can grant it.

To seek forgiveness, you have to begin with an admission that you did or said something that was wrong and hurt the other person, and recognize the pain your actions created. Next, you must accept responsibility for your actions and assure the other person it won’t happen again. Then you may ask for forgiveness, but your work isn’t done. Once that person grants you forgiveness, you must forgive yourself. After all, you’re human and we all make mistakes. By forgiving yourself, you’re less likely to dwell on what you did or do it again.

How can you grant forgiveness to others? To start, you need to admit to the extent of pain or anger what they did caused, and create boundaries so you won’t expose yourself to the same kind of hurt in the future. A key step is saying you have no right to “get even,” because revenge only makes the situation worse. You need to stop blaming the other for what they did and yourself for letting it happen. Only then (and only if it’s safe) can you communicate forgiveness and work toward reconciliation.

Forgiveness is never easy, and if it’s something you’re not sure you can accomplish without help, a professional counselor can guide and support you through the steps. Why not make an appointment with one of our professional counselors to talk about your goals and what we can do to help you find the ability to forgive or be forgiven? It could be the first step toward achieving the freedom of genuine forgiveness.

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