What is Forgiveness?

  1. Learn What Forgiveness Is – Just like other areas of relationships, we have myths and misunderstandings about forgiveness. We assume we know what it is, but most of us would be hard pressed to define it. Even our religious professionals have difficulty explaining it and rarely teach people how to do it.

  2. Enter the Process – Forgiveness is not an event or a one-time thing. It is a process we enter into without a guaranteed result. Things that unfold over time are much more difficult to grasp and do. Although there are steps to the process, not everyone goes through them the same way or in the same order. Be willing to enter the process.

  3. We Live Forgiveness – Forgiveness is something we live out over time. It isn’t a simple solution or an easy answer. Like physical or psychological growth, it develops slowly. We often get impatient with a process that takes time, as opposed to finding a quick solution.  Truth be told – most of life is like that.

  4. Forgiveness Reflects Our Spirituality – Although connected to religious beliefs of various traditions, forgiveness centers on our attitudes, feelings, and behaviors.  Our ways of living define our spirituality, because they are where the rubber meets the road. The willingness to forgive reflects a positive attitude toward ourselves, others and God.

  5. Forgiveness is Healing – Things that are unfair and hurtful happen to everyone. Forgiveness concerns how we deal with the hurt, anger, fear, and resentment that we feel in response to these universal experiences. These emotional and psychological injuries need healing. Forgiveness is applying healthy spirituality to our injuries so that they can heal without becoming “infected” in various ways.

  6. Forgiveness Involves the Will – People decide to forgive, yet it’s not just a decision. The decision is to actively enter into a process of healing. It takes willingness and an open heart to forgive. Willingness means we stay open to personal growth, open to others, and open to God. The decision to remain open is really a paradox. We have control over whether we will be open, but not what will happen when we are. It is therefore also a decision to let go of what we cannot control. Our will wants control, but the highest act of the will is letting go. Forgiveness is the use of the will to let go of our will for people and things we cannot control. We surrender and accept reality for what it is, rather than what we want it to be.  

  7. Remember What Happened – Nobody “forgets” pain when they are in the midst of it. Imagine going to the emergency room with a deep cut that is oozing blood. The doctor says, “Forget about the pain! It happened in the past.” You’d get another doctor, pronto. Amnesia is not healing. Like physical pain, emotional pain is a message that calls your attention to a wound. Listen to the message and do what it takes to heal the wound. As it heals, the pain lessons. Afterward, the memory still comes up occasionally. But you are no longer a prisoner to the pain. You are free to go on with your life.

  8. Grieve the Wound – Forgiveness is not glossing over our emotional wounds or pretending we don’t have them. That’s denial. Rather, we pay attention to our emotional wounds and care for them. We enter the process of grieving these emotions so that they can heal. Grieving heals us by allowing us to enter our pain, cleanse our wounds, and apply the medicine that helps them heal.

  9. Allow Resentments to Dissolve – Holding onto hurt, anger, resentment, hatred and other negative feelings makes us calloused. Feelings are meant to be fluid and moving, but ongoing negative feelings make us stiff and bitter. Our hearts harden and our thinking becomes rigid. We no longer notice the good side. Living in these calloused feelings increases our pain. Forgiveness dissolves resentments. It is the healing balm that releases our pain, softens our heart, renews our body, and restores emotional responsiveness.

  10. Allow the Pain – Grieving means going in and coming out of the pain – not one or the other. When we know we can get out of it, we don’t have to be so afraid of going into it. We cleanse the wound by experiencing and expressing our feelings in a healthy way. The expression releases them, so we no longer stay stuck in them. This process takes courage, and may need to occur multiple times, but it frees us from the bondage of hardened hearts. Healthy people learn to grieve well.  As a result, we stop negative feelings from poisoning us and infecting our relationships.  

  11. Hold Everyone Accountable – Forgiveness does not mean excusing wrongdoing or erasing responsibility for it. It is not taking others off the hook. All of us are responsible for what we do. We may need restorative justice, like payment for an automobile destroyed in an accident. Making amends might be needed, but we don’t need to wait for an apology or amend to move forward with healing. Forgiveness is possible whether or not we receive an apology or request to forgive someone.

  12. Let Go of Judging – Forgiveness does not mean we compromise or dismiss our values. Rather, we apply the larger principles of compassion and mercy. Mercy does not dismiss the harm done. It grants to the wrongdoer what they did not realize, could not apply, or chose to ignore. We do not judge the intentions of others, nor do we allow others to judge ours. We let go of judging and being judged.

  13. Purify Your Motives – Just because you were hurt does not grant you the right to do the same in return. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Forgiveness is the restoration of justice by healing from it, not inflicting more injustice. Forgiveness is letting go of our intentions to teach the wrong-doer a lesson, get even, or rejoice in their suffering. Forgiveness means we heal from our own bad motives by letting go of them.

  14. Accept that it Happened – As hard as it sounds, forgiveness means letting go of our expectations for others. We no longer need to suffer, or inflict suffering, because others don’t do what we think they should do, even though we may be right. Acceptance heals us not because we condone or approve of what was done, but because we simply admit and accept that it happened. It is a fact that we were hurt by something we never wanted or expected. Acceptance is surrender to the reality that it happened, not that we believe it is right or good. Acceptance is releasing our will for what already happened, so that we no longer have to fight with it inside. It settles our inner conflict.

  15. Forgiveness is Different than Reconciliation – Some relationships may end after certain kinds of offenses, especially when the harm keeps happening, or it is too dangerous to continue. If someone sexually abuses a child, we don’t offer forgiveness and expose the child to it happening again. We keep victims out of harm’s way, and make sure the perpetrator doesn’t hurt someone else. We have every right to protect ourselves by ending damaging relationships. Even if we choose for good reason not to reconcile, we still choose to heal by grieving and forgiving.  

  16. Stay Open to Relationships – Forgiveness is letting go of wanting “justice” in the form of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We no longer believe those who hurt us are indebted to us. We let go the belief that we “deserve” to see the offender punished. We stop focusing on our rights, and operate on what is good and loving for everyone, ourselves included. Instead of closing our hearts out of the fear of being hurt again, forgiveness keeps us open to relationships. Healthy spirituality means we value and do everything possible to have good relationships with others.

  17. Restore Compassion – Bitterness and resentment close us off to others. They make us self-centered, while demanding others be more than human. The reality is, we have hurt others, just as others have hurt us. We have no right to expect others to have compassion for us, if we are unwilling to do the same. We need to be forgiven, just as others need our forgiveness. We grow in empathy and compassion as we realize that we are like others, and they are like us. We are all flawed, and we all need to love and be loved.

  18. Free Yourself to Love More Deeply – Love needs to be our intention and goal in life. Forgiveness purifies our hearts, so we can live a life motivated by love. Love does not wish harm on anyone, and it stands up against anyone being harmed. Love frees us from the fear of being hurt. Love frees us to be fully alive and fully human. Love frees us to become joyful and generous of heart. Love sets us free to live life to the fullest extent possible. Only those that love are truly free.


Duane Nelson

Born and raised in the Minneapolis, Duane is a Marriage and Family Therapist who has made his home in Rochester for the last 25 years. Duane has been married for 33 years to his wife, Cathy. The two met while doing music at the same church in Minneapolis. Duane and Cathy have two adult daughters, and the family love to travel and play cribbage together. Duane plays guitar and percussion, and the couple still make music together. Duane enjoys gardening, cookouts, hiking, reading, downhill skiing, and hanging out with friends. Duane holds three graduate degrees, two mental health licenses, and two major counseling certifications. He has worked professionally for 37 years in addiction treatment, mental health, clinical social work, pastoral counseling, and marriage and family therapy. Duane is widely regarded as an expert in marriage and family therapy. Following his retirement from Mayo Clinic, Duane founded Healthy Relationships Rochester. This innovative organization is based on developing the concept of Relationship Intelligence through teaching and disseminating best-practice relationship education and skill training programs in a variety of non-clinical settings.