Why is it So Hard to Forgive?

“Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea,

until they have something to forgive.”

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity –


Last week, I wrote about the strange cat that found its way into our house and then couldn’t find its way out, even though an open window was less than a foot away. I compared that with the way out of resentment and bitterness: forgiving. The window of forgiveness always stands open, and we can leap out whenever we want. It’s that simple. But, as we know, simple is not the same thing as easy.

When we’ve been wronged, hurt, and offended, our natural first responder is usually Blame. Once we find someone or something to point the finger at, our second responder joins in: Payback. We want to restore the balance. We demand justice or desire revenge. But rarely is our first impulse to forgive, because we humans operate on the principle of reciprocity, and forgiveness does not. So forgiveness and mercy are usually latecomers if they show up at all.

When forgiveness and mercy do show up, tap us on the shoulder, and offer us a way out, we’re inclined to think, “Wait! You want me to simply erase the wrong done to me? I want it remembered. I want someone held accountable. It’s only fair. I want justice. (Or retribution or revenge.) I want everyone to know I’ve been wronged.” We may not admit it, but we often want to validate and maintain our status as the victim. Which means we’re choosing to define ourselves by our wounds.

But think about it. Really? We’d rather nurse the wounds and point the finger than forgive and make a fresh start? We’d rather carry the lead-loaded backpack than walk on, free and unencumbered? Well, yeah, that’s the gist of it. We have this notion that nursing our wound will somehow shake up our offender, that pointing our finger will wither them, that carrying the lead-loaded backpack will weigh them down as well. But it doesn’t work that way, does it? The person who offended us goes her merry way, unwounded, unwithered, unencumbered, and sometimes unaware that we’ve been hurt.

But it’s so easy to cling to offenses and so hard to forgive. Why? I think it’s our built-in sense of balance. Our sense of human dignity has been violated. Our sense of the way things ought to be has been trampled. Our values – literally the things we value – have been disrespected, disregarded, threatened, or damaged. In other words, we’ve been betrayed; our personal world has been thrown out of balance. The natural response is jaw-locking, fist-clenching anger.

That response proves that we have a basic, inborn sense of right and wrong – at least when we’re the ones being mistreated. One of my mentors, Ken Rideout, was a missionary to Southeast Asia for 40 years. He often reminisced about teaching English in Communist China. None of his students were religious, so he was curious about their basic moral beliefs. He asked them, “Is it right for me to steal from you?”

They all answered, “No!”

“Is it right for me to take your wife?” he asked.

“No!” they said.

“Is it right for me to murder you?”

Everyone answered with a resounding no.

They’d had no religious instruction, no Christian teaching. They didn’t even believe in God. But they did understand basic human morality – at least when it applied to how they themselves should be treated.

Strangely, if we flip the coin and ask if it’s right for us to steal from someone else, it becomes a different matter. We hedge. “What do you mean by steal exactly?” We’re able, in all sorts of ways, to justify mistreating others, while being unable or unwilling to justify others’ mistreatment of us (which gives more weight to the importance of the Golden Rule).

Next week: betrayal, justice, forgiveness, and our innate sense of right and wrong.


If you want me to send these posts and any updates to your email, simply sign up on the right.

If you want to me to send you a calming inspirational thought for the week each Sunday morning, you can sign up at Carry the Calm.


Happiness: The Splash or the Undercurrent?


Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.