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March 21, 2024

Let It Burn: The Four Stages of True Forgiveness

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Over the last month, I heard two people tell old stories of deep betrayal. One person was betrayed by a friend and the result was that they lost all of their money—literally all of it. The other story of betrayal was marital. Their partner had betrayed them by having an affair with a friend and breaking all of their relational agreements. There was deep wounding in both cases. Both were opportunities for forgiveness. One person had clearly forgiven and was free. The other was still trapped in resentment and bitterness. 

I learn so much about where a person is today based on their stories about yesterday. They perceive the past through the lens of their current state of consciousness. Where they forgive—and where they don’t—determines how they see and speak about the past.

I have a complicated relationship to the word “forgive” and the act of forgiveness. My worldview for the first half of my life was that of a Christian; a Protestant, evangelical Christian. I believed that forgiveness was something I needed to seek from God and offer to those who wronged me. Over the years I have changed my understanding and experience of Christianity, God, wronging, and being wronged. As a result I’ve changed my view of forgiveness. 

Now I’m exploring: What does forgiveness look like when we take 100% responsibility; end blame and criticism; and see how the opposite of our story could be as true or truer than our story? 

Forgiveness below the line

I used to view forgiveness from below the line. Now I have an above the line view of forgiveness. Forgiveness from below the line occurs in the drama triangle where there are victims, villains and heroes. It is often a hero move, where people who view themselves as “at the effect of another person” choose to relieve their bad feeling (or have pity on another) by “forgiving” the offender. Such forgiveness requires an offense, an offender, and an offended view of the situation. 

From below the line, there’s someone in your past who wronged you. As you tell your story it’s clear that you’re holding on to the wrong, to the injustice, to the wound, the pain, the bitterness and resentment. You have not forgiven. 

Of course this is one way to view and experience life. It’s natural and normal. I’m not making this way wrong or bad. I’m only suggesting that there is another option. 

Forgiveness above the line

Forgiveness from above the line is a very different thing. 

Let’s begin by defining forgiveness. The Greek word for “forgive” is aphiemi, which means “to let go or release.” When we forgive from above the line we are letting go of our attachment to being right that we were wronged. And we are releasing our energetic blockages to full aliveness: the compulsion to get approval, control, security, and oneness from outside. 

The Four Stages of Above-The-Line Forgiveness

Forgiveness has four stages: hate, hurt, heal, come together. (This model was inspired by Louis Smedes’ book, “Forgive and Forget.”  I’ve reordered Smedes’ words, and I’ve changed my understanding of what each phase of the process means.)

Stage 1: Hate

Do you have an immediate reaction to the word hate? I get it. 

Hating is an important and often necessary stage of forgiveness. 

The common definition of hate is “to have an intense or passionate dislike of a person or situation.” In order to forgive you have to give yourself time to have an intense and passionate reaction to the person and what has occurred. This often looks like anger. 

The first mistake people make in the forgiveness process is not giving themselves time and space to be angry.

I’m talking about anger as a set of sensations stored and stuck in the body. When you skip over expressing anger—when you don’t release and let go— genuine forgiveness is impossible. 

In order to forgive there is a time when we reject and turn away from another. This could be for just a moment or much longer. 

Think of someone who wronged you, something they did or didn’t do that they should have.  I suggest you start with a smaller offense. There’s big  “T” trauma and little “t” trauma. Some of us have big T Trauma; all of us have little t trauma. Little t is just part of being human and being in relationship with other humans. 

For this practice, I recommend working with little “t” trauma. Let the offense and the offender come into your consciousness. See the person and the situation. Let it play in your mind like a movie. As the movie plays, feel the experience in your heart and body. You might feel fear as the movie plays. Check and see if there is anger, some desire to say to the offender, “Stop.” 

This anger is the first stage of forgiveness.

Your anger may be intense. It can include resentment and even hatred. Don’t resist or judge this. Just let it come. Feel it in your body. Let it burn.

You will likely resist feeling the fullness of the anger, resentment, hatred. You’ll have a voice that says, “You can’t turn away from ______”  (your parents, siblings, grandparents, old friends, bosses and teammates, etc.). A scared part believes you need to stay connected and attached in order to be safe and loved. It won’t let the wounded part of you have its full experience and real forgiveness won’t be possible. 

In the story of the two betrayed people above, the first spent a season hating the offender.They let it consume them for a time. They stayed connected to their body and let their body show them the way. They had fully completed the first step of forgiveness.

The second person was stuck partway in hatred. There was no doubt they were angry and bitter, even hating. But they hadn’t done the work of staying in their body and letting the anger burn itself out. They stayed in bitterness and resentment and continued to chew on their righteous beliefs like a cow chewing its cud. They would bring it up from time to time, chew on it, and then push it back down. 

They did this partially because they did not want to go to stage two of forgiveness.

Stage 2: Hurt

It’s an act of courage to  feel the deep, deep hurt, the heartbreak of forgiveness. When you believe you’ve been wronged there will be both anger and hurt. For many of us it’s much easier to stay in the anger, which calcifies into bitterness, than it is to feel the vulnerability of hurt. 

There is no path to forgiveness that doesn’t take us through the dark woods of a broken heart.

Once you have let the hatred have you, literally burn itself out, what arises next is an ouch. That’s a good starting place for the second step of forgiveness. Let yourself say “ouch.” 

“Ouch Mom. It hurts that you couldn’t/wouldn’t/didn’t ever see me the way I needed you to see me.”

“Ouch Dad, it hurts so bad to think about the rage in your face as you struck me.”

“Ouch. When I think about how you were always too busy to be with me it hurts.”

“Ouch. It hurts that you chose not to believe me when I was telling you the truth about what happened.”

“Ouch. My heart aches when I think about how you lied to me about where you were that Saturday night.” 

On and on the ouches go. 

Being human is having ouches. Forgiving is feeling them

I mean feeling them in the body. For most this will be the feeling of a physical broken heart. It will be pain, an ache, an emptiness in the center of your chest. It will often be accompanied by tears, even sobbing. 

To forgive, to be fully released and free, requires that we go all the way into the hurt, ache, and emptiness. 

Feeling hurt fully doesn't require you to live in the pain for years, months, or even weeks. For most of us the pain of a broken heart—the physical pain—will pass through in a much shorter period. It might come through in waves with troughs of calm in between another wave of pain. But it will pass. No heartbreak lasts forever if you’re willing to do the deep work of forgiveness. 

The person above who had fully forgiven had let their heart be fully broken. 

The other person was stuck in bitterness and hatred because they were unwilling to feel their hurt, their heartbreak. For many of us it’s much easier and more comfortable to feel hatred and anger and to stay entrenched in bitterness than it is to feel the vulnerable pain of heartbreak. 

But it’s only when you allow your heart to break that you can pass to the third stage of forgiveness.

Stage 3: Heal

Hating and hurting are letting the body have its full experience. Healing is about seeing. Seeing REALITY clearly. Not reality with a small “r,” but Reality with a capital “R.” Reality with a small “r” is how our ego identity sees the world. It is reality with myself, and myself alone, at the center of the universe. This reality is very small and limited. Reality with a capital “R” sees that something else is going on. Something that my small self can never see. 

A story from the bible illustrates the choice to see this reality: 

Fueled by their jealousy that Joseph was their father’s favorite son, his brothers throw Joseph down a well, leaving him for dead. They return his coat of many colors bloodstained to their father, announcing Joseph’s death.

But he isn’t dead. He is sold into slavery in Egypt. After time he rises to be second in command in all of Egypt. When a famine devastates the land, Joseph’s brothers go to Egypt to seek food. In the climactic moment of the story, they appear before Joseph. Terrified that he will hold a grudge and not forgive them for their betrayal, they ask to become his slaves. Joseph answers their request by saying, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good so that a day would come like this where I would be in a position like this.”

Joseph is seeing Reality. He is not looking at life from a small self who is at the center of the universe holding a grudge for wrongs done to him. Rather, he is seeing a much bigger picture. He is seeing that something else is going on. Something is working in and through the betrayal to create the possibility of something greater. Something that is only possible because of the offense. 

Healing occurs when we can flip our beliefs about reality. 

It occurs when we can see that the opposite of our story of wounding could be equally true. That what someone else meant for harm—or we perceived as harm—could actually be for good.  

It was deeply moving to hear the man who lost all his money  recount specific things he learned and became as a result of life occurring just as it did. He had chosen to heal and to see Reality: that it was all  intended for his good and the good of the collective. 

The other person could not see Reality. He could only see his reality. That what happened happened to him and it was bad on all accounts. He could not release and let go. He was trapped in the prison of his small-self reality. 

Healing occurs when we can see others from a perspective of compassion and empathy. They did what they did because at a very deep level they are ignorant. They simply didn’t know what they were doing. In my experience almost everyone who wounds, hurts or betrays another carries in them the scars of their ignorance. This can be in the form of guilt but is often more in an overall lack of aliveness and freedom. When we choose to heal we actually desire for them to be healed and set free from their ignorance. This desire is potentially healing to them and deeply healing to us.

Jesus modeled this when during his last moments of great suffering and betrayal he prayed for his tormentors, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.” He saw them as ignorant and asked that they be released from their suffering and alienation. He saw the big picture, Reality. 

Again, I want to stress that this act of seeing a bigger picture of Reality can only come after you have hated and hurt. Healing comes by seeing that all of your life is working together for your own freedom and something bigger than you. Only then are you able to see with compassion the other and to desire for them to be set free, released from anything they need to be released from around the wounding incident. 

It was beautiful to hear the person talk about the friend who stole and embezzled all his money with such open-hearted love. With tears in his eyes he wanted his old friend and betrayer to be free, released from any shackles he was in because of how he had acted. 

From this place, the man I listened to was available to the fourth stage in forgiveness. 

Stage 4: Come Together

What I have noticed in my own life and in coaching many others is that we are all still in relationship with those who have hurt us, whether we are with them physically or not. The mention of their name or the memory of a time we spent together or a place, a song, a smell brings us back into relationship with them and the offense all over again. We are always with them but never “coming together.” 

When I say “coming together,” I don’t mean physically coming together, spending time with them or relating to them in the physical world. It can mean that, and sometimes it does, but it begins first by coming together in another way.

Only after you have hated, hurt, and healed can you choose to come together from above the line. 

Without doing the first three steps, you can be together with the ones who have hurt you, but you won’t be free to see them, love them, and forgive them. You’ll still be trapped in the past. 

After we do the deep work of forgiveness we are able to come together. We have released them, the situation, and ourselves. We have set them free and we are set free so we can remember them and have only well wishes for them. Only love. Because what we experience as we walk the spiritual path of forgiveness is what sages have always pointed at: That, in fact, there is only love. 

We might also choose to re-enter a relationship and we might choose not to. We are free to do either from presence, from love, above the line. But only after we have done the hating, hurting and healing. 

I asked the person who had been betrayed by his friend if he sees the person who stole from him. He said he had seen him only once since the incident. They had coffee together. He wasn’t at all opposed to seeing him but the paths of their lives had gone different directions. It was beautiful to hear him say, with genuine open-hearted love and gratitude, that he would be glad to see him again, anytime, anywhere. He has only love for him.

Forgiveness was complete.

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