Home for the Holidays: 4 Steps to Forgiving the Unforgivable

Forgiving often seems impossible. We get badly hurt in life. Family may feel like an intimate enemy. Going home feels upsetting and hopeless.

My mother used to say, “There are some things that simply can never be forgiven.”  Mom was wrong—but I didn’t realize how wrong until I was past middle age.

By the time we’re 30, we all know the down sides of adulthood: addiction, debt, infidelity, abandonment, just to name a few. And beyond these are the unspeakables such as genocide and rape. Our lives get ruined. People die. How can we forgive that?

Jesus’s command to forgive feels so unrealistic: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.” (Luke 17:3)  Do we just close our eyes, grit our teeth and somehow obey? “Just do it” doesn’t work, no matter how hard we try.

And what about forgiving ourselves? Can we ever forgive ourselves for the things we regret? We hear that God forgives us—but can we ever love ourselves enough to forgive and be forgiven? 

Is such forgiving even possible?

I would like to share with you two simple truths: there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness,” says Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the great Christian scholar in his book, The Book of Forgiving  (page 3).  

This is amazing.

If Tutu says it can be done, we can trust him. After all, he worked in South Africa to help people heal from genocide, racism and unspeakable violence, and he won the Nobel Peace prize.  

But even if we accept that it’s possible in some pie-in-the-sky world, how do we do it? Can an ordinary person ever do it? And should we do it? What about the pain that was caused? Does forgiving mean that was okay?

Tutu’s book changed my life. He showed me how to touch my very worst wounds, the things it seemed would never heal, and instead find a way to love others and love myself. I used his process and changed my life. The things that used to hurt just don’t any more. 

This is the healing we all deserve. This is the Divine plan.

But Tutu says it’s not easy or automatic. There is a process that must be followed. He’s not talking about blind obedience to God. He’s talking about deep healing for ourselves and for the world. When we forgive, we become free, he says. We do it for ourselves, to heal as the Divine wants us to heal. He says this:

Forgiveness is not dependent on the acts of others. Yes, it is certainly easier to offer forgiveness when the perpetrator expresses remorse and offers some sort of reparation or restitution. Then you can feel as if you have been paid back in some way….In this understanding, forgiveness is something we offer to another, a gift we bestow on someone, but it is a gift with strings attached.

The problem is that the strings we attach to the gift of forgiveness become the chains that bind us to the person who harmed us. Those are the chains to which the perpetrator holds the key. We may set the conditions for granting our forgiveness, but the person who harmed us decides whether or not the conditions are too onerous to fulfill. We continue to be that person’s victim. (p. 20)

Instead Tutu talks about unconditional forgiveness. He says this:

Unconditional forgiveness is a different model of forgiveness than the gift with strings. This is forgiveness as grace, a free gift freely given….When you forgive, you slip the yoke, and your future is unshackled from your past. (p. 21)

When we forgive, we become the heroes instead of the victims in our own life stories. We change our own life story and discover that healing and freedom are possible—but we must choose them.

Doesn’t that mean that the wounding was okay? Tutu says not at all.

Forgiveness is not some airy-fairy thing. It has to do with the real world. Healing and reconciliation are not magic spells. They do not erase the reality of an injury. To forgive is not to pretend that what happened did not happen. Healing does not draw a veil over the hurt. Rather, healing and reconciliation demand an honest reckoning….Behavior that is hurtful, shameful, abusive or demeaning must be brought into the fierce light of truth. And truth can be brutal. In fact, truth may exacerbate the hurt; it might make things worse. But if we want real forgiveness and real healing, we must face the real injury. (p. 24)

Tutu gently leads us through the steps we need:
  1. Telling the story;
  2. Naming the hurt;
  3. Granting forgiveness;
  4. Renewing or releasing the relationship.

He sorts through the worst, most hateful injuries. He walks with us through confusion and feelings of unworthiness. In every chapter he offers wonderful rituals, meditations, prayers and journal writing to help people do the real work of forgiving. He says, “Peace is built with small and large acts of forgiveness.” (page 59)  The Christian meditation techniques in his book help us open to the Divine and grow closer in love.

So this time, when we go home for the holidays, when we feel the ancient wounds again, we finally have a choice. We don’t sweep everything under the carpet or stay locked in our anger.

Instead we have a healing process that works. It doesn’t matter if those who hurt us keep thinking that nothing wrong happened. Even then, we can choose peace and wholeness. Tutu tells us how to do this.

We choose to become the heroes of our own stories. And we choose this for ourselves, for our own healing and for the healing of the world. We set ourselves free. That’s how love comes again and again into the world.

Let’s end with one of Tutu’s poems:

I will forgive you

The words are so small

But there is a universe hidden in them

When I forgive you

All those cords of resentment, pain and sadness that had wrapped

Themselves around my heart will be gone

When I forgive you

You will no longer define me

You measured me and assessed me and

decided that you could hurt me

I didn’t count

But I will forgive you

Because I do count

I do matter

I am bigger than the image you have of me

I am stronger

I am more beautiful

And I am infinitely more precious than you thought me

I will forgive you

My forgiveness is not a gift that I am giving to you

When I forgive you

My forgiveness will be a gift that gives itself to me

(p. 26)


Click here to buy Tutu’s book