Refusing to forgive someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die, says pastor, counsellor and radio broadcaster Aaron Ironside. Mr Ironside was one of three keynote speakers at the 13th national Catholic marriage educators training weekend from May 20 to 22 at the Waipuna Lodge in Auckland.

Mr Ironside told the 120-plus delegates that he is the pastor of Harvest Church in west Auckland, he used to broadcast on secular radio and now works for Radio Rhema, and he is a counsellor.

There are many myths about forgiveness, Mr Ironside said, including:

You have to get over the feeling of hurt before you can forgive. 

However, he said, it’s holding onto the hurt that makes it harder to forgive.

You should not have to forgive the same thing over and over. 

“The words of Jesus should be going in our ears now,” he said.

You can’t forgive unless the other person is sorry. 

“Now it certainly helps if the other person is sorry . . . but it’s not critical that the other person apologises for forgiveness to occur.” If that was true, he said, then it would mean we couldn’t forgive someone who had died. Also, forgiveness may open up the opportunity for the person who’s offended you to say sorry.

When you forgive, you are telling the person that what they did is okay. 

If that was true, Mr Ironside said, the person who had been abused would never be able to offer forgiveness, because it would be never okay.

You should only forgive people you only want to stay friends with. 

So then we decide something is unforgiveable, and the relationship is over! In addition, forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same. “We won’t ask the victim of a rapist to forgive her rapist and now she’s going to be friends with him.”

Forgiveness makes you look weak. 

In his family, he said, he and his wife, Debbie, had taught their children to say “I am sorry”, and “I forgive you”.

Once you forgive friends, they will assume they can hurt you again. 

“Forgiveness doesn’t mean, ‘Please do it again to me’.”

Forgiveness gets easier each time you do it. 

It turns out, though, it’s going to be a struggle each time. But, hopefully, what does get easier, is more easily getting to the point of doing what we need to do.

Forgiveness only comes with time. 

Tell that to people with longstanding grudges.

You are either a forgiving person, or you are not. 

“I don’t think there are only forgiving people,” Mr Ironside said. “In fact, I think some of the people we think are forgiving turn out to be doormats.”

Forgiveness means I have to trust them again. 

No, but it does create a pathway for trust to be re-established. “Forgiveness means trust has been broken and trust will have to be repaired.”

If I forgive, it might happen to me again. 

There are no guarantees in life. “It’s a reality of relationships that at any point we might need to forgive again.” However, this also turns out to be a misrepresentation of Bible verses, said Mr Ironside.

We think the Bible says, “God forgets my sins”, so I should forget the sins of others.

“But the Bible doesn’t say that. It says ‘He remembers all sins no more’, and that’s a very important distinction. . . . To remember no more is different from forgetting.”

If I forgive, I will have to reconcile. 

Not necessarily. Forgiveness and reconciliation are different.

If I forgive, I might be angry again. 

It’s never going to be a good story but, in forgiving, the hurt comes to lose power.

Forgiveness is always easy. 

“We are learning that’s not true.”

In the New Zealand court system there’s a concept called the Victim Impact
Statement, “and some statements are angry, some are moving, some are forgiving.

Very often, although not always, it’s a person of faith who will offer forgiveness.”

If they don’t repent, I should withhold forgiveness. 

Unfortunately, said Mr Ironside, that stalemate goes on and on and on, and the victims are those who still hurt.

I forgive because I am a Christian. 

One of his favourite phrases in his church, he said, is: “A relationship with Jesus is not a life skill. I can’t just say, ‘I follow Jesus; I forgive you’.”

Some things are too big to forgive. 

“Yes, there are things that cause incredible pain . . . but whether it’s something small or whether it’s something big, unforgiveness is not about the size of the crime, but the state of the heart of the person who has offended.”

A problem with unforgiveness is that it is unrequited revenge, said Mr Ironside. “You hurt me, now I am going to hurt you.”

God sees the situation in ways we cannot, because we are hurt, so we don’t want justice, even though we use the terms of justice.

“It turns out forgiveness is for me, and that’s a hard mindset change for many of us.” People who have forgiven have set themselves free, and because they have set themselves free they are fully available for reconciliation.

We do know that forgiving doesn’t erase a bitter past. Instead, though, forgiving what we can’t forget creates a new way to remember. “We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.”

How can we practise forgiveness?

Empathy can give us a new perspective, and forgiveness comes more easily. We can come to realise that the offender has a story of his or her own.

Judgment is never the pathway to reconciliation.

Why do you think he or she behaved that way? What elements could have contributed to this situation? Is he or she going through something that’s stressful? Did he or she grow up in an abusive household?

“Try not to take things personally. What people say about you is a reflection of them, not you,” said Mr Ironside.

When he remembers his failings, he needs to give himself some empathy. So why would he then withhold that from others? “Unforgiveness is being trapped in a jail cell serving time for someone else’s crime.”

Of course, sometimes people learn not only to keep their heart from the person who has done the hurt, but to keep her or his heart from everybody. But what else is the wall keeping out? It keeps out love.

“Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. How often do we find this in marriage, where the offending party freezes out the other.”

It turns out, he said, that reconciliation is a different process. Jesus says if someone comes remorseful and repentant, that you should not withhold forgiveness. But sometimes the other person needs to play a part for the relationship to be restored.

Mr Ironside spoke of the three “Cs” of reconciliation:

Confession 

“Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that your sins may be reconciled.”

Confession is the first part of reconciliation, he said. “And we think confession is just saying we are sorry, but it’s not. It might just be sorry I got caught.”

A real confession acknowledges the reality of what happened and the effect on the other person, so they can come into reality together. Confession also requires listening. The offender needs to be ready to listen to the hurt person about how it felt, and offer feedback.

“Confession involves some commitment towards some kind of change.”

Consequences 

Consequences acknowledges that things are different now because of these actions. I will say to the offended party in a marriage situation, “What can the person do to rebuild your trust”?

Change 

Change essentially is that trust has to be restored, Mr Ironside said. “And the way that’s done is really simple. Consistency over time. Part of change is on a trial basis. “It may be that some of the consequences are only after notice, or the next year . . . but ultimately trust has to be restored through consistency. So it’s the presence of skills, new behaviours.”

All relationships find their home in forgiveness, he said. At the same time it can be okay to say you don’t intend to have a relationship with someone again.

“Some people aren’t willing to do the change, to do the confession, to do the consequences.”

It turns out, he said, trust is not a feeling, it’s a wise decision built on consistent actions.

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and to discover that the prisoner is me,” he concluded.

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