Terry Hargrave’s book, Families and Forgiveness, goes into excellent detail of
what forgiveness is and what it isn’t. The act of forgiveness has four steps, but Jesus
only calls us (in instructions about forgiving) to the first two. The other two steps require
us to confront the person who offended us and, therefore, might not be safe with some people and might not be possible with others. Here are the steps:
1) Admitting that someone has wronged you and owes you a debt.
2) Choosing to release that debt and live as though you are not owed anything.
Step 3 can only be done when the person who wronged you is safe and should
never be done with an abuser or someone who will not be safe.
3) Go to the person who wronged you and tell them what they did that
Two notes: First, you should never do step 3 with someone who is not safe, as there is a risk here that the person will wrong you again, building up more debt. Second, you
only want to go with them with their behavior, not with your hurt – that must be taken to God in between steps 1 and 2 and is necessary to be able to release the debt.
4) If the person accepts responsibility for what they’ve done and desires to
earn your trust and heal the relationship, then this is the step where you give
them that chance. You continue in step 4 as long as they show themselves to be
safe and continue trying.
Because we can’t control another person, we can’t make them safe or trustworthy. We can only control ourselves. Yes, ideally, all four steps will be a part of forgiveness. This is why I teach my children to ask for forgiveness when they apologize. “I’m sorry” isn’t magic words that fix it all, but moving through to forgiveness is healing. And I also teach them that “sorry means you stop”. I model seeking forgiveness (from them and others) and I only go to them with their behavior, not my feelings about it all (I might share my feelings, but I don’t make them responsible for my feelings).