Part 4: True Forgiveness - The Middle Ground Between Giving a Pass and Nursing a Grudge

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a five-part series that takes a scientific approach to study the value and impact The Crucible Project has had on men who are thirsty to live with more integrity, grace and courage. It is based on work of Crucible brother Ryan Poling, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology. In this post, we’ll dive into how true forgiveness is a powerful component of a healthy, masculine identity. 

Read the rest of the series:

Part 4: True Forgiveness – The Middle Ground Between Giving a Pass and Nursing a Grudge

“There’s nothing done or said that can’t be forgiven.”

– Matt. 12:31, The Message

As men, we often struggle with forgiveness. Scripture encourages us to forgive others readily, but we often make the mistake of either forgiving others too easily or not forgiving them easily enough. By forgiving others too quickly, we use forgiveness as a way of avoiding conflict by giving those who have wronged us “a pass.” But by not forgiving others easily enough, we nurse grudges and create division between ourselves and those whom we love. Neither of these extremes is ideal; what we need instead is a model of forgiveness that lies between giving a pass and holding a grudge.

Over the past two weeks, I have been discussing authenticity and assertiveness. As a refresher:

  • When we are authentic, we experience alignment between our internal states and our expression of those states.
  • When we are assertive, we are willing to express our internal states in a way that shares our feelings and experiences without harming others.

Forgiveness, true forgiveness, requires us to be both authentic and assertive. Here’s why:

  • If we are not authentic, we deny the feelings that are causing us pain. We dismiss our internal states. We tell ourselves we are not being “rational” and that we should simply get over what we’re feeling and move on. However, authenticity requires us to own our feelings and to acknowledge them as valid (even if we decide not to act on them). We cannot truly forgive others unless we authentically own the pain that another person’s actions caused us.
  • When we are assertive, we make our feelings and experiences known and share our wants, and we do so cleanly, without sinning. We set healthy boundaries that protect us and our loved ones, and we do so in a way that makes our needs known without harming others. When someone wrongs us, we express the pain that that person caused, and we do so honestly, forthrightly, and with conviction, but without intent to harm the other person.

Unfortunately, we often ignore one of these pieces. If we “forgive” a person before owning and sharing our authentic feelings about the behavior, then we are in effect giving that person a pass and stuffing our feelings. We say, “I forgive you,” but the pain we experienced simply moves deeper inside. At times, church culture can push us in this direction. We want to be “nice guys ” so we dismiss the pain we experience in order to live up to a warped narrative of what it means to be a Christian man.

Sometimes we forgive too easily, but other times we don’t forgive easily enough. We hold tightly to minor offenses, such a spouse forgetting to complete a household chore. We guard these offenses zealously, letting them turn into grudges, and refuse to give them up unless we get our pound (or metric ton!) of flesh.

The ideal place to be is in the middle of the forgiveness spectrum: Not forgiving too easily, but also not holding on to grudges. Many men come to a Crucible Project initial weekend with some forgiveness work to do. They need help getting to this middle ground on forgiveness. Just like the initial weekend helps give them a new narrative for authenticity and assertiveness, it helps equip them to live with a new narrative around forgiveness, too. Given that men often need to do some forgiveness work on the weekends, and that one of the goals of the initial weekend is to allow participants to give and receive grace, the final construct I evaluated in my study was willingness to forgive.

What I found is that by Sunday afternoon, participants were significantly more likely to forgive others than they were before the weekend. Even at the two-month follow-up, participants continued to be more likely to forgive others than they had been before the weekend, suggesting that these changes are likely not solely due to a “post-retreat high.”

So does the increase in forgiveness that I measured simply mean that Crucible weekend participants simply shifted over and are now forgiving too easily? Fortunately, I don’t believe that’s the case. Remember how earlier I discussed that true forgiveness requires both authenticity and assertiveness? Had these traits not also increased during the weekend, I might be concerned that weekend participants were simply shifting toward forgiving too easily. However, given that the participants are more authentic, more assertive, and are more willing to forgive after the retreat, it seems as though these changes represent a shift to the middle for men on both ends of the forgiveness spectrum.

When used well, forgiveness is a powerful component of a healthy masculine identity. Next week, in the final post of this series, I will be trekking a bit deeper into the unknown and speculating about future directions and how we can create fertile soil for healthy masculinity to grow.

– By J. Ryan Poling

Ryan’s initial Crucible weekend was in August 2006. He is completing his doctoral studies in clinical psychology at Fuller Seminary Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, CA, and is currently on internship at Salina Regional Health Center. He holds Master’s degrees in Psychology and Theology, and he was also Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Azusa Pacific University. He lives in Salina, Kansas, with his wife, Erika, and their bunny, Bailey.

Photo Credit: Tony Webster via Creative Commons