That forgiveness talk at Harvest Bible Chapel

Do you ever feel, when you watch a movie, that there was an underlying reason for it, maybe a bit of propaganda, so to speak, that it wanted to promote? It may be only a small part of the movie, but it makes a profound impact. (An example that come readily to mind is a 1944 drama about the life of Woodrow Wilson, the purpose of which seemed to me to focus on the death of Wilson’s dream, the League of Nations, in order to push American viewers to become more willing to enter the United Nations.)

I could be wrong, but that’s the way I felt when I listened to this sermon by Michael Vanlaningham from March 31stat Harvest Bible Chapel in the Chicago area. It seemed to me that the underlying reason, the bit of propaganda, began at about minute 25 when he began to focus on forgiveness. 

Michael Vanlaningham, a former professor of Bible at Moody Bible Institute, is the new “Theologian in Residence” at Harvest Bible Chapel, part of the new “Central Leadership” team that is trying to pick up the pieces from the old leadership that has been falling apart. (I’ve written about HBC twice before, here and here, and you can read more about them and why they’re falling apart at and

Here is the pertinent part of the sermon (the headings for which you can conveniently see in the photo), from minutes 25-28.

Forgiveness has four implicit promises.

First, I promise I will not dwell on this incident. And those of us who are unforgiving, we just keep bringing it up in our minds all the time.

Second, I promise I will not bring up this incident and use it against you.

Third, I promise I will not talk to others about this incident.

Fourth, I promise I will not allow this incident to destroy our relationship. That is even after we forgive the most horrendous things, I think if there’s real forgiveness there, I think Jesus would give us the capability of being able to sit down and have a cup of coffee and eat a piece of pie with them and carry on a meaningful and kind relationship with them. I think real forgiveness involves that. You probably won’t be best friends, but I would hope that we would have at least the capacity to be courteous and cordial.

Now I just want to suggest I promise I will not bring up this incident and I promise I will not talk to others about this incident, that rules out social media. Listen up. Social media has become social mania. Blogging has become flogging. Tweeting is now beating. And Christians are doing that against Christians. If somebody does you wrong, you don’t go home and post about it on Facebook for your 1000 friends so it’s out there forever guys, it’s just wrong. That’s sin. It’s called slander. It’s called gossip. It’s called something we ought never to do to one another in the body of Christ and oh my goodness how we’ve gotten out of control with that stuff.

We have to learn to forgive.

This man may have been a professor of Bible at Moody Bible Institute. He may be the Theologian in Residence at Harvest Bible Chapel.

But he just made up all that stuff about forgiveness.

Those things are nowhere in the Bible at all, nor are they implicit in the definition of the word.

I do understand why he’d want to do it—social media has been alive with news of James MacDonald, recently-fired pastor of HBC, and his allegedly abusive narcissism, with one former employee after another after another offering first-person accounts of their awful experiences with him, and sometimes details about his shocking misappropriation of funds. It is truly sobering information.

And so, there’s damage control to do. In that context, it makes sense to send someone with clout out there to try to make forgiveness mean much more than it really does.

But it isn’t what the Bible teaches.

Furthermore, this teaching facilitates abuse and gives a free pass to abusers.

I’ve written about forgiveness before, most recently about the “forgive and forget” Scriptures, but such a blatantly unScriptural preaching by such a respected man in such a sensitive situation brings forward a good time to address it again.

First of all, what is forgiveness, Biblically? According to the meaning of the Greek word (which he never mentioned), it is simply an open-handedness to release a debt. In cases of “horrendous things,” to use Vanlaningham’s term, the debt could never be repaid anyway; it would be impossible. So the person who forgives determines not to execute vengeance.

But what if your business partner embezzled your company out of a million dollars? He spends it all and can’t repay it. You forgive him, releasing him from the debt, determining to take no vengeance. This is Biblical forgiveness.

But then you hear a friend talking about the possibility of starting a business partnership with that man. It would be wrong NOT to warn him. And that would involve talking to him about what had happened, which is Vanlaningham’s #3 above.

He even goes so far as to call it slander and gossip.

It is not.

Slander, legally, is making false statements about someone in order to purposely harm his or her reputation. Slander, Biblically, is wielding words like a weapon (like the “poison-arrow words” of Psalm 62:5) in order to harm someone.

Telling the truth about an offense in order to help others is not slander and is not gossip. Paul did that to Timothy regarding Alexander the coppersmith in 2 Timothy 4:14. Does this mean Paul was unforgiving? Or does it mean talking about the incident is unrelated to forgiveness? Just yesterday I helped someone post her story, naming her offender. Contrary to Vanlingham’s unBiblical definition, this is unrelated to forgiveness.

In Acts 2 Peter preached a sermon telling the Jews that they had “wickedly crucified” Jesus Christ. But this means Peter was “bringing up” the incident and “using it against” them, the very thing Vanlaningham warned against in his point #2. Was Peter being unforgiving? Or was he warning the Jews about their need to repent?

The book Tear Down This Wall of Silence: Dealing with Sexual Abuse in our Churches, by Dale Ingraham with yours truly, has a lot to say about forgiveness, based on the meaning of the word and the descriptions in the Bible.

It also quotes abuse survivors whose abusers used this unBiblical kind of “forgiveness” against them. Here’s one on page 47 of Tear Down This Wall of Silence, from a woman whose teacher at her Christian elementary school raped her in the supply room almost every day:

If I refused to forgive him, I would lose the 45-minute recess and have to stand at the wall. He would stand next to me as I faced the wall doing my time during recess and tell me I knew what I had to do to get off the wall [forgive him].

How could a man quote so many Bible verses to prove his point and guilt a child into proving she really forgave him day after day, week after week for a whole school year and each and every time molest or rape her again?

And, of course, that woman as a child was taught the definition of forgiveness that Michael Vanlaningham taught at Harvest Bible Chapel. And the abuser? He learned his lesson well too. From page 144:

Sexual offenders count it very important to emphasize the forgiveness of God. They want to use God’s grace as a type of force shield to protect their evil behavior, but in truth if the grace of God were at work in their lives at all, it would transform their lives toward godliness, not protect their sin.

After Vanlaningham gave that errant definition of forgiveness above, he told a moving story about John Perkins, Civil Rights leader who wrote about his sufferings at the hands of law enforcement officers in his book Let Justice Roll Down. Perkins found comfort in the sufferings of Jesus Christ and how He forgave His persecutors. God filled this man with a love for those who had treated him so cruelly.

It was a moving story, and a good representation of real forgiveness.

But I noticed that Perkins did indeed think about his persecution, perhaps “dwelling on it,” as Vanlaningham warned against. He did in fact speak about it to others, even the whole world, through his book. So Vanlaningham himself quotes a man who disproves his points.

And do you suppose Perkins would have sat down with his persecutors for coffee and pie? That part was just shocking to me. Vanlaningham referred to those who commit “the most horrendous things.” The person who commits the most horrendous thing against us is one we should be willing to sit down with for coffee and pie, he admonishes, irrespective of whether or not he has acknowledged his wrong.

This is making a travesty of the concept of forgiveness.

Again, forgiveness is a releasing of the debt while leaving vengeance to God. That is all. It does not preclude justice or warning others or trying to get help (all of which would necessitate talking about the offense).

I wish there were two different words, but what I call “heart forgiveness” is simply between you and God, letting go of the desire for vengeance. What I call “transactional forgiveness” is between you and the other person, and can happen only after the other person truly repents. After all, as Tear Down This Wall of Silence observes on pages 128 and 131:

First John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.” Biblical confession means “agreeing with God about the sin.” Only when we confess—agree with God about our sin—does God extend forgiveness to us. . . . Though God stands with a posture of forgiveness for anyone in the world who will trust in Jesus Christ as his Savior, he doesn’t actually forgive until that person does confess, repent, and trust in Jesus.

I would love to quote more of the survivors’ compelling words about forgiveness from the book, but I’ll close with Rachael Denhollander’s now famous words about the important balance between forgiveness and justice in her statement at Larry Nassar’s trial.

You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance, which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen in this courtroom today.

The Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you thrown into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.

The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.

Michael Vanlaningham would have us believe that because Rachael violated all of his points above—every one of them, 1, 2, 3, and 4—her forgiveness wasn’t real. She has even talked about Larry Nassar on social media (“mania, flogging, beating,” to use the words of the sermon), which Vanlaningham would say is slander and gossip and evidence of lack of forgiveness.

But speaking about what an offender has done is unrelated to forgiveness. Rachael’s words have, in fact, continued to embody the important balance between forgiveness and justice, even as she now speaks about Christian leaders who have abused and covered for abusers.

Seeking justice, warning others, and trying to get help—these things are unrelated to forgiveness. Christians at Harvest Bible Chapel, and everywhere, would do well to remember that.

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KristyMollyCindy BurrellDawnRebecca Davis Recent comment authors
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Absolutely, Rebecca. This gentleman just forfeited all of his credibility, in my eyes, and appears to be just another manipulator who uses scripture as a shield to hide wickedness, sin and abuse, then claims ‘forgiveness’ without genuine repentance.

Genuine repentance acknowledges the sin, makes restitution where possible and foregoes further wrongdoing. This is exactly what is missing at Harvest, and this man just joined in with the evildoers. It is a great shame.

Don Owsley

This view of forgiveness is the core of what Ken Sande developed and has taught through Peacemaker Ministries, his books and materials, IBCD, CCEF, and othe Nouthetic counseling arenas. It is widely taught and accepted in Evangelical and Reformed circles.

John Byrne
John Byrne

This is the line that is so central to all of Harvest’s coverups, half truths and lies that has led them to the edge of extinction forever.

“Sexual offenders [or if I may say, abusers in general] count it very important to emphasize the forgiveness of God. They want to use God’s grace as a type of force shield to protect their evil behavior, but in truth if the grace of God were at work in their lives at all, it would transform their lives toward godliness, not protect their sin.”

Such a great article. I have you saved on my computer now so I can come read other posts you write.

My daughter was a victim of sexual assault and the offender always wants to hide, contain, manipulate and/or change the truth…and we live in a “post truth” era where people are willing to believe just about anything. She’s beginning to heal after a VERY difficult 4 year period of brokenness where the perpetrator got “friends” to cover for him…


John- I notice how often those with unresolved forgiveness issues such as yours take their bitterness and hatred, rage and vengeance out on another who reminds them of the guilty person they hate.


This article is incredibly timely. I am struggling with memories of people who did cruel things to me (no crimes). I have heard the tenets the errant preacher preached in other places before. I prefer your definition. I do believe Yeshua is telling me to take action, such as a cartoon on YouTube pointing out unacceptable behaviors from some ministers without correctly naming anyone. (Special contempt is heaped on 53 y/o, never-married and blunt single ladies.) Yet, who cares! Yeshua loves me! I can warn people to avoid ministries with the bad behaviors without naming the guilty party. (Legal reasons are in play here.) No decision about the next steps is final, but I personally have chosen to forgive for my peace, particularly since no crime was involved. I have to keep doing it again, but I want freedom. I have warned my church, and I intend to warn others. Oh, did I say that?! Yes! The errant theologian needs to look up the definitions you gave!!!


Resolve your personal issues with those you say harmed you. To assume Dr. V is the evil person this angry therapist says he is will not help your situation. She needs to repent her sin of malice. against Dr. V.


The “church” does not understand what Forgiveness looks like. The men (and women) that are teaching on this, are incorrect. They end up causing more harm. This is not who Christ is or what his Word says.
Yes, we are to forgive, we are commanded in scripture to forgive. Christ first forgave us.

Forgiveness does not mean Reconciliation.

These are 2 separate issues.
There is a Pastor/Counselor who has a fantastic grasp on forgiveness. Google: YouTube Learning to Forgive – Patrick Doyle

Kathy Ayers
Kathy Ayers

Hi Rebecca,

This is a very well-written blog! If you check Ms. Roy’s twitter, you will surely see my name there. May I offer a personal story of forgiveness here on your beautifully well- written space?
Two years ago, I engaged in a conversation with my then 30 year old eldest son. It was a very respectful conversation, just 6 days before Christmas, and it lead into a discussion about Jesus as I sat there wrapping Christmas presents. Days later, I heard that my son was telling many people I was mentally ill and needed to seek help for what he said was “my love affair with an imaginary man who lived in the sky.” Shortly thereafter, he actually posted this on Facebook for even more people to read. He called his father, telling him I needed serious help for my “mental issues…” I finally confronted my son and I demanded an apology! Needless to say, he refused! We didn’t speak for the next 18 months.

During this time, I was not permitted to see my granddaughter and I missed the birth of our very first grandson. My heart was overflowing with anger, resentment, bitterness, and hatred as I cried too many nights in prayer! The bondage of everything mentioned above took residence in my heart and grew like a cancer that metastasized to all other areas of my life! My prayers went unanswered. I began to isolate other family members as this bondage hardened my heart. I even began to pray less often! Not being permitted to see my grandchildren became simply unbearable for me as time slowly moved on….
Last June….I made the ultimate decision to lay this all down at the foot of The Cross! I told my plans to Jesus, then I contacted my son and told him just how much I loved and missed him and his family! I asked if we can “just let this go and carry on”… he agreed! I met my grandson for the very first time shortly thereafter! My 4 year old granddaughter quickly jumped into my lap and hugged me for what seemed like forever! As this little child sat on my lap, she noticed the cross I was wearing around my neck. She grabbed my cross and cupped it in her tiny palm and said to me, “I love your “t” …” At that very moment, all bitterness, hatred, anger, and resentment disappeared from within my heart, and all my tearful prayers were finally answered as I heard without doubt….the tiny Whisper in the Whirlwind!

Almost another year has passed since then! I have yet to receive an apology from my son. There has been no act of repentance. And I know and have accepted that I may never receive this apology from him. But Jesus has been so very faithful to me in return! He has given me the opportunity to one day in the future… explain to my beautiful granddaughter just exactly what the “t” represents to me!

I love to pray at night Rebecca! Sometimes though, I do not know what to say to this Loving and Grace-filled Mighty King! Since last June, I sometimes simply speak or sing the lyrics in prayer to the following song ….

“ …From the corners of my deepest shame, The empty places where I’ve worn Your Name, show me the love I say I believe….Oh help me to lay it down, Oh Lord, I lay it down….”
“Oh let this be where I die, My Lord with Thee crucified…..Be lifted high as my kingdoms fall….once and for all…once and for all….” (Lauren Daigle)

The very Heart and Compassion of Christ is exposed while he lay beaten beyond recognition with (MY) spit dripping from His face, all while He struggled for every breath as He hung on that Cross and prayed softly and without malice for His executioners! Quite honestly, I cannot even comprehend this type of forgiveness which He willingly gave to even those who were slaughtering Him. I do know this for sure….not only did He go to the Cross for me, He also went to the Cross for my son! I’ve let it all go, laying it the Foot of the Cross, and believing and trusting in the Sovereignty of my Lord! And speaking of the Love I ask Him in prayer to show me in these empty spaces where I have worn His Name? I now see it staring back at me through the eyes of my grandchildren!

Thank you Rebecca for allowing me to share my personal story of forgiveness on your blog!


Mike Wiggins
Mike Wiggins

Seems to me the real flogging and beating going on is Michael Vanlaningham flogging and beating victims who dared to share their stories with another, even if they did so explicitly to protect others–those who dared to do what the Bible does pretty much from cover-to-cover. Some of these victims will now feel crashing guilt because of his smug little sermon. Bravo, Michael! Never let a good opportunity to beat a victim who’s curled up in pain already go to waste. Of course not, that would be so un-James MacDonaldesque.

Seems that Michael’s main problem is with Jesus, who spoke of whispers in inner rooms (or recorded in inner rooms) being shouted from rooftops–and I sure don’t recall Jesus condemning that as sin. Michael, if you’re reading this (and you’re probably not), your beef is with Jesus, take it up with Him. We’re just the messengers.


Seems to me someone is confused about what forgiveness is and what reconciliation is.

Forgiveness means simply that you don’t use the offense as a weapon against them and are cordial when you run into them.

Recently someone who is about to become family demanded I do some stuff for them when I wasn’t physically capable. I did what I could but it wasn’t enough for them and they started sending me guilt trippy messages in the middle of the night. I no longer speak to them regularly. I am going to take a gift to their bridal shower in 10 days and be happy. I am going to take a gift to the wedding 3 weeks later and be happy. I am not going to continue meeting them one or more times a week to hang out. I will not try to bludgeon them with their actions or try to guilt trip them. That is foregiveness.

Reconciliation is where you are able to have the same close relationship as you did before the offense. But in order for there to be reconciliation, the issue must be addressed. The person who committed the offense must recognize the problem and be willing to work on whatever it is that needs to change. Granted sometimes it turns out no one was really at fault when you talk it all out and then what do you know everything is fine. But most times trust has been broken. Trust needs to be rebuilt over time through baby steps. Asking someone who has been knee capped physically, emotionally, or mentally to run into the arms of the person who hurt them is just as realistic as asking a toddler to win the olympics. Christians who expect this out of victims, perpetrate a second abuse on the victim.


Wow, that is so spot-on! “Christians who expect this out of victims, perpetrate a second abuse on the victim.” YES! Amen! Thank you!
I was taught this version of forgiveness over and over by my abusive dad (of course!) and by well-meaning but ignorant Christian leaders in our church. It took me a long time to figure out the truth because I saw the contradictory nature of pressure to restore (or ignore) a destroyed relationship in the absence of repentance.

Rachel Nichols

Sigh. We Christians have a warped view of forgiveness


After both my husband and I listened separately today, we agreed there were quite a few things Dr. Vanlaningham said that raised red flags.

A soon as I saw the “Forgiveness is Four Promises” list I knew I’d heard it before. It came directly from page 209 of the book, “The Peace Maker”, by Ken Sande. (“Unforgiveness is the poison we drink, hoping others will die” is from page 208 of the same book.) It’s been a few years, so I would have to go back and read the book in order to know how much of the rest of Dr. V’s sermon is related to the Peacemaking Ministries model.

The pastor of a church we left is a “Level 4 Conflict Resolution Mediator” of Peacemaker Ministries. Every 2-3 years that church has everyone go through “The Peace Maker” materials. (Ironically, since they started using those materials many strong, mature believers have left that church because of the lack of healthy conflict resolution.) As far as reconciliation goes, many people believe “The Peace Maker” model strongly favors church leadership.

I highly recommend this excellent resource: “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse ~ Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church”.



Interesting comment that this HBC sermon has roots in the Ken Sande Peacemaker teaching. That wouldn’t surprise me if it did.

One concern I have with the Ken Sande’s Peacemaker teachings is what I believe is the initial agreement to confidentiality if you want to enter into their process. That is you aren’t allowed to discuss any of this. Perhaps this confidentiality makes sense but I am sure not in all cases and especially with the sins of supposed leaders of the body of Christ.

People need to know if leaders have sinned and abused their power etc.


“Again, forgiveness is a releasing of the debt while leaving vengeance to God. That is all.”

It’s easy to say, but hard to do. Maybe the hardest thing for Christians. A comprehensive discussion on forgiveness is beyond the scope of a blog post or 3 minutes of a sermon.

There’s nothing wrong with what Dr. V said. He was trying to help people in his flock with markers that MAY indicate they are being unforgiving. They weren’t presented as absolutes, but potential red flags, which they are.

“Seeking justice, warning others, and trying to get help—these things are unrelated to forgiveness.” Of course, if indeed these are the real motives. Unfortunately, what we often see masquerading as these are really vindictiveness, slander and anger. That’s where the rubber meets the road. What’s the TRUE motivation?

As Dr. V said, we see this played out on social media all the time. Just follow Julie Roys’ comments (a lot of them anyways.) Not a lot of grace there. Instead, what we see is a lot of anger and assumptions about motives, of which the commenters have no clue about. It’s similar to the tone of this blog post.

By the way, I’m not a Dr. V apologist. I just see this post as yet another that jumps to conclusions and makes accusations with no basis in fact. Kind of proving his points…

Mike Wiggins
Mike Wiggins

The problem, Steve, is that his words could really have the effect of hurting people badly who’d experienced abuse from MacDonald or others on his team. Imagine a child who was abused by a leader there, or by MacDonald himself. As it turns out some of the abuse going on at Harvest was sexual and against at least one minor, was it not? Imagine an abused child tells his or her parents and warns some friends to stay away from the abusive person. They do so because they are desperate to protect others and because they need to get things off their chest.

Now imagine this child is present to hear Dr. V, and they’re told that they have not truly engaged in forgiveness if they told anyone else–what they did was “slander”. They are terrified of their abuser and become physically ill when they even think of them, much less get near them. To have a cup of coffee with this person would cause a breakdown–so by Dr. V’s definition, they also have not forgiven, they are “bitter”. They understandably have PTSD, they have flashbacks that terrorize them. But Dr. V said if they dwell on it, they have not forgiven. If they happened to warn others via social media, which all young people spend ample time on today–why they have flogged their abuser and beaten them. Dr. V said so.

Now what are they going to think? Are they going to be built up in Christ having heard Dr. V speak? Or are they going to feel like broken glass inside, feel like they’ve been violated again?

You better answer that. If you come back and see this (and aren’t just another tiresome, sing-songy hit-and-run scold) and claim to have integrity, you have to. And you better have a good answer.

Sandra Lovelace

Thank you. And thank you again. In the NASB translation 1 Corinthians 5:9-12 pretty much cancels out having coffee with immoral people.


Thank you! I especially love verse 11: “But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.”



I wonder how large of an honorarium HBC leadership gave this speaker to try and stop exposure of all that has occurred at HBC including James MacDonald’s antics how leadership supported and enabled MacDonald.

Thanks for pointing all of this out. It is shocking that someone can say with a straight face that sharing a leader’s sins and unrepentance is wrong or “gossip” or “slander.” Especially disturbing is just how ignorant this person is of the definition of “slander.”

It is sad to see that current HBC leadership is still on the path of denial and refusing to confess and forsake their past sins including those of James MacDonald. I wonder if Michael Vanlaningham has ever read this passage of scripture

“LORD our God, you answered them; you were to Israel a forgiving God, though you punished their misdeeds. “(Psalm 99:8)

Does Vanlaningham have any concept of consequences for sin?

Also, if nothing else HBC needs to do an analysis of what allowed a narcissistic leader to prevail for so long unchecked. Keeping quiet about this won’t allow that understanding to happen. If you don’t understand what was done wrong in the past then chances it will repeat in the future.

Dr Les Galicinski

Absolutely, well written . Forgiveness is two step process: release the offence to God and do not seek revenge, but restoration of the relationship requires genuine repentance and restitution. We actually do a diservice to the abuser by covering up his offence. It encourages other abusers and creates a climate of fear and intimidation.


Where does it say transactional forgiveness in the Bible?


Those 4 parts of forgiveness come from the nouthetic or biblical counseling movement. They were pressed on me, I had to memorize them, and demanded of me during counseling with my destructive husband. He just had to say a weak “I’m sorry” in front of the counselor and then I had to follow the rules or I would be “sinning”. And the sin of “unforgiveness” automatically meant I was bitter, which was swiftly condemned. I also had to act as if everything was peachy keen and my destructive husband got a business as usual free pass and access to all the perks of a healthy marriage, which was devastating to me.

Cindy Burrell

Thank you, Rebecca, for taking the time to identify and dispel the lies Mr. V. seeks to impose upon God’s beloved children. It sickens me to consider how many may suffer or are held captive to such ridiculously false and damaging teachings. I cannot help but wonder how these people continue to get away with this stuff…


Beautifully written, beautifully stated. Thank you for promoting the truth in the face of clear untruth!
In case it is allowed, and in case it helps others, a book that really encouraged me about the subject of forgiveness is – Forgiveness: Not Necessarily What You Think by Sister Renee Pitelli.