In my last post on forgiveness, Forgiveness: It’s OK (but it’s obviously not) I talked about why I don’t believe forgiveness and justice are opposites. In this post, I want to share some other commonly held beliefs about forgiveness which I think are off track, before sharing my final post in the mini-series – Forgiveness: What It Is and How To Do It.
Forgiveness is not the same thing as repressing or burying your feelings.
As someone who has done too much burying myself, I’m a huge advocate for acknowledging and dealing with feelings. I also believe forgiveness is really important and transformational. The problem is that if forgiveness gets championed too early or too vigorously to a hurting person, I think it can become a block to genuine healing. There’s got to be some space to feel the pain, and someone saying “Dude, you should really forgive them…” is not what I would call space. (There’s also a whole other thing about shaming someone with shoulds but we’ll save that for another day.)
Even when I’m upset about a small thing, the most helpful thing I can do for myself is exactly the same as the most helpful thing a friend can do: understand what I’m feeling and why I’m feeling it. When I have acknowledged that, and validated it, I’m in a much better position to decide whether or not I’m going to make the choice to forgive someone.
In any case, forgiveness doesn’t really stick when it’s founded on suppressed feelings.
Forgiveness is not the same thing as taking responsibility for other people’s mess.*
If it were, I guess it would be a pretty easy concept to understand. Each time someone else messed up and you were suffering for it, you could just decide whether or not you were willing to clean up after them. If so, you do it, and they are forgiven. If not, you don’t, and they aren’t. Simple.
It’s not the same thing though. It helps me to think about a literal mess. Let’s say that our neighbours** dump a load of their rubbish including some old furniture in our shared back garden. I have at least four options for how to respond.
- I can clean up their mess, and even pay out of my own money for the council to come pick up their rusty bed frame, whilst seething inside every time I see them.
- I can clean up their mess and forgive them.
- I can also get them to clean up their mess, which is, after all, their responsibility, whilst seething inside every time I see them.
- Or – and this is crucial – I can forgive them AND make sure they take responsibility for cleaning up their mess.
Forgiveness is not the same thing as restored relationship.
I do not believe that in order to forgive someone, you need to be willing to stay in relationship with that person. There are times when forgiveness implies reconciliation. In our marriage, for example, when Aaron and I get disconnected and then deal with that and forgive each other, we are also committed to reconnecting. It may even be true that most of the time, forgiveness opens the door to reconnection, but the two are definitely not inextricably linked.
In my last post on forgiveness, the examples included scenarios in which I wouldn’t be in a continuing relationship with the person I was forgiving. If an employee stole from my workplace and I fired them, I’m not going to call them up for drinks the next week. If someone banged up my car, I would probably never see them again after the insurance claims were resolved. More seriously, if I had got out of a domestic violence situation, it would be unsafe and unwise to restore relationship with that person, but I believe the option of forgiveness would still be on the table for me.
I have personally forgiven people who I am no longer in relationship with. I am not in relationship with them any more because I no longer trust them, because I don’t think it would be a healthy relationship or because I have no good reason to be. I am not angry at them any more either. I am not seeking any kind of vengeance and I wish them well, but I am not friends with them. Forgiveness and relationship don’t always go hand-in-hand.
Forgiveness is not an emotion.
One of the most powerful stories I have read about forgiveness is Corrie Ten Boom’s story of being asked by a guard from Ravensbrück concentration camp for forgiveness – an enormous request, as she had been an inmate in that very concentration camp. She argues (from her standpoint of faith in Jesus), that forgiveness is not an emotion, though it can be followed by a change in emotion.
This has been a hard but powerful lesson for me over the years. If forgiveness were an emotion, we would have to wait till we feel it, but if it isn’t, we can do something about it even when we still feel hurt, angry or wronged. I often think “I can’t forgive; I’m so angry” but over the years I have learned that sometimes forgiveness comes first. Sometimes it is even the catalyst that shifts those seemingly unchangeable emotions.
Forgiveness is not dependent on repentance, an apology, or the person’s motivations when they did it.
I have a very close friend who once hurt another dear friend of mine and wasn’t able or ready at the time to see and acknowledge the hurt that she’d caused. Years later, she emailed the friend she had hurt and apologised for what she had done. The response she got back was both gracious and powerful: Thank you for your apology. I have long since forgiven you for how you hurt me.
I love that story, because the friend who had been hurt demonstrated to me how forgiveness is an option on the table for anyone, regardless of the way the person who hurt you chooses to play it. I think she showed such dignity in forgiving, healing, and moving on with her story, not needing to wait for an apology that hadn’t yet come. When the apology eventually came, she had already moved on. She was able to hear the words, accept them, acknowledge the hurt and tell the friend that she had long since released her from the negative part she had played in her life.
Sometimes we need to forgive people who are unrepentant, who continue to hurt us, who believe they were right, or who we are not in touch with any more. Sometimes we need to forgive people who are dead.
Thankfully, forgiveness is not dependent on the other person. It is, I believe, a choice that dignified, self-respecting, powerful people make for themselves, regardless of the other person’s position, to release themselves from the hurt they have experienced at the hands of another and to move a step forward on the journey of healing.
This post has been all about what forgiveness isn’t. Stay tuned for the third and final post on forgiveness in this mini-series: What Forgiveness Is and How To Do It.
- “Whose mess is it?” is one of those simple but powerful questions that Danny Silk’s work helped me get my head round.
Image from my personal collection