This is part 1 of a three-part mini-series on forgiveness. Here is Part 2 – Forgiveness: What It’s Not, and here’s Part 3 – Forgiveness: What It Is and How to Do It.

Friends came round for an evening this weekend which, happily, included an open fire barbecue in February, leftover mulled wine, games, and staying up far too late discussing amongst other things, forgiveness. Between us, we tried to unpick the unruly concept and apply it to real situations in our own lives. As people related some horrible experiences, we wrestled with what forgiveness would look like in each of those situations and whether it were even possible.

I was sounding the gong for “yes.”

I believe forgiveness is possible in situations in which we’d never naturally imagine it were, but this belief comes with a huge caveat regarding what forgiveness really means – and what it doesn’t.

Forgiveness is not saying that “It’s OK.”

If there is a need for forgiveness, then something has happened that is not ok! It is pretty frustrating that interchanges around relational hurt frequently go something like this:

“I can’t believe you did that! I feel really betrayed…”

“I’m sorry”

“It’s ok…”

Really? It’s ok that someone did something that left you feeling really betrayed, angry, hurt or violated? Presumably not.

Can we all agree to quit merging forgiveness with “it’s ok”? The whole point of forgiveness is that there is something to forgive, and that usually means that someone did something wrong. It is possible that they didn’t do anything wrong, and that we just perceive or experience them to have done something wrong, but the fact remains that to the extent that we have something to forgive, that very same something is not OK.
In fact, I’m pretty sure that I can’t forgive until I explicitly name exactly what is not OK. I don’t think I can generically forgive you. I think I need to specifically forgive you for what you did that was not OK and how it affected me.

The starting point for forgiveness sounds something like: “This happened, and this is how it affected me. I felt this. It’s really not ok.” That doesn’t necessarily need to be said out loud or to the person who did the hurting, but it seems to me to be needed – at least internally – for forgiveness to have something to work with.

Brave stuff, forgiveness.

Related: forgiveness is not the same thing as forsaking justice…

I know many people, myself included when I’m angry or hurt, protest against forgiveness because it feels like letting someone get away with something.

“I can’t forgive him” we say to ourselves, “because he’ll think he can just get away with it.”

“How can she forgive her?” another might ask, “She doesn’t deserve it; she did that deliberately.”

I think this is because we are mangling and mashing the concepts of forgiveness and justice, and though we’re not entirely off the rails for doing so, it’s pretty important to figure out exactly where they do – and most particularly where they don’t – overlap.

What’s the opposite of forgiveness? I don’t believe it’s justice. Justice, as I understand it, means recognising that something is wrong and applying an appropriate consequence to right the wrong. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean choosing not to apply that consequence.

For example, as I understand it, if someone had beat me up in a mugging, forgiveness wouldn’t necessarily mean not pressing charges. The crime should be reported, the proper sentence should be served by the courts and justice should be carried out. I can forgive a person, and still not stand in the way of justice being carried out.

Similarly, if someone stole from the workplace where I were manager, an appropriate consequence to right the wrong would be for the employee to make recompense for the loss to the organisation (and usually also lose their job).

If someone banged up my car in a rage, they owe me for the repairs. They did something wrong, that thing is not ok, and a consequence is being applied to right the wrong. Justice, in other words, is seeing them make those payments in full.

Forgiving them doesn’t necessarily mean I’m offering to foot the bill, at least not as I understand it. I can forgive someone from whom I’m still accepting payments for my mashed up car door. I can forgive someone that I’m in the process of firing, and still fire them.

This doesn’t mean that forgiveness and justice are not related at all. If forgiveness is releasing someone – a concept I’ll explore in a future post – then it might well mean releasing them from justice. It often does. I can forgive you the debt you owe me as a person and I can also forgive the financial debt you owe to me which you should justly pay. It’s a possible part of forgiveness, but not a necessary part of it.

Forgiveness and injustice are not the same thing.

To be continued…

Image by Pixabay user Jill White