Forgiveness – What It Is Not
Forgiveness is a word that we can throw around carelessly. Forgive and forget. Forgive and move on. I could never forgive him. She didn’t even say sorry. I don’t even need to forgive – he didn’t really mean it. She can’t help it; there is nothing to forgive. How can I possibly forgive myself for what I have done?
Forgiveness is not a small act of dismissal when someone is careless with our feelings. Forgiveness is a profound spiritual act of letting go and freeing ourselves to love the world more fully, including those persons who have done us harm. It is about turning from revenge, anger, and hate to peace, healing, and wholeness.
The path to forgiveness is often long and winding. Rarely does forgiveness come instantly or definitively. There are people in my life that I believe I have completely forgiven until a triggering event occurs and I have to take a deep breath and practice forgiveness all over again.
Perhaps the idea of practice is the best way to envision forgiveness. It is a choice we make everyday, a spiritual discipline that invites us to turn towards God and look within ourselves before we even gaze upon the one who has harmed us.
In this spiritual practice of forgiving, there are many stumbling blocks along the way. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to forgiving can be the many misconceptions that surround it. So, in this blog post, I am going to talk about what forgiveness is NOT. In a future post I will talk about the steps TO forgive but it is important to release some of the common misconceptions before picking up the practice of forgiving
Forgiving is not forgetting. There are times when we do need to forgive and forget. A one time, minor offense. An honest mistake. But there are other times when forgiveness is called for but forgetting is not. An extreme example would be someone involved in a violent, abusive relationship. It is possible to forgive someone who has caused that kind of harm, but forgetting about the harm would be unwise. Forgiveness is necessary for restoring relationship but it does not automatically do that repair work. We can forgive someone with whom we will never be in relationship again.
A less extreme example might be a person who has shared a confidence without our permission. We can forgive them, but we might not share another confidence with them until they have earned our trust back.
Forgiving someone is not dependent on an apology. It is fantastic when someone apologizes for harm they have caused us but it is not a requirement for forgiving. If it were, all of the power would rest with the other person. Forgiveness is a practice that sets us Anne Lamont famously said that not forgiving someone is like eating rat poison and waiting for the other person to die. We forgive for our wholeness and healing. If we wait for an apology that might never come, we are held hostage by the person who harmed us. Also, it might be impossible for the person to apologize. They may be dead, or perhaps are not allowed contact with us (a restraining order for example). Maybe it would cause us greater harm to see that person. We can practice forgiveness without being beholden to another person’s apology.
Forgiveness is not an excuse for harmful behavior. Forgiveness does not say the behavior was ok, right or excusable. In fact, forgiveness is the opposite. Forgiveness is only necessary when harm has been done. It acknowledges a trespass. Think of the Lords’ Prayer. Jesus says forgive those who trespass against you.
One pitfall in forgiving is to make excuses for the other person. This often happens when people suffer from addiction, have a mental illness, or we know enough about their lives to understand why they committed the trespass. Just because we understand the person’ behavior does not mean that they didn’t cause us harm. Often we say things like, “Mary didn’t mean to lie to me. She just does that sometimes.” That statement might seem like grace towards Mary, but what it does is suppress our own feelings of harm and ultimately we build up resentment and bitterness towards Mary and she may not even know why.
Imagine this instead. It really hurt my feelings that Mary lied to me. I understand that she often lies and I love her anyway, but my feelings were hurt.
This opens the door to forgiveness and healing. When we pretend there is nothing to heal the wound goes untended and often festers until it become infected and more difficult to treat.
Forgiving does not replace consequences. When we believe that forgiving someone implies that their actions will not have consequences our sense of justice can impede our forgiveness. Maybe someone breaks into our house and steals our grandmother’s ring, left to us as a final remembrance to in her will. We never get the ring back but the person is caught.
Is pressing charges against them a sign that we haven’t forgiven? Not necessarily. It might be completely appropriate to press charges but we will also need to forgive them. Forgiveness is a spiritual practice. It has implications beyond the spiritual realm, but it is not the same as someone facing the consequences of their actions. When we confuse the two, we can end up stuck, unable to forgive because we recognize the need for consequences.