I’ve often thought of authentic forgiveness as a miracle. It’s certainly difficult to define, and almost impossible to measure. And as a miracle, no one knows everything there is to know about forgiveness. It’s most often a complex, challenging, and confusing process. It can seem unnatural and unfair.
When it’s the real-deal forgiveness that heals, it seems God-sized, and not something we humans would have ever invented. We’re more likely to go for revenge, withdrawal, self-blame, or pretending. In the face of hurtful behavior, we might choose “fight or flight” responses. But forgive? What in the world does that really look like?
Here are some thoughts on what forgiveness is NOT, gathered from a number of authors I admire:
Forgiveness is NOT approving of what was done. NOT tolerating ongoing offenses. NOT excusing, justifying, explaining away, or minimizing the offense. NOT once-and-done, but rather a process. NOT forgetting! (No amnesia or dementia required. It will stay in the memory. But it can eventually become a healed memory vs. one that continues to cause damage.)
Forgiveness is NOT pretending it was not hurtful. NOT the absence of anger. (Like other emotions, anger comes and goes. And the absence of anger might be apathy.) And forgiveness is NOT the same thing as reconciliation.
So what does forgiveness look like?
Well, let’s give it a try. Forgiveness is an inner condition. It takes place in the heart. Therefore, it brings a healing journey to the forgiver. The more damaging the offense, the longer and more challenging the journey is likely to be.
Forgiveness is a choice to be truthful about the nature of the wrong, yet not punish or seek to get even. Forgiveness protects the forgiver from becoming bitter and rigid. It prevents the forgiver from becoming another offender.
But forgiveness costs something. In fact, it can be very costly. The cost of forgiveness is paid by the one who is forgiving. It costs the forgiver the right to make the offender pay for the offense. (Legal consequences may follow severe offenses, however, and protect others from repeat behaviors.) It costs the forgiver the right to resentment and revenge. And it costs the forgiver the right to believe he/she is “better than” the offender. It is a way of stamping the offense, “paid in full”.
Ken Sande, in his excellent book The Peacemaker, describes forgiveness as the making and keeping of four promises. In fact, he calls them “The Four Promises of Forgiveness”.
- I will not dwell on this incident. When I’m ready to forgive, I will choose not be preoccupied with it, or ruminate on it. I will tell myself the truth about it, then release it in the process of forgiveness.
- I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you in the future. When I’m actively forgiving, I’m giving up my right to use it as a weapon, or insert it into our future relationship. (This brings up the problem of seeking to forgive when an offense is repeated and ongoing. In that case, it’s important to differentiate forgiveness from pretending. In severe cases of ongoing offenses, counseling, mentoring, or even legal intervention, will often be necessary ~ in addition to forgiveness.)
- I will not talk to others about this incident. It is legitimate, however, to reserve one’s pastor, counselor, or spiritual mentor as an exception to this promise. Also, if there’s danger of physical harm, it may be necessary to make a report to appropriate authorities.
- I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship. This is the high water mark of the full forgiveness process: confession, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. As Ken Sande wisely says, however, “Sometimes the best you can hope for is that you could pass on the street and be at peace.”
Numerous volumes ~ recent and ancient ~ have been written about the miracle of forgiveness. Here are a few of my favorite authors:
Ken Sande ~ The Peacemaker
Archbishop Desmond Tutu ~ No Freedom Without Forgiveness
Charles Stanley ~ The Gift of Forgiveness
Jesse Rice Sandberg ~ Letting People Off the Hook
David Stoop ~ Forgiving the Unforgivable
Everett Worthington ~ Five Steps to Forgiveness
Philip Yancey ~ What’s So Amazing About Grace?
Many excellent resources (books, journals, blogs, websites, organizations) deal with various aspects of forgiveness, especially following trauma, victimization, and abuse.
Also, a topical review of Bible passages on forgiveness is a worthy investment of time and study!