As we talk about forgiving others and asking someone to forgive us, we must pause to think about what forgiveness is as well as what forgiveness is not. Let’s begin with a definition of forgiveness: to stop requiring payment, either financial or emotional. To say to another: I am no longer holding these things against you. Forgiveness is an act of the will. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your feelings have changed.
Often, we mistakenly combine or confuse forgiving with other actions.
Forgiveness is NOT condoning the behavior. I do not say “Oh, that’s okay” because it is not okay. If it were okay, there would be nothing to forgive. Rather, I say, “I forgive you”. It is important for the offender to know the behavior was not acceptable even though it is forgiven. It is also important for the offended to not accept or normalize the offense. It was wrong and requires forgiveness.
Forgiveness is NOT reconciliation. Forgiveness is a first step towards reconciliation; however reconciliation may not always be desired. A simplified example of this would be that I forgive someone for kicking me on the shins every time they see me. I decide that I am forgiving them, meaning that I no longer contemplate how to kick them back or make them pay for hurting me. However, I don’t enjoy being kicked on the shins so I may decide to discontinue this relationship and avoid this person in every possible way.
Forgiveness is NOT automatic trust. I may decide to forgive a friend for repeatedly being late when we meet for coffee. I value the friendship; forgiveness and reconciliation occur. However, I highly suspect she will be late the next time we meet and may take some deliberate steps to keep me from waiting so long.
Forgiveness is NOT forgetting. I wish I had a special kind of amnesia that would allow me to forget every time that I have been wronged by another. Life doesn’t work that way. I remember. Often I can still feel the emotional hurt as if it happened yesterday. Many times I have to make a deliberate decision to forgive again and again for the same offense. Each time that I let go of that intense desire to get even, I feel a burden lifted from me. In some mysterious way, forgiving others benefits me.
The need to forgive, unfortunately, will always be a part of our lives. Within most of our relationships we hope reconciliation occurs as well as forgiveness. We hope trust can be rebuilt. We pray the pain and the memories will diminish. May we all become wiser as we seek forgiveness and gentler as we forgive.