The Meaning of Forgiveness
It goes without saying, however, that neither task is an easy one. Asking for forgiveness may be difficult for a variety of reasons, ranging from pride, fear of rejection, and more. Offering forgiveness is often even harder.
When someone hurts you, often the last thing you want to do is let go of that hurt, opting instead to hold it against the one who hurt you. It may even feel natural for us to nurture our feeling of resentment. However, as we’ll discuss, withholding forgiveness generally only magnifies the hurt and increases the damage done, while offering forgiveness allows for healing to take place. Forgiveness is a gift for the offender, but an even greater gift to the offended.
What forgiveness doesn’t mean
One of the issues with having a word become part of popular discourse is that its definition can become murky and misunderstood over time. Forgiveness is one of those words that can be taken to mean more or less than it does, with the result that people feel confused as to what it means to forgive someone.
Clearing up this misunderstanding will help bring clarity to what is being asked when we speak of forgiveness as a life-giving practice. It will also help explain what it means when the Bible urges us to forgive others.
Forgiveness isn’t erasure
Lewis B. Smedes, the renowned theologian and ethicist, has been quoted as saying, “Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.”
When you forgive someone, you’re not saying that what they did never occurred, or that it will never come to mind again. Forgiving someone does not mean that we sweep what has happened under the proverbial rug as if to pretend that “there’s nothing to see here.”
Rather than denying the very real feelings,you felt and probably still feel, forgiveness actually requires that the truth of what occurred – of how we’ve been hurt – be fully and honestly named. After the pain is truly acknowledged, forgiveness, as Smedes suggests, creates a new way to remember.When you forgive someone, you’re choosing to not intentionally recall what the person did to you to use or hold it against them. As you work toward forgiveness, the memory of what happened loses its power to dictate how you live in relationship with others moving forward.
Forgiveness isn’t the same as reconciliation.
The word reconciliation carries in it the idea of a relationship being restored – not necessarily to its prior state, but to the point of being able to resume normal relations. Reconciliation occurs when two parties move forward together after a period of division and acrimony.
While forgiveness is vital to reconciliation, they are not the same thing. Forgiveness can occur even when reconciliation cannot.
There are many circumstances in which it would be unsafe (such as when there has been abuse), unhealthy (for example, in chronically toxic relationships), or impossible (such as if the offender is not alive, or was not someone you had a relationship with in the first place) to seek reconciliation. In those situations, however, forgiveness can still take place, and likely must take place in order for there to be a restored sense of peace and healing.
Forgiveness isn’t a free pass.
Another common misconception about forgiveness is that it’s a way of giving a person a pass for something wrong they’ve done, or giving them permission to do the same thing again in the future.
When you forgive someone, you’re not saying that what they did was okay, or that you’re okay. After all, if it really were okay, then there wouldn’t be anything to forgive.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgoing justice.
Just as with understanding that forgiveness doesn’t mean giving someone a pass, it must also be understood that forgiveness doesn’t forgo justice. There are consequences for our actions, and just because you’ve been forgiven doesn’t mean that no consequences will follow.
For example, you might forgive someone for stealing your car, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all charges against them should or will be dropped. And while you may forgive a person for breaking your trust, that doesn’t mean you should or will give a person your automatic trust in the future.
The meaning of forgiveness
Now that we’ve clarified what forgiveness is not, let’s examine what forgiveness does entail.
Forgiveness is about your own heart.
Forgiveness is more about us than it is about the other person. When we feel a certain type of way about the pain someone brings upon us, it does something to our own hearts by changing how we view not only that person, but also others we know, others we don’t know, and even God. If we allow that to fester and turn into bitterness, we can end up forging a prison from which we will struggle to escape.
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you” is what Lewis B. Smedes once said. Forgiveness allows you to relinquish all bitterness and ill-feeling toward the person who hurt you. It’s a profound choice to leave all of that behind.
Forgiveness is a choice.
When someone hurts us, our natural inclination is to pay them back for it. We may even attempt to enlist God to take our side and punish them for what they did to hurt us.
It’s hard to offer forgiveness because it flies in the face of our instincts. Pope John Paul II said, “Forgiveness is above all a personal choice, a decision of the heart to go against natural instinct to pay back evil with evil.” Instead of following this instinct, God reminds us in Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”
While we may be happy to receive forgiveness from God, something within us may wrestle with extending that forgiveness to others. But God would have it no other way because we are meant to be conduits of his many blessings, not simply reservoirs.
Forgiveness is often a process rather than a one-time event.
Forgiveness isn’t easy to offer because it flies in the face of our natural instincts. It’s also true that maintaining a posture of forgiveness and committing to forgo revenge is difficult.
Just because you’ve forgiven someone doesn’t mean that the need to forgive automatically goes away. For the deeper wounds, you may find yourself needing to offer forgiveness many times over for the same offense, every time it comes to mind. When there are frequent reminders of what happened, or in building to restore trust, you may feel those same feelings stirred up again and again.
Fred Rogers said, “Forgiveness is a strange thing. It can sometimes be easier to forgive our enemies than our friends. It can be hardest of all to forgive people we love.” When in this situation, give yourself patience and grace as you persist in the act of forgiveness.
Forgiveness creates room for others.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning.”
What forgiveness does is speak the truth while it creating room for relationship with others. Forgiveness allows you to launch anew into a relationship; in a relationship such as marriage, you’ll need many fresh starts to remain faithful to your commitment to one another.
Finding the power to forgive
The late cleric Desmond Tutu once said, “Forgiveness is not weak. It takes courage to face and overcome powerful emotions.” For the believer, the strength to do difficult things such as forgiving others freely, as we’ve been forgiven, flows from the Holy Spirit.
Not only does the Spirit empower us to forgive others and relinquish revenge, placing them in the Lord’s hands, but the Spirit also enables us to dwell in our identity as forgiven people. We can exercise empathy and recall how we’ve messed up, both before God and people, and that can help us to forgive those who have sinned against us.
As anyone who has been deeply hurt can attest, forgiveness is rarely an easy process. For some, there may be a desire to forgive, but extreme difficulty in doing so. If you find yourself impacted by a lack of forgiveness or unable to fully work through the process of forgiveness on your own, don’t hesitate to reach out for help from a qualified Christian counselor. It would be an honor to join you on that journey.
“Forgive”, Courtesy of Christopher Stites, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Broken Heart”, Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Chains”, Courtesy of Zulmaury Saavedra, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; Lawn”, courtesy of AZGAN MjESTRI, Unsplash.com, CC0 License