Forgiveness is often spoken about in loose terms, as though we should all know what it is to forgive. This leaves much to the imagination, and many people speculating about its nature.
We often hear things like “forgive and forget” and “forgive for your own sake, not the offender’s”. Some people think that to be forgiving means to let the offender off the hook and thereby become a doormat. Some people think that it is reconciling with the offender.
I have gone through some heavy trials at the hands of those who would seek to destroy me, and know how necessary forgiveness is, yes, even for my own sake. But this must be stated with a qualifier as to what forgiveness really is. In my own efforts to forgive those who have offended me, I have researched forgiveness from both a scriptural and psychological perspective.
What is forgiveness? According to www.guidetopsychology.com, it is simply to “stop wishing for revenge or to stop wanting to see the other person suffer in some way.” So you let go and cancel a perceived debt. This does not mean forgetting, as if we forget, we are condemned to history repeating itself.
Let’s look at the fallacy of ‘forgiving and forgetting’. Forgiving and forgetting is nothing more than offering a token of words and then slipping into deliberate repression. The problem with this is that there are usually residual emotions attached to the need to forgive, and if you ‘forget’ then you are not only repressing the memory of that which you need to forgive, but you are also repressing any emotions that might be attached to it. What does this mean? Well, it can mean that you have unresolved emotions simmering in your unconscious, and that might be brewing contempt or anger. This is not genuine forgiveness, as the unresolved emotions make genuine forgiveness impossible. In other words, ‘forgiving and forgetting’ is nothing more than dishonest lip service.
Another fallacy is that it means letting the offender off the hook, so they are no longer responsible for their actions, thus leading to the offended being the one responsible for justifying the offender’s actions. Take the issue of trust. If a betrayal of trust happens, and you think forgiveness is letting the offender off the hook, then that leaves the door open for further offenses. With every offense, comes a consequence, in spite of the offended extending forgiveness. There is a penalty for an offense. We even see this in competitive sports, like hockey, as we note their penalty box.
I learned a few interesting tidbits about forgiveness. One is that you can’t really forgive until you have felt the full extent of the pain they caused you. The other thing has to do with sorrow, which seems at first at odds with forgiveness. Forgiveness rises out of sorrow, which comes from the humility of recognizing that just as someone hurt us, we also hurt other people. Therefore, on a human level, we are no better than those who offended us.
This is where the Bible comes in. Philippians 2:3 says “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” If we consider others as better than ourselves, we recognize that we are also fallible, and that causes sorrow. Sorrow leads to repentance, which is a statement of our own imperfection and need for forgiveness. Recognizing our own need for forgiveness makes extending forgiveness smoother.
Another fallacy of forgiveness is that it equates to reconciliation. It is true that forgiveness is part of the reconciliation process, though. Reconciliation takes two. It is the process of restoring a right relationship. There are two components: forgiveness and penance. Each component can function independently of the other, but both are required to restore a right relationship between two people.
We have looked a little at forgiveness, so let’s look at what penance is. It involves three steps: confession (admitting the offense), repentance (sorrow for the offense and a request for forgiveness), and penalty (accepting and paying the consequences of the offense). We need to be careful here, to not confuse the consequences of the offense for the offended person’s desired vengeance. Here is an example. If someone betrayed you, they have broken your trust. The consequence for that is lack of trust, and the time and effort it involves in creating an atmosphere where trust can be re-created. That would be different from the offended person’s vengeance, which might include a reciprocation of broken trust.
We have often heard that vengeance belongs to God. We also know that forgiveness and reconciliation belong to God, as demonstrated by the Lord Jesus who paid for our offense against God. It is through our confession and repentance, and Jesus’ payment of the penalty on our behalf that brings us into right relationship with God; we are reconciled to him.
Perhaps, then, the best vengeance we can take is the extension of forgiveness, even when there has been no penance.
I used to think that my residual pain from those who betrayed me is the result of unforgiveness. I was wrong. In fact, if I did not have and work through these residual feelings, it would be dishonest forgiveness, and subsequent repression. I can attest to the fact that extending forgiveness is much more difficult when there is no penance. Part of this is due to the decreased chance of reconciliation. Not only is extending forgiveness a difficult thing to work through, there are also the residual emotions from the pain they caused, and if there is no penance and no hope of reconciliation, there is also the loss of the relationship, or at the very least, loss of right relationship.
Forgiveness is a deep and difficult concept that many people misunderstand, but many aspire to. I think that we must fully experience two things for us to experience the empowerment to extend forgiveness. We must experience God’s forgiveness by our confession and repentance and acceptance of Jesus’ payment of penalty. We must also experience the sorrow of humility.An