What Forgiveness Is Not
A series of painful events in my life have me pondering anew the meaning of forgiveness. Family and friends have also asked for help as they struggle to forgive those who hurt them. I want to share some ideas I’ve found helpful in my own efforts to forgive in the midst of pain.
An impressive scholarly literature is available on forgiveness. The field of positive psychology, for instance, offers some impressive research. And various religious and moral traditions offer wisdom on the matter.
As a Christian theologian, I’m especially interested in what the Christian tradition says about forgiveness. I like to contemplate, for instance, what it means to say God forgives. I also wonder why horrible things happen if God loves everyone and can control anything, a question usually called “the problem of evil.”
In this blog, I’ll set aside the question of why God doesn’t prevent evil. I’ve addressed it elsewhere, and I have a book coming out in November that tackles the subject.
For this essay, I mostly want to ponder what it means for humans to forgive.
Forgive and Forget?
I sometimes hear that those who have been harmed ought to “forgive and forget.” Most people interpret this phrase to mean that forgiving requires ignoring or overlooking the harm others have done. We must disremember, they say.
I reject the idea that forgiveness requires forgetting the harm done. I reject the idea, in part, because such forgetting may be impossible for some people. If forgiving requires forgetting, those who cannot forget will never be able to forgive.
Forgiveness does not mean burying the pain deep inside. It does not demand we ignore the damage done. Victims must acknowledge harm was done.
In fact, forgetting the harm can be extremely unhelpful to the victim and to others. Forgetting may allow perpetrators of evil to continue their dastardly deeds. Forgetting may lead to failing to change structures that permit evil. As Nazi holocaust survivors know, for instance, we must remember as a way to resist repeating past sins.
Sometimes we must remember past evil to inspire us to prevent evil in the future.Sometimes we must remember past evil to inspire us to prevent evil in the future. Click To Tweet
Forgiving as Warm Fuzzy Feelings?
Some people assume that those who forgive no long feel repulsed by those who have hurt them. True forgiveness, they say, means having warm fuzzy feelings toward perpetrators of evil. Positive feelings must completely replace the victim’s pain, outrage, and other negative feelings.
I disagree with this view too. Those who have been hurt may wish to feel positive feelings. But such feelings often take time or never come at all. Negative emotional histories rarely transform overnight!
If forgiveness means that victims must have warm and positive emotions toward those who harm them, forgiveness is not possible for many people — at least not possible in the short term. Fortunately, forgiveness doesn’t require that we always feel warmth toward those who have injured us.
I’ll address later how we replace negative feelings with positive ones. But for now, I simply want to deny that forgiveness requires our feeling warmth and positivity toward those who have hurt us.Forgiveness requires our feeling warmth and positivity toward those who have hurt us. Click To Tweet
Forgiveness as Gladness?
Related to the misconception that forgiveness requires warm feelings is the misconception that those who forgive completely should thereafter feel bright and breezy. Those with a particular view of God’s blueprint for life sometimes even say God wanted the harm and pain we endure. I strongly disagree!
In reality, anger toward evil is an important part of being a morally mature person. Because evil undermines wellness, we are right to oppose it. Feeling angry is appropriate when evil is done, and we can be angry while simultaneously acting for good.
These words of Scripture seem wise to me: “Be angry, but do not sin” (Eph. 4:26). I take this to mean that we are sometimes justified in being mad about what has happened to us or to others. Injustice sucks! But we must not allow our anger to become revenge, spite, resentment, or retaliation. Besides, “eye for an eye” and “tooth for a tooth” leaves us blind and edentulous!Anger toward evil is an important part of being a morally mature person. Click To Tweet
What we ought to do when we’re “good and mad” brings me to…
Forgiveness as Complacency?
A widespread misconception says forgiveness requires the forgiver to accept passively what has happened, with no active response. Those who promote this misconception usually pair it with the correct notion that forgiveness does not retaliate. But they explicitly or implicitly add that in the face of harm, forgivers should be quiet, inactive, or compliant.
In my view, forgivers are activists. They have experienced injustice first hand and they are choosing to do something about that injustice. Instead of striking back, however, they mobilize to change some part of the world for good. Positive world changing involves numerous types of action. But it does not involve apathy.
Because forgiveness is not complacency, harmful institutions and individuals ought to brace themselves when forgivers respond to injustice. Forgivers don’t run away and hide. They act for the common good, often passionately and persistently, in response to the harm done. When victims forgive rightly, their righteous activism often pushes harmful institutions or individuals to make reforms and offer apologies.
The particular acts that accompany forgiveness depend on what well-being requires in each case. It may mean acting to prevent perpetrators from doing more harm. It may mean raising awareness of injustice. It may mean acting to transform institutional practices or social customs. It may mean seeking counseling for oneself and others. The ways of forgiving love are almost endless!
Activist forgivers pursue various activities to bring health and wholeness in the face of evil.Activist forgivers pursue various activities to bring health and wholeness in the face of evil. Click To Tweet
Forgiveness as Reconciliation?
Many use “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” interchangeably. But I think we would be wise to separate these two words.
Forgiveness is something one person or a group can do in response to an evil act or hurtful relationship. Forgivers act irrespective of what perpetrators may do. Those harmed need not wait for confession from those who harm them. Instead, they act to forgive despite what others may do.
Reconciliation, by contrast, requires all the estranged parties to act positively toward one another. Reconciliation requires all involved to choose positive unity and healed relationship. Reconciliation takes a least two.
Let’s be honest: Sometimes those who harm will seek forgiveness and reconciliation mainly to avoid public scorn. They say they want reconciliation, but they really want something else. Their motives are not primarily to restore or help those they have injured. They mostly want to avoid some negative consequences without actually doing the work of repentance (being transformed).Sometimes those who harm will seek forgiveness mainly to avoid public scorn. Click To Tweet
Because it can be difficult to judge rightly the motives of those who harm us, bringing in third parties (e.g., counselors) is often necessary for genuine reconciliation.
Forgiving Waits for Others to Ask to be Forgiven?
The final issue I want to address here is the idea that forgiveness requires that those who harm first admit their wrong and ask forgiveness. Fortunately, victims need not wait before they can act to forgive.
If forgiveness requires waiting until evil doers confess and repent, perpetrators of injustice would maintain a kind of control over their victims. But a major reason forgiveness is so powerfully good is that it can set victims free from such control. Forgiveness does not require that those who have hurt admit their guilt.
We who have been harmed can forgive even if those who harmed us don’t care that they have injured. We can forgive even if those who harmed us are unaware of their injuring. We can forgive even when those who harm feel justified in their harmful acts!
I can’t help but insert my own situation as an example. As far as I know, no individual, group, board, or team has apologized for harming my colleagues, my family, or me. Perhaps none feels responsible and therefore thinks an apology would be inappropriate. Perhaps some worry about the legal implications if they were to admit guilt. Perhaps some feel their actions were justified, because they think NNU would be better without me. Perhaps some rationalize what they have done by saying, “Tom will end up just fine,” meaning I will find another job. I honestly don’t know all the reasons.
Whatever their reasons for not apologizing, I don’t need to wait for them to ask for forgiveness. After all, an apology may never come. But I can choose to forgive them now.Those harmed can forgive even if those who did the harming don’t care that they have injured. Click To Tweet
What is forgiveness, then?
I’ve spent most of this essay talking about what forgiveness is not. I thought I’d clear away some of the misconceptions before offering what I think are helpful conceptions.
I’ll explain what forgiveness is and a little about how we can forgive in my next essay, which I will soon post.
 See my forthcoming book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Academic, 2015).