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Dr. Baker’s column appears the first Sunday of each month. Quotes from some of the readers may be selected to be summarized and shared in next month’s column with your permission. To protect the anonymity of respondents, no names, photos, or identifying information will be provided. To share your point of view and thoughts about forgiveness, please send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Many people hold misconceptions about the concept of “forgiveness.” Picking up where last month’s Point of View column left off, let’s first examine what forgiving is not.
What it is not
True forgiveness does not happen if it is perceived as a duty, responsibility or obligation. On the surface, perhaps pseudo-forgiveness might be experienced briefly, but true forgiveness is not something that can be forced. True forgiveness comes from the heart and is borne out of a heartfelt desire to release feelings of resentment and/or revenge and to move forward emotionally in a place of peace.
Forgiving does not means that we act as enablers to angry or injurious people or that we allow ourselves to be doormats open to being walked on again and again. Nor does forgiveness mean that we must dismiss a wrongdoing as if it never happened. One cannot undo what has been done, and attempts to do so can result in denial.
Forgiveness does not mean foregoing punishment or giving up one’s right to see justice done. For instance, if a person causes a car accident, though it may have been unintentional, the person is still held accountable for the damages they caused and are likely to receive a citation, even if the injured party harbors no longstanding anger or resentment toward them and genuinely forgives them.
Oftentimes the words ‘reconciliation’ and ‘trust’ are thought to be synonymous with the term forgiveness. When looking at what forgiveness is not, I think it is critical to understand that reconciliation and forgiveness are very different, and that trusting and forgiveness are also very different.
It’s wonderful when forgiveness can go hand in hand with the restoration of trust in a relationship and with reconciliation. And, this is especially so when it involves family members or loved ones. But, sadly, sometimes it is not feasible and cannot happen. Certainly, the forgiveness process is much easier if the offender acknowledges and is truly remorseful for their offense. Unfortunately, however, this is not always the case. One may desire to forgive and choose to do so even though they know they cannot trust or be reconciled with the offender. An individual may desire to forgive someone who is not only unremorseful, but who doesn’t even acknowledge wrongdoing, and who, perhaps, is still injurious.
My point is that you can forgive a person who you no longer allow to have a front row seat in your life.
What is forgiveness?
In examining what forgiveness is, we must recognize, first and foremost, that it involves acknowledgment of wrongdoing. Think about it this way: “If there was no wrong, and no wrongdoer, then, simply put, there would be no reason, no one, and no thing to forgive.” This acknowledgment often evokes anger, then hurt and perhaps deep sadness, depending on the gravity of the injury. I believe that acknowledging the injury and feeling any anger that may be related to it is painful — but a necessary and significant part of the forgiveness process early on. As Lewis Smedes said in one of his books: “Forgiveness is a journey, the deeper the wound, the longer the journey.”
The trouble with forgiveness is that, while the benefits are great, like most other things worth having, it is hard work — and you really have to want it.
When I first began studying forgiveness well over a decade ago, I noted something that Oprah Winfrey said that I believe to be true: “If you don’t heal the wounds from your past, if you just try to bandage them, you will continue to bleed.”
For some, pondering this alternative might be a motivator that leads to the desire to forgive. But, above all else, it is clear to me that forgiveness is both a choice and a challenge. And, as a supporter of the individual’s right to self-determination, it is my belief, that whatever an individual’s choice is regarding the personal and delicate matter of forgiveness, it is to be respected.
Here some reader comments to last month’s Point of View column, which explored the misconceptions of the concept of “forgive and forget”:
“Forgiveness helps a survivor move on. Never forgetting keeps you from becoming a victim again. I have forgiven a prior spouse regarding what I believe was an abusive, psychologically damaging relationship. … Never forgetting has prevented involvement in that life or type of relationship and promoted a stable marriage to my current (and last) husband. Forgiveness helps move you forward. Not forgetting assists in choosing between a healthy or unhealthy relationship.”
“When I think of forgiveness, I always think of the Lord’s Prayer. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we always ask God to forgive us as we forgive others. If we hesitate to forgive others, then God is justified to hesitate to forgive us. God does not want this, and we certainly don’t. Forgetting is a separate matter in my thinking. Though, if remembering stirs bitterness, it may mean we have not really forgiven the offense.”