Welcome to the second installment of our blog series on forgiveness. This is such a massive topic but we’re only able to touch on a few things here. I’m currently in the process of writing a book on this, which will be more comprehensive. However, I hope that you find these blogs helpful.
Forgiveness is unfortunately a deeply-misunderstood topic. Before we go any further, I think we'd better pause and talk for a minute about what forgiveness is, and what it is not. Let's start by examining some of the most common fallacies about forgiveness.
Fallacy #1: Forgiveness is a feeling
The world tells us that we're helpless to control our feelings and thoughts, and Christians often buy in to this lie. How many times have we heard the phrase "the heart wants what the heart wants"? This is usually spoken in the context of someone helplessly following wherever their heart leads them. But we have more control over our thoughts and feelings than we think we do.
Let's go back to the fallacy for a minute: "forgiveness is a feeling". The world tells us that forgiveness, like thankfulness, is a feeling. However, I would submit that in actuality forgiveness is about 80% decision, and 20% feeling. We can decide to forgive, even if we don't feel like doing so. Our choices can transcend our feelings.
"But wait a minute," someone might say, "If I try to forgive someone without first feeling forgiving, am I not being hypocritical?”
The definition of a hypocrite is someone whose deeds and words don't match up. If I give a speech on the destructiveness of fossil fuels, telling everyone to buy electric cars, and then I go and purchase a gas-guzzling SUV, then I am a hypocrite. My deeds and words do not match up. Feelings do not enter into the equation.
When we call ourselves followers of Christ, then we'd better be sure that out actions are, well...following Him! Hypocrisy doesn’t enter into the equation if we are truly living lives submitted to Christ. We must choose to give Jesus the authority over our lives that we say He has.
Forgiveness—even when we don't feel like it—is not hypocritical. We do not let our feelings rule us. Instead, when we forgive we are doing what we say we will do. We are following Christ.
Fallacy #2: Forgive and Forget
Though the phrase "forgive and forget" is quoted often in Western culture, it is not actually located in the Bible. There is no command to "forgive and forget". There is only the command to forgive.
It's true that when we forgive, eventually our memories will begin to fade, and we may forget the sharpness of pain and distress caused by the wrongs that have been committed against us. But this is not so much about forgetting as it is about gaining freedom from the injustices that have been done against us in the past.
So, back to the fallacy. Forgiving does not mean automatically forgetting the wrongs that have been done. This is not Biblical, so let us dispense with that fiction right here and now.
Fallacy #3: Forgiveness makes excuses and lets the other person off the hook
Let's get something straight. Forgiveness doesn't let anyone off of the hook but ourselves. Without it, we are irrevocably tied to the person who has wronged us. With it, we can experience unparalleled joy and healing and peace.
Forgiveness does not mean that what was done to injure us was okay.
In an essay on forgiveness, the renowned theologian C.S. Lewis once mused, "...if one is not really to blame, then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites.”*
I've noticed a interesting trend in the recent verbiage of our society when people are forgiving others. These days when someone apologizes, people often respond with, "That's okay, it's not your fault."
They say this sometimes even when it blatantly is the other person's fault.
This phrasing is at best disingenuous to our emotional reality. It minimizes our hurt and diminishes the wrong. When we have been hurt, there is an emotional need within our hearts to recognize the wrong, and to have the offender recognize it too. When we minimize our own hurt, we short-circuit our healing process.
When we engage this mentality, we also make our forgiveness less robust. Let us do a thought experiment. Imagine that I have wronged a friend. She has 'forgiven' me with the words, "That's okay, it's not your fault."
But I deeply know that the hurt was my fault. Do I feel confident in my friend's forgiveness? Perhaps our relationship is less strained...for now. But my friend has not acknowledged my guilt. I may not recognize it consciously, but there is now uncertainty in our relationship. This is because one of the key components of forgiveness lies in considering the offending party guilty, and forgiving that person anyway.
As time wears on, I become more and more uneasy.
What if my friend later realizes that the hurt was my fault? Will her forgiveness still hold?
If we have been wronged by someone with whom we are continuing in relationship, 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 doesn't whitewash sin. It calls sin what it is: evil and destructive. It acknowledges that what was done was wrong, and allows us to bow our heads and mourn what was lost. Without properly recognizing sin and wrongdoing for what they are, there can be no redemption or reconciliation.***
Fallacy #4: I need an apology to forgive
Luke 23 tells a poignant story.
Jesus is in extraordinary pain, dying on the cross. He looks out over the people gathered to watch Him die.
There are His disciples at the back, watching from a distance, their hearts breaking along with their dreams as they see their leader publicly mocked and executed.
There are the Pharisees, gloating over their victory, along with the demons.
There are the rest of the people, the multitudes who once hung on his every word and deed, now watching Him hang for their words and deeds.
And there are the Roman soldiers, playing dice at the foot of His cross for the clothing they ripped from His body before driving metal spikes through His hands and feet.
Every breath costs Him. Jesus pushes himself up from His feet. A lightning bolt of pain crackles up His legs. Inhale. This breath is precious. He's paid a price for this puff of air, and He plans to use it for something more precious still.
"Father forgive them." He looks at the soldiers. There is the one who spit in His face, the one who placed the purple robe on His shredded back. "Father to forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
The soldiers never apologized, but Jesus asked His Father to forgive them. He would not have asked for this without Himself first having forgiven. It's human nature, and also the nature of forgiveness: without first forgiving those who have wronged us, we cannot act on their behalf to solicit forgiveness from others for them.
By implication Jesus had already forgiven the soldiers, without their apology.
It is true that people cannot receive true forgiveness without first repenting of their deeds. Relationships cannot be restored to health without repentance. But wounded people can choose to forgive even if those who have hurt them are unrepentant.
This forgiveness may be free, but it is anything but cheap. A sacrifice is required to give it, and a sacrifice—of our own pride—is required to receive it.
Next time we will explore what forgiveness is, now that we know what it is not.
* C.S. Lewis. ”Essay on Forgiveness." (New York: Macmillian Publishing Company Inc., 1960).
** Johann Christoph Arnold. Why Forgive? (Rifton, New York: The Plough Publishing House, 2012), 52.
*** Johann Christoph Arnold. Why Forgive? (Rifton, New York: The Plough Publishing House, 2012), 167.