Notes on Forgiveness

Forgiveness is contentious. It is sine qua non for certain human freedoms and healing; hence the need to forgive seventyseven times, or seventy times seven, depending on which gospel account we read. It also seems counter intuitive; in popular language it seems to "let people off." For example, "He forgave the debt." People's willingness to forgive is often exploited, and used as an excuse to continue abuse. Forgiveness deals with sometimes severe human pain, so this page is called "Notes on forgiveness." There is nothing complete about this page. It follows on from the lectionary reading which has some commentary here.

Some careful thinking will clarify the confusion and facilitate our healing. This includes distinguishing between popular and theological understandings of the term.

To begin: the forgiving person- the forgivee- may choose to waive reparation. They may also choose not to hold the one who is forgiven responsible according to the normal morés of society. (Occasionally one reads in the press of a victim asking the courts for leniency for a perpetrator.) The emphasis is on may. Forgiveness does not intrinsically waive reparation.

Being forgiven does not ever make what I did right. The forgivee should never say, "It's ok." That means there is nothing to forgive. If I did wrong, I did wrong, and nothing can ever change that. The forgivee may say, "I forgive." If they say, "It's ok," or "It doesn't matter," they are not actually forgiving. They're saying it's ok, which is not forgiveness. This is not being pedantic for the sake of it. We need to understand that when we are forgiven, it is not being said that it is ok or doesn't matter. The injury or wrong is still wrong.

It is doubly wrong to do it again. Forgiveness never gives the right to repeat the wrong. If a thing is wrong, it should not be done again, and should not have happened the first time.

And to repeat myself, forgiveness does not remove the possible need for reparation. If I, as a drunken driver, kill a father of four, it is arguable that, forgiven or not, I should order my life to support those children to independence, just as their father would have done. Forgiveness is not a "get out of jail free" card. Forgiveness may indeed be experienced like that by the forgiven person, but may also leave them with many obligations. (I sometimes wonder if instead of jail time, more fitting societal punishment might be, for example, a 30% docking of all my salary (gross) to go towards that other family's income, plus the requirement of a Saturday job which pays entirely towards them.)

What then can forgiveness be, if obligations remain?

I believe forgiveness is the restoration of ruptured relationships. The essence of life and society, is not money, success, beauty or happiness. The essence, and the best of life, is in relationships. Even a religion which places high value on submission and obedience to its God as the essence of life, talks at its best, about relationship.

Where I have broken a relationship by wronging you, forgiveness is the process of healing and restoration of you, and me, and the relationship. Some of my emphasis that forgiveness does not right a wrong, or automatically absolve the need for reparation, comes from the belief that reparation may assist that healing and restoration. Certainly, full healing and restoration can not occur if there is a denial of the actual responsibility of wrong doing.

For me to be forgiven, I must acknowledge that I have wronged someone. I must also repent; which means to turn away from the act of harming and wronging. It is not just the case that this happened. It should also be the case that my living is altered, even matured, so that this will not happen again.

For me, there is no optional component of reparation. The word has the same root as repair. My repentance needs to be prepared to make active repairs toward restoring the relationship. To begin, my acknowledgement cannot be only to myself. I must acknowledge the hurt I have done to the person themselves.

Restoration, my side of the forgiveness equation, means in the ideal case, that person can relate to me, and have me near them, not fearing that the wrong will be repeated. Their part in the equation, is that although I did wrong, and even although I may be paying cold hard cash to help repair the damage, I have not been cast out. I am not less than a person. I am not enemy. I need not live in fear of revenge.

On the other side of things:

For me to forgive, I must let go of my hurt. In an ideal situation, if I have been harmed by my lover, somehow the hurt will be resolved so that we may still love freely and fully again. I am the one who controls this process. I am the one who must let go of the hurt. My lover can make all possible reparation, and can repent fully, and never repeat the injury, but I can refuse to let it go.

Holding an unforgiveness to myself is an act of resentment. It is act-ive. It costs me energy to maintain. It takes energy from me to a greater or lesser extent. It prevents healing. Without in any way negating or minimizing the offence done to me, it is true to say that I can compound that same injury by holding onto it, by nursing it, by fostering and growing it. It is a toxic thing to do.

Speaking of the church at its best, as a glimpse of heaven, Jesus says whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Matt 16:19 et al. As much as I hold onto my hurt, just that much do I bind it to me and prevent glimpses of heavenly life through full relationships with others. As much as I let go, just that much am I able to live the full fellowship of life together in Christ.

The toxicity of resentment seeps from one compartment of life to another, and stains what is round about. If I will not forgive you, and nurse my resentment, it will seep into my love for my wife, and spoil that relationship too.

Of course, situations are often not ideal.

  • There can be no two sided relationship where the drunken driver who killed my wife and children has also died in the accident.
  • The psychopath, by definition, will not ever repent of raping me. Bound in her own misery, the person who slandered me out of my job is unlikely ever to apologise, or even remotely realize, the pain and humiliation she has caused.
  • This man will not repent- he wishes me more harm.

But even in these situations, I am the one who controls the process of forgiveness, and healing. There may be no apology, no reparation, no repentance, but I can choose to hold my hurt, or let it go.

  • I may not be able to continue working in that office, but I can begin the long task of finding a new job constantly practicing my pain and rehashing my resentment, or I can look to the future.
  • It may be clear I can never trust that person again, and that for my safety I must not. But I can also refuse to trust anyone ever again, or I can seek to learn slowly to trust others.
  • I can take small steps, and be reserved with men, and keep myself safe in relationships, or I can choose to cut myself off from half the population from the world.
  • I can lump all the pain of my failed relationship and dump it on every other woman and hate her in isolation, or I let it go, and begin again.

There is a lazy, abusive ex husband. He constantly tries to cheat on his child support. He continues the abuse by seeking to manipulate the children during custody visits and by reneging on arrangements. He carefully keeps the abuse at a level which is not actionable. There will never be any repentance. It is only cowardice that keeps the abuse as non physical as it is. All the woman can do is to keep safe, and refuse to hate and resent. As much as she can name him as the pig that he is, but then get on with life, and avoid self pity and nurturing her natural resentment and hurt, just that much she can be free.

Below, I quote Fraser Watts saying forgiveness "has both inner and outer aspects and it is unhelpful for them to become dissociated. If they do, forgiveness becomes either silent, or empty." I wonder. In the extreme, Weary Dunlop seems to have been able to forgive his captors in the prison camps. In my own trivial experience, I have mostly been able to let go of an abuse that left me seriously ill. There has certainly been no apology or reparation there.

Perhaps thinking about forgiveness is a bit like Newtonian physics and Quantum physics. At the extremes, Newtonian physics fail. It is questionable if I have any right to speak to the woman in the situation above; the situation is extreme and currently there is no ending the injury; it goes on.

Indeed in authoritarian situations, insistence of forgiveness can be an abuse in itself. Kramer and Alstead (Kramer, Joel and Alstead, Diana, The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, ISBN 1-883319-00-5) are quoted in Wikipedia saying " religious imperatives of forgiveness are often used to perpetrate cycles of ongoing abuse. They state that ‘to forgive without requiring the other to change is not only self-destructive, but ensures a dysfunctional relationship will remain so by continually rewarding mistreatment.'" This agrees with what I have observed in parish life.

Professor Fraser Watts speaks about the "dark aspects of forgiveness," in which he includes the use of forgivness to perpetrate abuse. As he says, "Especially if people have suffered abuse, to press them to forgive before they are ready may be felt almost as an additional form of abuse." He also notes the "danger that premature forgiveness may encourage people to flip too quickly into an up-beat mood before they have done the inner work necessary for the benefits of forgiveness to be felt." He quotes a book by James Hillman, Suicide and the Soul (1964, Hodder &Stoughton), saying "there is a 'soul-making' that comes from allowing distress to run its natural course." The soul making indeed comes from mourning; where I have avoided letting myself feel my hurt I have progressed nowhere. But that soul making only continues when we get up again and let go of the hurts as best we are able. Such forgiveness may never get beyond us being able to let go for greater or lesser periods of time. Yet even that is far more free and healthy than nursing the hurt.

Andrew Prior


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