Friday, August 30, 2013

What does it mean to forgive?

This post is a question to the handful of people who bother to read my blog. I am genuinely puzzled about what it means to forgive someone and I thought maybe some of you would have some insight.

I understand forgiving a discrete transgression or even a pattern of harmful behavior that is not deeply damaging. I can understand letting go of these things and giving a person a fresh start. But there are situations, such as when someone is abused, where it is unhealthy for the victim to wipe clean the slate and start afresh with the abuser. Often, for these victims, cutting off all contact with the abuser or figuring out a way to keep them in a place where the abuse cannot continue are incredibly healthy moves. Yet I often hear these victims being counseled to forgive their abuser.

It's all well and good to relinquish a sense of vengeance. But I have to assume that forgiveness means something different in this context than it does normally. Because normally, I think that forgiveness should be an utterly complete act, an act in which I dismantle all of the internal barriers I've constructed against someone else's poor behavior-- to truly begin the relationship anew. I think that when victims of abuse are counseled to forgive their abusers, their counselors either don't understand the true nature of forgiveness, mean to convey something different, or are stupid. Am I missing something here?


  1. As you know, I'm a fairly religious person. The reason I've chosen (so far) to stick with my religion is because I've come to see it in a more historical light, which is communitarian rather than individualistic. Since forgiveness is also central to the religious teachings of my faith, I've come to view forgiveness in similar communitarian terms

    Demands that individuals MUST FORGIVE can clearly be too great a burden for any mortal human to bear, and it infuriates me when it happens. It might make the person unsafe. It might perpetuate or expand harm to others. It might turn people away from justice. It might simply cause more suffering.

    Instead, *communities* of people in my religion are called to forgive. This can be extremely helpful and protective of individuals who suffer, while simultaneously avoiding the tribal impulse to go to war against those who've hurt one of our own.

    Once a friend in my church told me she felt guilty over the fact that she couldn't forgive an abuser. I told her, "Let us forgive him for you, until you're able to. Let us worry about how to treat him with love and care, you need care of your own."

    Obviously, this is an incredibly more complicated and difficult way of forgiving, and is a hard ideal to realize. But what I like about it is that it takes forgiveness seriously, without crushing victims with its burden. Also obviously, this can only be done with radically creative solutions to some of the most horrible problems people can face.

    I was once told about a group of 5 or 6 men who stopped attending sunday morning gatherings at their church to form a small prayer and worship fellowship with a convicted pedophile. The small congregation thought it was important to offer the man a chance for spiritual care and fellowship despite what he'd done (in other words, start on a road of forgiveness). But they couldn't allow him to continue attending the church where his presence would bring further pain to the people he'd harmed. One of the men voluntarily spending his Sunday mornings with this criminal was the father of one of the victimized children.

    It's not surprising why this is almost never accomplished in the world.

    I know my framework here has been religious, but hope there are at least some analogies that can apply to non-religious situations or people. Thanks for the thoughtful blog post, Dani.

  2. This is something I would never have even considered. Thank you!

  3. I think you are defining forgiveness to include reconciliation. Personally I don't believe that forgiveness always necessarily includes reconciliation. My understanding is that reconciliation requires two parties, but forgiveness only requires one. Forgiveness can be a personal decision that needs no return from the other party.

    Forgiveness also does not necessarily mean that you protect the person from the consequences of their actions. I realize that the standard definition of forgiveness is in fact a "pardon" which implies that you are letting someone out of the consequences of their actions and I believe there are circumstances where that kind of mercy can be good (such as when it is clear the person in question has changed and needs a fresh start). However I don't feel that a pardon 'must' take place. In the instance where someone who has committed a crime, I believe a person can forgive them without "intervening" into the legal process which holds the accused accountable for their actions.

    (For that matter, I agree with much of Dave's premise as I feel victims should be protected and given an environment to heal---I don't think forgiveness must be defined as "getting over it" and relinquishing consequences. Damage leaves scars).

    This is how I define forgiveness: Forgiveness is getting to a place where you can let go of your anger and resentment towards the person who did you wrong and move on. That may include restoration of your relationship with them and it may not. And even when restoration does happen, it likely will not happen instantly as healing is not a quick or easy process. The idea of "forgive and forget" isn't very logical since as humans we aren't capable of forcing something from our memory.

    Whether someone accepts your forgiveness doesn't really matter. Whether or not you tell them they are forgiven isn't the point. Their remorse or change isn't even a pre-requisite. The act of forgiving does not mean that things are "all better" and there are no consequences such as a loss of trust or an altering of the relationship. But I believe when people are counseled to forgive those who victimized them, the purpose isn't to enable a new potentially harmful relationship to reform*, but rather to not let the event(s) cause further damage.

    *That isn't to say that there aren't cases where people are counseled towards forgiveness in a very harmful way that forces them back into unhealthy situations. I obviously wouldn't condone that and I know it happens.

    Holding onto anger and hurt, in my experience, quickly poisons the heart. Bitterness grows. It eats away at you. It festers. In a way, by not forgiving, you're allowing the person to continue to hurt you. Holding onto an offense gives the offense a power over you and allows that person to continue to do damage. Forgiveness is as much (maybe more) for you as it is the person you are forgiving and it doesn't require reconciliation with the person (who may feel no remorse).

    I have other, more religious reasons for feeling forgiveness is important, but the ones I shared come more from personal experience than anything else. I think forgiveness is a really great step towards healing, but the sort of forgiveness I'm talking about isn't one that enables further harm.

    Have I completely redefined the word? I'm not sure. I don't think so, but perhaps I have made it something else entirely. I can't think of another word that embodies what I feel healthy forgiveness means.

  4. Thanks for that thoughtful response! I like distinguishing between forgiveness & reconciliation.

  5. After thinking more about this, I am wondering whether you think forgiveness without reconciliation is a selfish act.

  6. I don't know that the process of forgiveness is ever fully complete. I'm thinking of the whole "seventy times seven" guideline that Jesus gave, and that it indicates that there's a process at work. I don't think that forgiveness can be separated from reconciliation, either, as they are steps in the same process. Reconciliation is not just between abuser and victim, but between victim and self, between victim and other relationships in the victim's life. A person who is abused may never get to the point where they can reconcile themselves with their abuser, but if they are trying to forgive, they're always on that path. Depending on the severity of the offense, forgiving a single act could possibly not be completed in a lifetime.
    So I don't think it's an issue of selfishness but one of readiness. We're so used to considering everything in this culture in terms of goals and accomplishments and productivity that the idea of the goal being operating daily in a state of forgiveness is a bewildering one. We live in a world where forgiveness is constantly needed all around us. The only real way to cope is to forgive all the time--our country, our abusers, ourselves--where that leads should be less the concern.

  7. I've been thinking about your question. My instinct is that even though you're better off in the long run ---the benefit to you is kind of a long-term one and requires a lot of foresight. Forgiving someone, especially someone who doesn't deserve it, is difficult and not fun or at all what you feel like doing so it takes quite a bit of effort and thinking of yourself less to pull it off. That doesn't feel selfish to me. Also, you may want to reconcile with the person but that person doesn't want to, or there's something keeping you from reconciling---it's still kind towards them to relieve them of the debt to you even if they don't appreciate it or ask for it. So no, I don't think so. But I can see how it could be seen that way.