The Very Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
I recently attended a training in mediation and conflict resolution with the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center in Chicago, IL. It was probably one of the best continuing ed trainings I've ever attended, and I'm grateful for the opportunity. I learned a lot that was new to me, and got a refresher on a lot of other things. One was a refresher on the differences between forgiveness, reconciliation, and apology.
Forgiveness is a difficult topic for many people. The Bible has a lot to say about forgiveness, and it's a pretty important component of the Christian faith. That does not stop people from questioning what it's really about. "Does Jesus just want us to let people walk all over us? Are we supposed to be doormats for the sake of non-retaliation and forgiveness?"
Absolutely not! Since people ask me about this pretty regularly, I thought I'd share four things that I was reminded of at the recent training.
1. Forgiveness is not forgetting
"Forgive and forget," people will sometimes say. Absolutely not. Forgive, yes, but don't forget! Remembering the wrong doing helps to keep us safe from further harm. In his book The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, the theologian Miroslav Volf argues "that it is important not merely to remember, but to remember rightly. . . . To remember a wrongdoing is to struggle against it."
We don't want to remember in a way that continues to make us live the hurt over and over, or to remember in a way that makes us hate the wrongdoer. Remembering rightly, as Volf describes in his book, means protecting ourselves, as well as seeking justice for others.
2. Forgiveness is not excusing another's action
One of the big mistakes people make about forgiveness is believing that it's about letting the wrongdoer off the hook. No. Forgiveness does not mean condoning the bad behavior of others. It's about you! It's about the person who was wronged. In fact, you can forgive someone even if they've never apologized because we don't forgive for their benefit. We forgive for our own benefit. It's about you not holding on to bitterness and anger. I've heard it said that a refusal to forgive, and nursing grudges and resentments, is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die.
"Refusal to forgive, and nursing grudges and resentments, is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die."
Someone who has done something wrong can receive forgiveness, yet still face the consequences of their actions. Forgiving someone also doesn't mean you will necessarily remain in relationship with them because . . .
3. Forgiveness is not necessarily reconciling
This one surprises people, but it's true: forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things. Imagine someone in an abusive relationship doing the hard work of being able to forgive their abuser. Forgiving them would mean letting go of bitterness and resentment for the victim's own sake, but that doesn't mean it's wise or safe to maintain the relationship. Reconciliation is step beyond forgiveness because it means restoring relationship, which may not be what's best for either party.
As the Mennonite Peace Center explains, "People who have been harmed by others are more willing to renegotiate a relationship when they know three things: 1) That there is essential agreement as to the nature of the violation, 2) that the other person acknowledges the hurt and pain that the violation caused, and 3) That the offending person will make an apology for the hurt and pain that the violation caused."
Even then, a restored, reconciled relationship may still look different from the way it did previously, depending upon the circumstances.
4. Forgiveness is not intended to set others free
This has already been said in another way above, but again, forgiveness does not mean absolution from consequences. Think about how this works in a relationship between a parent and a child. A parent may forgive a teenager for sneaking out of the house to attend a party, but forgiving them and restoring right relationship does not mean the teenager isn't still grounded.
In a more serious scenario, someone who commits a crime may (or may not) sincerely apologize, the victim may express forgiveness, but the criminal will still face jail time.
Forgiveness is not a free pass.
What, then, is forgiveness?
"If," the Peace Center asks, "forgiveness is not pardoning, condoning, excusing, forgetting, denying, or even reconciling, then what is it? How can genuine forgiveness best be defined and understood so that it can do its work of healing in your life?"
Here's what they say: "Forgiveness is the process of reframing one's anger and hurt from the past, with the goal of recovering one's peace in the present and revitalizing one's purpose and hopes for the future."
"Forgiveness is the process of reframing one's anger and hurt from the past, with the goal of recovering one's peace in the present and revitalizing one's purpose and hopes for the future."
What do you think of that definition? Does it offer you a new way of thinking about it?
What I hope you'll remember most is that forgiveness really is about you letting go of the anger and hurt that can tear you apart. It's not about the other person at all as the definition above shows. It's about me having person agency, taking control of reframing the pain and anger I feel, and refusing to transmit it out into the world any further. I believe God asks us to forgive because ultimately it's good for us.
Maybe, too, that's why God eagerly forgives us. God's divine forgiveness may benefit us . . . but maybe it benefits God, too.