Sometimes forgiveness . . . isn’t. Here’s what I mean.
1. I’m very sweet to you, but it’s all about my control.
I keep saying, “Oh, it’s all right,” or “Let’s just forget about it,” but I never actually say, “I forgive you,” even though you ask my forgiveness. This is my way of holding over you whatever you’ve done. I’m saying everything is fine, but you are left wondering when the other shoe will drop. We both know that if another problem develops between us, I’m going to bring up this other thing you did—even though at the time I said, “Oh, it’s all right.”
2. Rather than forgive the wrong, I minimize the wrong and don’t deal with it.
I say, “Oh, don’t worry about it. Of course I forgive you.” But I end the discussion before the two of us are able to acknowledge the harm that was done. I gloss over the event/offense as if it’s not really that bad, even though both of us know that it caused much hurt. I do this because digging into the wound would be painful for me and for you, and I just want to avoid the pain. Unfortunately, by avoiding this pain, I allow the initial wound to remain unhealed.
3. I call it forgiveness, but actually it is a form of enabling.
My husband keeps abusing me, or my grown child keeps taking advantage of me. So I keep forgiving the offense because—isn’t that what Christians are supposed to do? No. The Christian life is about ongoing conversion, about healing, about helping ourselves and others grow into Christlikeness. When I forgive abuse while remaining in the situation and participating in the dysfunction, I have become an enabler.* The husband becomes even more violent, more often. The grown son or daughter refuses to grow up and learn to manage life better. This sort of “forgiveness” doesn’t help anyone. When Jesus saved a wrongdoer from the death sentence, he said, “Go, and sin no more”; he forgave the sin but required real change in the sinner. So forgive the man who beats you, but get away from him—involve police and attorneys if necessary. Forgive the child, but stop paying her bills and babysitting for free and at her convenience; she may finally own her problems and learn to solve them for herself. Be free of bitterness over the wrongdoing, but protect yourself—and the wrongdoer—from more of the same. And do not allow others, no matter how well-meaning, to get in the way of your personal survival and progress by selectively quoting a few Bible verses on forgiveness minus any context or spiritual depth.
4. I say, “I forgive you,” but what I really want is to force a change.
If I forgive you, then maybe you’ll relent and do things my way. If I forgive you, maybe we can go back to the way things used to be. If I forgive you, maybe you’ll see me in a whole new way and everything can be better. If I have a tendency to manipulate or try to manipulate people and situations, I will be tempted to use forgiveness—or the appearance of forgiveness—to obtain a certain outcome. Forgiveness is not about getting other people to be different or to behave differently. Forgiveness simply frees me and the other person from past wrong or hurt. It’s nice when forgiveness becomes the impetus for good change, but we don’t forgive in order to force change. Forced change does not endure anyway.
- When do you know that your forgiveness is not really forgiveness?
- When do you know that another person’s show of forgiveness is not the real thing—or is it even possible to determine false/true about someone else’s forgiveness?
*Domestic violence is pervasive and no respecter of persons. The violence is never the fault of the person being abused. In this post I am speaking in quite general terms about how misconceptions about forgiveness can lead us to remain in bad situations. Victims of domestic violence do end up “participating” in unhealthy family systems; this in no way implies that they have caused the problem but that they are caught up in a web of relational behaviors that self-propagate and harm everyone involved.