Posted by: dacalu | 17 January 2018

Unapologetic Forgiveness

A friend of mine wrote to me recently asking about the concept of forgiveness.  Specifically, he wanted to know about whether we should forgive people who have not apologized.

For me this highlights a difference between several different things related to forgiveness: letting go of the offense, removing the consequences, and restoring the relationship.  All three are important, but I would defend the first as particularly important as a Christian virtue (and Jewish, Buddhist, and Taoist).

This first type of forgiveness, the unilateral willingness to let go of the offence is an important first step in the process of reconciliation. Equally important, it is essential to personal spiritual health, even when reconciliation is impossible.

With that in mind, I’d like to suggest a number of related concepts, and the words I use for them.

Forgiveness: the one-person act of a victim letting go of the offense. This requires naming what was done and accepting that it happened, then letting go of a personal need for balance, reparation, or punishment.  It does not mean that previous trust is restored. It does mean that the victim is willing to move forward.

The failure to forgive, whether active (holding a grudge) or passive (avoidance), keeps us bound to an event historically. It encourages us to think of ourselves as victims, our neighbors as offenders, and the world as antagonistic. It acts as an emotional and spiritual anchor by sucking up energy that could be devoted to curiosity and compassion.

Forgetting the offense is not forgiveness, but avoidance. It requires ignoring the motivations and circumstances of a neighbor. In a healthy, honest relationship we care about motivations and work to prevent the same circumstance from happening again.

True forgiveness never involves a restoration of trust without new awareness. That sets both people up for repeated failure. Instead, it’s important to accept the event and move forward with a deeper understanding of expectation, motivations, and weaknesses.

Repentance (Metanoia): the one-person act of an offender turning away from a wrong. This requires naming the act, accepting responsibility, and knowing that in the same circumstances it would not occur again. It requires a feeling of loss with a desire (if not always the ability) to make up for the offense in some way. It also requires some acknowledgment that trust has been broken and expectations are different.

Repentance always involves deep personal change. It means nothing unless our fundamental decision making process has shifted.  I try to use the word “sorry” only when I am repentant – when I have recognized a change I want to make in myself and have started the process of transformation.

In my book, Thinking Fair, I talk about “conversion” as this type of fundamental change.

Reconciliation: the two-person act of restoring trust which begins with both forgiveness and repentance. A sincere apology signals repentance and may be the beginning of reconciliation. It is only the beginning, however. True reconciliation incorporates the “offense” into a deeper mutual understanding.

A number of other words relate to forgiveness, without being quite the same thing. Amnesty and absolution involve the removal of formal consequences in civil and religious communities (respectively). Payment, reparation, and remittance refer to the restoration of balance.  When based on repentance, they can be great tools for reconciliation. When imposed, they can equally be used for avoidance or even revenge.

In the Bible, Jesus speaks of forgiveness as the unconditional, unilateral act of letting go. He forgives those who torture him and tells his disciples to forgive those who persecute them. There is nothing transactional in this, neither requirement or expectation of repentance. The act of forgiveness is good in itself; it frees the one who forgives. It also frees the forgiven, by promising the possibility of reconciliation.

I would end by saying that true forgiveness is no easier than true repentance. It reshapes the way we look at the world and makes us new people. Sometimes God gives us grace to make giant leaps – to forgive horrendous crimes or truly rethink our own choices. Most of the time, though it happens by tiny steps. It’s worth starting now, by letting go of the little annoyances of the day, so that in time we may work up to the kind of change that Jesus asks – and demonstrates.

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