Exploring Forgiveness (3 part series)
This is part one of a three-part series about forgiveness. This article will explore how we define forgiveness. I’ll write two more articles in the coming weeks about what happens when we forgive others in a real way and some ideas on how to do this. Join me on my “journey” through this experience.
Part 1 (A choice of heart or mind?)
I often battle with myself trying to decide what people in what situations are deserving of my forgiveness. I usually start by weighing how severe the “crime” was in contrast to how much “positive” history we have together. Next, I wait for their apology. If an apology comes I usually believe they deserve to be forgiven.
But is this the way I really want to live with those around me? What if an apology never comes? Should forgiveness still be given? What should determine why we FORGIVE or DO NOT forgive? I’m starting to believe that if I use a “justice” based system to approve my choice to forgive. It’s likely not true forgiveness. I”ll share a few stories that raised this question in my mind.
Justified forgiveness. Is it really forgiveness?
forgiven due to (positive history)
A few years ago, a close friend and confidant revealed information about some of my, hmm… how can I say, less than flattering behavior to some of my family members.This resulted in multiple family members guilting and shaming me because of what I had done. I felt betrayed because I had trusted him with this information and he shared it in a way that brought me pain. Although he committed this act of “treason” against me, we had many years enjoying each other’s friendship. Because of this, I was able to justify forgiving him. Even though he did not apologize. I didn’t ask him for an apology or mention anything to Him about it. It took me a few months to conclude I did not want to risk losing this friendship. I felt sad, angry, disappointed and distant during this time.
forgiven due to (apology)
During my late teenage years. I played in a band with my friend. We scheduled a fairly important show and had been practicing for nearly 2 months in preparation. 1 week before the show my friend called me and said he wasn’t going to play the show. I asked him why, and his answer was simply ” I don’t feel like this is something I want to do any longer” so he was stepping back and would not be playing at our show. It was a huge blow to our relationship. I thought this was a stable and trusting friendship. (note. A musician by definition is NOT stable 🙂 My friend did offer an apology and felt bad that he resigned. In spite of his last-minute breaking of commitment. I deemed him “worthy” of my forgiveness due to his apology. (If we use this method to determine whether forgiveness is offered we will often create an additional challenge for ourselves. Trying to determine if the offender was REALLY sorry, or only just saying they were)
If I only forgive someone when I am able to find a reason why it’s deserved is it really forgiveness? Or am I only trying to preserve what that specific relationship offers me? Maybe I don’t want to risk losing companionship, shared interests, attention, sexual benefits or ______?
What happens when I face a situation where I cannot find a justifiable reason to forgive? Another story…
I grew up in a family similar to many others. For most, it’s a mix of good and bad experiences. This story relates to my mother. My mother had many faults that affected our family in a negative way. The fact that each of us has faults or that they affect those around us negatively is not uncommon. Actually, it’s completely normal. But healthy people take the time to apologize for their wrongs and try harder next time to avoid repeating the same mistakes. (often this requires counseling or other professional therapy).
My mother was not one to apologize. In spite of feeling bad for what she had done or said, she had a very difficult time apologizing or taking responsibility for her hurtful actions. Any number of reasons can make it difficult for someone to apologize even if they feel guilty.(I will try to reveal a bit more about this in article 3). Even as she was suffering from cancer for 3 years that led up to her death (in early 2016). She was unable or unwilling to apologize for most of her wrongs. In this situation, I was faced with a big challenge. As I reflected, I had a list a mile long of things that my mother hurt me or my family with.The list wrongs are long enough and deep enough that I struggle to find justifiable reasons that forgiveness is deserved.
I had to come to terms with the fact that I will never hear an apology from my mother or see her adjust her behavior towards me or my family. I will never see a restoration of healthy family relations. My thoughts could not produce an acceptable solution. I realized that when there is no apology and no change of attitude from the guilty, forgiveness becomes a choice of the heart, not of the mind.
“Forgiveness can only be given or received when we realize that neither others nor ourselves deserve it.”
Look up the meaning of the word “grace” and you will find an explanation of “undeserved favor”. Ironically, this was one of my mothers’ favorite words. The root of authentic forgiveness is born in the definition of grace. Forgiveness is only possible when we come to terms with the idea that forgiveness cannot be earned or deserved. I think we often resist this idea because deep down we know that WE ALSO will need to be forgiven by others. In some twisted selfishness, I would like to think others will forgive me because I deserve it. Because I was good to them, because I was honest (most of the time). Because I tried to help or be kind in the past. None of this makes us deserving of forgiveness. Forgiveness can only be given or received when we realize that neither others nor ourselves deserve it.
There is a very well written chapter on forgiveness in the book “Boundaries” by Townsend and Cloud. You can see a short excerpt here.
When I reflect on all the wasted months and years carrying anger in my life I can see the loss of so much happiness and enjoyment I could’ve had in my relationships. I am very grateful that I was able to discover this “secret” of forgiveness relatively early in my life. In my next article I”ll talk about the effects of forgiveness on ourselves and others, and why forgiveness may be a good choice even when the offender doesn’t deserve it! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post or some feedback about how YOU define forgiveness.