Forgiveness — What It is Not
Article 4-A of the Forgiveness Section of the Positive Psychology Series
In my recent series of articles on forgiveness – a key component in the study of Positive Psychology – I have discussed the researched benefits of forgiveness and the relational power of apology. Most recently, I have presented an extended discussion on what forgiveness actually is. This next series discusses the opposite, and explores some common misconceptions about forgiveness. In this article, I begin by outlining what forgiveness is not.
Forgiveness is Not Forgetting
Even if you forgive someone with all your heart, the hurt from the transgression does not suddenly disappear. It is not forgotten. The phrase “forgive and forget” is much like “and they lived happily ever after” – it is misleading. Life is not designed to be free from hurt or safe from scary moments, but rather to be full. If we were able to just forget a transgression and the pain it caused, then forgiveness would not be worth much because it wouldn’t cost much. Consider the fairytale couple: If a couple actually did live happily ever after, their goal in the relationship could not have been intimacy (fullness) but rather safety from ever being unhappy (pain). That sounds like a tall order. But the phrase is based on the idea that marriage completes a person by making their life happy, rather than the belief that relationships are journeys that bring fullness. When faced with pain, it is natural for human beings to try to do whatever we can to either make pain disappear or deny that it exists, whether this is rational or not. Forgiveness stands in opposition to this constant effort – it is essentially the opposite of forgetting.
The fact is that transgressions are hurtful. Forgiveness occurs in the painful wake of a wrong, and therefore the hurt cannot be forgotten simply by an act of will. Forgiveness is not described as a process because it has a beginning, a middle, and then comes to conclusion, but rather because it takes time for the heart to line-up with what the mind has decided. Unfortunately for those who have experienced pain, there is no rite, no act of will, and no intentional switch that can mechanically cause someone to forget a transgression. If human beings were able to simply “undo” the hurts they go through, then we would call the mending process erasing instead of healing. But pain and healing are journeys that human beings must go through. This means that forgiveness is a process and is not instantaneous. Just as forgiveness takes time, so forgetting may come over time. But if some wounds are “forgotten” (read: repressed), they will last a person’s lifetime. Indeed, their memory may be necessary in order to go through the healing process. However, forgiveness may be the most effective step toward forgetting.
Forgiveness is Not Accepting Repeated Transgressions
“Forgive and forget” often implies a sort of moral obligation to “remember no more.” One might get the idea that forgiveness means choosing to take a stance to not dwell on a transgression. This is a positive idea, but it also can cause a wound to the injured party. They may either feel guilty for not being able to forget or “get over” their hurt, or they may be asked offer a clean slate to an unsafe party. Here we encounter the importance of boundaries and of our life-long, interpersonal learning process. When a person wrongs you, you may need to draw a boundary with them just as much as you need to forgive them. “Forget” should not mean “ignore it.”
Moreover, the transgressor might not think that they did anything wrong. Or the transgressor may have hurt you on purpose, or may be eager to take advantage of you again. Or the transgression may have resulted from an interaction that included your own transgression. In these situations, forgetting would not be beneficial (and forgiveness would be even more important). One should use such transgressions to educate oneself on drawing boundaries in order to avoid repeating history. For example, if the transgression involved someone using you for their own ends, you have the clear option to say “no” to such attempts in the future when you recognize them. Forgiveness does not give permission to transgress again.
Forgiveness Does Not Mean Trust
In a similar vein, forgiving a transgressor does not mean trusting them. Trust is certainly a possible action, but it is not an essential trait of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a constant must in marriage, as is working to trust one another, despite the fact that both partners transgress against each other with some regularity, whether unintentionally or on purpose. But in other situations, trusting a transgressor would not be appropriate. Examples of this could include where the transgressor does not think that they did anything wrong, where they hurt you on purpose, or where you do not know the transgressor. The forgiveness given is for your sake, not theirs; wait for them to engage in the relationship and earn your trust by indicating that their goal is to be trustworthy.
Forgiveness Does Not Condone the Transgression
No matter what caused a person to transgress (even when the transgressor was only reacting to the hurt in their own life), forgiveness does not imply that it is alright for someone to treat you that way. This concept may be a very important step for someone who wants to forgive. There is often a fear in forgiveness that cries out, “But it was wrong!” As I noted in my series of articles on what forgiveness is, forgiveness as an act intrinsically declares that the transgression was wrong. There are times when feelings were hurt and forgiveness is needed, even when there was no wrong involved beyond ignorance. However, when a wrong has clearly been committed, forgiveness does not exonerate the transgressor, nor does it condone the transgression. It is simply a stance that releases them from your own judgment.
Christian Counseling to Tap into the Power of Forgiveness
If you would like to engage in counseling from a strengths-based perspective, please contact me to inquire about setting up an initial session in order to explore how Christian counseling might fit with your journey and perhaps assist you in the matter of forgiveness. As a Christian counselor, it is my pleasure to join with clients and help them to see the ways in which they have already overcome in life, and how God has uniquely shaped them, both to do great things and to experience joy and goodness in their lives and relationships.
“Happily Ever After Tag,” courtesy of AForestFrolic, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Trust,” courtesy of Vagawi, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “. . . wait a minute,” courtesy of Md saad andalib, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)