Article 4-B of the Forgiveness Section of the Positive Psychology Series
My previous article began to explore what forgiveness is not. This article continues this discussion and addresses some common misunderstandings and possible pitfalls for those who are seeking to forgive.
Forgiveness is Not Weakness
To forgive someone does not mean being a pushover, and true forgiveness is anything but an act of acquiescence. Rather, it is an act of power – true power. It means setting aside your instinct of self-preservation and instead choosing a higher moral act – simply because it is the right thing to do. This cannot be done off-handedly and neither can it be coerced. Forgiveness is for your sake and not the other person’s – if you forgive someone to make them feel better, is it really forgiveness? Is it forgiveness if you forgive in order to make a problem disappear, or to appease someone? Doing so will simply build resentment for you, which is the opposite of forgiveness.
When forgiveness is true, it is an act of strength that frees the heart from resentment and the guilty party from judgment.
Forgiveness is Not the Subversion of Justice
Forgiving someone does not necessarily mean that you must now promote their free pardon from any consequences. In some cases, you will be the only party who can condemn them or press charges and your forgiveness may mean freeing them from those consequences. However, forgiveness is also a complex concept. One may forgive a child for stealing, but it would still be wise for them to face the consequences of their behavior so that they learn an important lesson. Is it merciful to trivialize a transgression that may become someone’s harmful habit? Is it merciful to let a murderer go free? In some cases, the answer may be yes and this shows us that forgiveness is complex. However, it is certainly true that in other cases consequences and justice need to be carried out in concert with forgiveness. They are not mutually exclusive.
Forgiveness is Not a Feeling
This is also an important piece of the forgiveness story. There is no guarantee that forgiveness will bring any particular feeling, such as relief or joy. As with so many spiritual disciplines, positive feelings are a wondrous phenomenon and a lovely gift that often coincide with doing the right thing. Yet, like so many other spiritual disciplines, doing what is right is not contingent on having good feelings. You do not need to feel better toward your transgressor in order to forgive them. You just need to make an effort to act with freedom.
Your acts of forgiveness will hopefully lead to mended relationships, appreciation, and a healing that you can feel. However, even when these positive experiences do accompany your choice to forgive, it may take some time for them to fully manifest themselves. And forgiveness must precede them in order for you to experience them.
To Forgive is Not Necessarily to Reconcile
It is wonderful when forgiveness and reconciliation go hand in hand. In 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, the Word of God commands us to seek reconciliation as a full-time occupation:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the ministry of reconciliation.
Nevertheless, forgiveness and reconciliation are distinct concepts. There will be many times when every forgiver must experience that reconciliation – the healing or creation of a relational bond – is not possible.
The important proviso here is to ensure that forgiveness comes from the same heart as the desire for reconciliation. If you are not willing to meet your transgressor in their desire to reconcile with you, then did you truly forgive? In some cases this is a matter of safety, and reconciling with each other might be unsafe. However, where there is mutual relationship, “forgiveness” is cheap if you are not willing to reconcile, and forgiveness could simply be a legalistic attempt to be in the right without having to risk your heart in trust through actual forgiveness. We should always seek to reconcile. But we should not expect reconciliation to always accompany forgiveness.
Christian Counseling to Tap into the Power of Forgiveness
If you would like to engage in Christian counseling from a strengths-based perspective, please contact me to inquire about setting up an initial session in order to explore how counseling might fit with your journey and perhaps assist you in the matter of forgiveness. 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.