What does forgiveness really mean? I’ve been thinking about this for several years and struggling with the implications of what forgiveness includes and what it doesn’t include. After much reading and discussion, here’s what I’ve come up with:
What forgiveness means:
- Forgiveness means you don’t act in retribution or vengeance to the person who has wronged you. You don’t punish or retaliate.
- Forgiveness means you do (or can) wish for the person who has wronged you, “May the Lord give you Peace” – this is the stance you take toward the person in your heart.
- You realize that forgiveness is a gift you are giving yourself in the sense that you are only responsible for *your* own behavior – you are not responsible for how someone else acts or responds. Letting go of your own anger and hatred sets you free.
- You may open the door to the person to restore the relationship.
What forgiveness does not mean:
- Forgiveness does not mean you are saying what the person did is OK.
- Forgiveness does not mean you have any obligation to continue in the relationship with the person. You can forgive and also protect yourself from toxic people and toxic relationships by no longer engaging in those relationships. Really, its ok. Even if it’s your mother or your brother or your son, you can say to them – or just in your own mind – that “I understand your behavior and I wish no ill to come to you, and (as Bishop Tutu said) I am not going to let you victimize me and hold me in a position where I have an anger against you, a resentment, and [in which] I’m looking for the opportunity to pay back.”
- You may decide to continue in the relationship, and “turn the other cheek”- but I recommend being watchful for patterns of behavior that continue. Destructive behavior is not acceptable, even if it is forgivable.
- Forgiving someone does not necessarily mean that the pain of the situation will go away – this usually takes time and is not usually an act of the will.
What does the person being forgiven need to do?
- If you offer someone who has wronged you the gift of forgiveness, the person being forgiven must open herself to it in order to receive it. They can do do this by confessing, apologizing or by seeking atonement. (see Bishop Tutu’s remarks on this below)
What is the spiritual element of forgiveness?
- Rob Brezsny says “The 17th-century surgeon Wilhelm Hilden had an interesting theory about healing. He developed a medicinal salve that he applied not to the wound itself but rather to the weapon that inflicted it. Though today we may sneer at such foolishness, the fact is that Hilden’s approach has great potential if used for psychic wounds. Jesus understood this when he articulated the revolutionary formula, “Love your enemy.” More than any other action, this strategy has the power to cure you of the distortions your enemy has unleashed in you. Try it out.”
- In Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen describes love and forgiveness as unconditional. “Though this is not a novel idea, Nouwen’s approach is arguably unique as he approached this theme from the angles of the younger son, the elder son, and the father. Each captures the unconditional quality of love and forgiveness in their own way. The younger son’s life shows how the beloved lives a life of misery by thinking he can be loved only by meeting certain qualifications of the lover (which he fails to meet). The elder son’s actions shows how the beloved can be depressed because he thinks he should receive greater love because he has done all the right things (i.e., that he has met these qualifications). The father alone understands how to love and forgive and is able to do so and be happy. Nouwen explains that we are the younger son at times (when we think we don’t deserve love or the forgiveness) and the elder son at times (when we think we deserve love or that another doesn’t deserve it more than us), but that we are all called to be like the father (and that only by being like the father can we come closer to being loved as we should be loved).”
Here’s what Desmond Tutu has to say about forgiveness, from Bill Moyers Journal, 12/28/07
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: I would hope that the world would realize that there is no situation that is not transfigurable, that there is no situation of which we can say, ‘This is absolutely, totally devoid of hope,’ because that is what people thought about South Africa. And that the star turns of this report are those we wrongly call just ordinary people. There are no ordinary people in my theology, but it is the small people, the ones who used to be nonentities, they are the stars and for the world to know that those called-so-called ordinary people are incredible.
BILL MOYERS: What do you actually do when you forgive someone?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Well, basically, you are saying ‘I am abandoning my right to revenge, to payback. I mean, I have… By the fact that you have abused me, you have hurt me, or -whatever it is that you have done, you have wronged me. By that you have given me a certain right as – over you that I could refuse to forgive you. I could say that I have the right to retribution.’ When I forgive, I say, ‘I jettison that right, and I open the door of opportunity to you, to make a new beginning.’ That is what I do when I forgive you.
BILL MOYERS: But the Buddhists talk of letting go of the past, dying to the past, when you forgive, of letting loose of the sorrow that you have brought with you from the past. Is that what you’re talking about?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Yes. The thing is, of course that I don’t know that you yourself are able, by an act of will, as it were, to let go of the pain. The will part of it, where your will is, deliberately to say, ‘I am not going to let you victimize me and hold me in a position where I have an anger against you, a resentment, and I’m looking for the opportunity to pay back.’ I am saying. ‘I want to let go of that-that right, and begin to work for the possibility of restoring the relationship.
BILL MOYERS: Do I have to do anything – the person being forgiven?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: For your own sake, the only way you can appropriate forgiveness is by confessing. That opens you to the possibility of being able to receive it. It’s like, it’s like opening up a window. You see forgiveness can be likened to the fresh air that is outside or the sunlight that is outside and you have a room and the windows are closed and the curtains are drawn. The wind is still out there, my forgiveness is still available to you, but it won’t find access until you open the window and the light streams in. You draw the curtains apart and the fresh air comes in. You by your contrition and confession, say I am sorry, forgive me, open and my forgiveness enters your being.
BILL MOYERS: We’re talking here about genocide, torture. Are genocide and torture forgivable?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: As a Christian, you have to say, ‘Are there things that are unforgivable?’ I’m afraid we follow a lord and master who at the point when they are crucifying him in the most painful way can say, ‘Pray for their forgiveness.’ And we follow the one who says, ‘Forgive one another as God and Christ forgave you.’ That is for us the paradigm. We may not always reach to that ideal, but that is the standard.
For further inspiration, see No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu