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The Forgiveness Myth


For decades people have written about forgiveness. Books have been written on the subject. It has been labeled an art, a gift, a choice, and a path to healing.

We have heard about how to forgive, why we forgive, what types of behaviors need to be forgiven, and when it is the appropriate time to forgive. But no matter where you read about forgiveness, you will find one message loud and clear. Forgiveness is something we do for ourselves. We forgive others to set ourselves free. It’s our own path of healing that is advanced when forgiveness is extended. Forgiveness offers big rewards for those who are willing to offer it. Are the rewards real, or is there a subtle lie lurking behind the forgiveness fantasy that dashes expectations and lures us into wearing a mask of forgiveness while all the while still avoiding the true task of forgiveness?

I have tried most of my life to forgive my grandfather for molesting me as a teenager. Since that first major trauma, there have been a myriad of other hurts and heartaches for which I felt like I needed to extend forgiveness to the perpetrator(s). Why did I feel like I needed to forgive? Is there any such thing as healthy unforgiveness? In fact, the word I have just used, unforgiveness, is not actually an English word. You will be hard-pressed to find it in any dictionary. When looking for the opposite of forgiveness, you will find words such as punishment, judgement, accusation, imprisonment, confiscation, none of which, in my opinion are true opposites of the noun, forgiveness. I did, however, come across an acceptable English word, if you want to be literarily correct, that is, mercilessness. Lack of mercy, while not exactly the same as unforgiveness, comes close. Perhaps it’s an indication of our prevalent philosophy of forgiveness that creates the void of its opposite in our language.

The kind of forgiveness touted by our society today is a lie. I am saying that the whole idea of forgiveness as something we do for ourselves is a product of a self-centered, individualistic culture which is willing to undertake hard stuff only if there is personal benefit. But I submit to you that forgiveness, if offered to another for personal benefit is nothing short of selfishness. The sin of an unforgiving spirit then, is simply traded for the sin of selfishness. Neither of these is pleasing to God. So what is forgiveness and why and how do we extend it?

Here is my definition.

Forgiveness is a tangible act of obedience done in faith, to the glory of God.

Forgiveness is not something we do for ourselves. Forgiveness is what we do from a heart overflowing with God’s love, for God’s glory, offered to a person who has caused us harm.

When Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” he was asking nothing for himself.

No perpetrator knows the full extent of the pain they cause when doing another harm.

Saying, “I forgive you,” can be harder than saying, “I love you,” or even, “I’m sorry, please forgive me.” “I love you,” implies there is a reason, or many reasons, for a positive emotional reaction to the relationship. “I’m sorry,” implies wrongdoing on our part for which we long for forgiveness to set the relationship back on a positive footing. “I forgive you,” implies that there is a reason not to love but love prevails. There has been harm done to the relationship. Sometimes that harm is inflicted without any responsibility for it on the part of the one who has been harmed.

What forgiveness does not do:

1. Free you from the hurt or trauma

2. Create a better relationship between you and the perpetrator

What forgiveness does:

1. Fulfills the command of God

2. Follows Jesus’ example

3. Allows us to maintain communion with God


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