I wish forgiveness weren’t so complicated. It’s hard enough to do, so it shouldn’t be so hard to figure out how to do it, and also when not to do it. Forgiveness is not only misunderstood, it is also misused.
Forgiveness comes into play when a person or persons wrongs us in some way. If we have not truly been wronged, then the concept does not apply. For example, imagined slights or mistreatment do not warrant forgiveness. So the first order of forgiveness business is to make sure that we have actually been harmed in some way. This might include discerning the other person’s motives, e.g. did they mean to be hurtful or not. If someone disagrees with us in the midst of a meeting, without malice, but our feelings still get hurt, this is a situation we need to resolve ourselves.
If we have in fact been harmed, the next order of business is to decide if we want to confront the person(s) who have harmed us. This decision hangs on many factors: the seriousness of the offense, our relationship to the offending person, an assessment of any costs to us or others that might accrue from a confrontation. If an apology is not forthcoming, we can ask for one.
The plot thickens if the offender does not apologize, nor shows any signs of repentance. The offender could offer proof by doing it again. However, we may have been taught that we must forgive despite the offender’s refusal to take responsibility. This is preached from many a pulpit, especially Christian ones, namely that forgiveness is mandatory. Preachers seem to forget that in the Christian bible, in Luke, pre-conditions are placed on mandatory forgiveness. To whit, the offender must be repentant and must have a plan to help insure the offense is not repeated.
The notion of universal forgiveness, and the shaming of those who cannot, can be used as a way to silence survivors of great wrongs. This happens often to victims of childhood abuse, domestic violence, war, racism, and marginalization. A demand for quick (and painless for the perpetrator) forgiveness is a way to maintain the status quo and the current power structure.
On the other hand, forgiveness does not have to involve the perpetrator at all. Nor does it have to involve forgetting the offense or relinquishing outrage over the offense. Even if he still refuses to acknowledge it, this kind of forgiveness does not absolve the wrongdoer. It simply means that we are making a decision to let go of the feelings of injury. The letting go is how we arrive at a place where the overwhelming nature of the hurt and betrayal is no longer with us. Internally we cut ties with the perpetrator and can experience a welcome sense of freedom.