Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What does forgiveness really mean?

I've never really thought much about forgiveness. I don't have a problem asking for forgiveness and haven't ever really had a time where I couldn't give forgiveness. It wasn't really something that was a big deal to me.

Yet now we have come to a place where we're truly struggling to forgive someone. And it's not pretty. It's knowing in your head that it has to be done, but only being able to pray for the desire to want to forgive, before even being able to ask for assistance in actually forgiving.

Last night we were discussing this situation and my husband asked "What does forgiveness even mean?" And I was stunned to realize I didn't have an answer.

To another person involved in this situation, forgiveness seems to mean saying "I love you and I'll support whatever choice you make." But when an action is objectively wrong, it's not really loving to say that it's okay. Of course the person should be forgiven for it, but I don't think forgiveness necessarily entails confirming bad choices.

At least that's the message we got when we were flipping through the mass book on Sunday and the passages from the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time for next year jumped off the page at us. Ezekiel 33:7-9 "[When] you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood" and Matthew 18:15-20 "If a brother sins against you, go and show him his fault... If he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan."

I might be conflating loving in truth and forgiving, but right now they're kind of all meshed together around here.

And then of course there's the plank in my own eye.

My husband pointed out that there's a reason that you have to go to confession, to actually be sorry and ask for forgiveness and not just leave it at that but make some sort of reparation. But we're not priests administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation here; we're just laypeople desiring reconciliation.

The question remained: What does forgiveness really mean?

I turned to the catechism for help, only to discover that "Forgiveness" was nowhere in the index. I opened my Bible, but while I knew of all kinds of passages about how important it is to forgive (Matthew 18:21-35 and Ephesians 4:32, for two examples among many), I still didn't have a good response for how to go actually about that.

What does it mean to forgive someone?

At this point, I do actually believe I've forgiven this person. For a while I struggled to know whether I actually had or only thought I had (if that makes any sense), but what made me sure of it was that this previous situation no longer makes me really angry - it just makes me really sad. Yet my forgiveness is questioned because I can no longer act exactly as I had around this person. But that insinuates that forgiveness is nothing more than pretending something never happened, and that doesn't seem right either.

Okay, I'm not sure if I'm even making sense anymore, so I'm going to stop and just ask you all. What does forgiveness mean to you? What does it entail? Have you ever had a difficult time in forgiving someone, and was there anything that made it easier?


  1. As a child I was taught that forgiveness means being willing to suffer the consequences of someone else's mistake or sin. I think that to do that one must admit the harm that has been done. And I also think that it is possible to forgive while still doing what one can to prevent further harm.

    I had a really hard time this spring with someone from Josh's "home" parish who behaved in a way which was not only unChristian but also unprofessional, all while blaming Josh. I kept working on praying for him but did not honestly get to the point of completely forgiving him until I saw Josh choose to suffer more damage in order to try to repair the relationship. And something of his overwhelming forgiveness spilled over to me.

  2. you read before my struggle with forgiveness from my old job:

    the best "advice" i ever got about it was from a priest who told me to pray "Lord, I forgive ______. Help my unforgiveness."

    Because, ultimately, its a decision, an act of will, more than it is a feeling, just like love and faith. So you have to train your heart to follow your mind :)

    easier said than done of course!

  3. I like this stance - "Forgiving others is not a matter of explaining their sin, or of excusing it, but of acknowledging the reality of it, and then deciding not to hold that sin against them any more...we can decide to do this whether or not the other person has asked for forgiveness. Deciding not to hold blame against them frees us from being their accuser and leaves the matter with God. It follows the principle that 'love doesn't keep a record of wrongs'".

  4. Forgiveness is really hard. I'm with Mrs. 2nd Lieutenant--it's an act of will. You know there are words that effect the change they say? Like "I baptize you"--"I forgive you" is one of those. But I also think it's a process. I still have a situation, involving three grad school roommates, that I continually have to make this act of will. Gradually, the anger and resentment is easing, but I still have to say those words every single time. Really, I think the only thing that would truly fix it now is to go back and have a conversation with them, to find resolution with them in reality. But as I have no desire to try to find these three people who, together, made my life so horrible for the semester I lived with them, I have to do whatever I can on my own.

    Forgiveness in its ideal form would return the separated parties to perfect harmony. But there are offenses that go too far for that. I think ti's a reality of an imperfect world that sadness and awkwardness may remain; all you can do is keep making that act of will, and hope that someday grace takes over.

  5. There is forgiveness with reconciliation, but there must also be forgiveness even when the guilty party doesn't admit their wrong or want to reconcile.

    I think forgiveness has different components. It is letting go of the need for justice. It is choosing to love even when it is not deserved. It is letting go of anger.

  6. It's always ironic when a blog post goes up about something that you're struggling with. Vor and I have had a very very very bad week, forgiveness of the person is not even in the ball park. Honestly, it probably won't be until enough time has passed.

    (I just realized as I was writing this that I made it look like there were problems between us. Nope. There was murder that we were tangentially witness to, and we're now dealing with the loss of a friend and fall out).

    The last time a friend of mine was killed by a drunk driver, it took me years to achieve some semblance of forgiveness. I was even angry at her family for so quickly forgiving the offending driver. Now, I don't know. Thinking of forgiveness at this point makes me see red.

    People have said some good things about letting go, etc. I think it takes a better person than I to let go immediately. I can't grieve for the loss and for the wrong done to my friend, yet at the same time let go of the need for answers and justice. At least, not yet.

    I really didn't mean to babble. It's been really hard here lately. Elizabeth, maybe I will email you with some more developed thoughts.

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