Forgiveness is a frequently misunderstood concept; therefore, it is an infrequently experienced reality. Yes, forgiveness is a lived reality – one that I want you to experience, maybe for the first time, this fall. That’s why I’m writing this blog series, “Fall Into Forgiveness,” to help demystify this life changing concept. Throughout the fall, I’ll be covering what forgiveness is, how we’ve gotten it wrong and how we can learn to forgive both others and ourselves, even when it feels impossible. With that said, let’s start with a story to help illustrate the basic idea of forgiveness.
When I was a kid my dad taught me how to fly fish – something I learned was more of an art than a sport. I would watch him effortlessly cast his line while I flailed the rod with my scrawny arm, trying to mimic his technique. “It’s all in the wrist,” he would say as he flicked his wrist back and forth, back and forth. The line would glide through the air with ease, landing his fly on top of the water several feet away. My fly would inevitably land in a tree behind me.
My dad was always keen on safety and he knew a hooked tree could have easily been a hooked human being. “Always be aware of your surroundings,” he would say. “And never cast when someone is standing behind you!”
Sometimes we neglect the fact that someone is standing behind us. We cast our line and set our hook firmly into the flesh of someone else’s skin, resulting in guilt. Other times, we’re the one getting hooked, resulting in animosity. Either way, pain is experienced. But forgiveness is when we remove the hook, when we allow the wound to heal, when we no longer allow ourselves to be painfully tethered to guilt or animosity.
To forgive, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means to cease to feel resentment against (an offender). I like this definition. It’s not encumbered by notions of duty or niceness or of right and wrong. It’s a simple statement: I will no longer allow an offense to make me feel like shit!
Similarly, I define forgiving as letting go of guilt and animosity, so you can freely live the life you were meant to live. Or, as my favorite spiritual teacher, Rob Bell, puts it:
“Forgiveness is setting someone free and then finding out it was you.”
So, let’s be clear, forgiveness is not simply accepting an apology or having your apology accepted. You can accept an apology, but still harbor resentment against a person. You can have your apology accepted, while still feeling tremendous guilt for your own actions. And you can forgive without an apology ever being uttered.
Forgiveness is not synonymous with apology. They are two separate but related concepts. Remember, to forgive is to let go. If you’re waiting to forgive until someone apologizes, you are not letting go. You are holding on to the hope of an apology that may never come.
Reconciliation is also separate from forgiveness. Reconciliation is restoration that happens between two people. Forgiveness is self-restoration. You can always be reconciled to yourself, but you may never be reconciled to another person, even if you’ve forgiven them or they’ve forgiven you.
And the truth is, in some cases, reconciliation may not even be appropriate. If someone has continued to harm you on purpose, you don’t have to maintain a relationship with that person in order to forgive them. This is called having boundaries. If you are continually being hooked, perhaps you need to remove the hook and find a new fishing buddy altogether.
And, of course, forgiveness is not condoning an action or denying the consequences of that action. You may be hesitant to forgive yourself or someone else because it feels like you are saying what happened was okay. But that’s just not true. We don’t forgive people for being kind to us; we forgive them for being unkind. Inherent in forgiveness is the acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Again, forgiveness is not freedom from consequences; it’s freedom from something far worse – emotional baggage.
Speaking of consequences…You may be asking at this point, “What about revenge?” Good! I’m glad you asked because revenge is going to be the topic of the next post in my “Fall Into Forgiveness” series. If you want to be notified when the next post becomes available, you can subscribe to my newsletter here.