Scientific studies show that those who master the art of forgiveness live longer, healthier lives. Psychologists, doctors, and scientists are embracing an idea considered mostly theological in the past. However formulating a forgiving attitude is easier in theory than in principle. It might be easier to foster forgiveness if we know what forgiveness is NOT.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgetting can possibly come with time but it doesn’t happen in a snap like some sort of spiritual amnesia that kicks in when we say, “I forgive you.” Our minds just don’t work that way. Asking someone to forget child abuse or injustice is unrealistic. Dealing with it is one thing, forgetting it is quite another.
Forgiveness is not automatically giving total trust again. Suppose a dear friend betrays a confidence but says, “I’m sorry.” You can forgive the friend for the harm caused but to immediately trust him/her again would be foolish. Trust is like a bank account people build with you. You can only give them as much as they have deposited. When they wipe the fund out, they start from scratch. Trust is built gradually and given when a person proves to be trustworthy.
Forgiveness is not condoning what was done. It doesn’t approve of bad behavior. A friend recently heard an off color joke. As jokes go, many times you don’t even know it will be off color until the punch line. She did not reproach the individual but neither did she laugh. The joke teller came over to her later and apologized. He was waiting for her to say, “That’s okay,” but she didn’t because it wasn’t okay. What the guy did was offensive. However she did say, “I accept your apology.” Granted what many of us have to forgive runs much deeper than an off color joke but the principle remains the same.
Forgiveness is not pretending you weren’t hurt or upset. That would be denial not forgiveness. Wearing a fake smile and pretending something didn’t happen doesn’t make it go away. “Smile though your heart is breaking” may make dandy lyrics but it won’t keep your heart from breaking. .
Forgiveness is not preventing someone from being held accountable. One could forgive a thief who stole from him but the thief might have to do jail time just the same. Choosing to testify against a thief in a court of law doesn’t negate forgiveness. It could prevent him from stealing from someone else. Behavior has consequences. It isn’t always in the best interest of a person not to have to face consequences.
Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Reconciliation can grow from forgiveness but it isn’t the immediate result. You don’t instantly say, “Okay, now we’re all friends again. Let’s be happy.”
Forgiveness is not weakness. It doesn’t mean you let everyone walk all over you and take whatever life has to dish out. You don’t have to be a martyr for the cause. You can be a forgiving person and still have the ability to say, “No!”
Forgiveness is not restoration with full benefits to a former position. It’s true the prodigal son was welcomed home by his father. They killed the fatted calf and partied 'til the other cows came home but his inheritance was gone. He shot his wad. It could well have been a case of “we love you, dearie, but you spent your money, honey!”
Forgiveness is not something you do just so God will forgive you. That’s like doing the right thing for the wrong reason such as repenting just so you won’t go to hell. God doesn’t want us to be good just so he won’t zap us. He wants us to do good from our heart which is the difference between the old and new covenant.
Forgiveness is not given only to those who apologize or those who earn it. The majority of people you might need to forgive may never acknowledge they’ve done you wrong. Perhaps they don’t even care. Then we play the “if only” game. I would forgive them “if only” they would say they’re sorry or admit what they did. Sure it might make forgiveness easier but it doesn’t give us license not to forgive if they don’t. Christ’s example teaches us this. “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.”
So what IS forgiveness? Here’s the deal…all of us at one time or another have had someone betray us, hurt us, emotionally wound us, or do us wrong. Humanly speaking we have a “right” to hurt back, take an eye for an eye, or retaliate. When we forgive, we relinquish that “right.” Our motive changes from revenge to what is best for the individual. On the surface it appears to be a selfless act but it really isn’t because forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves. Sometimes the person we are forgiving doesn’t even know it. Sometimes a person knows it but doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter. For in relinquishing this “right” we trade caustic, self-destructing, control elements such as anger, resentment, and bitterness for peace. We can cross over from being a victim to being a survivor. We can get on with our lives. We can stop the past from dictating our present or future. We can let go and let God.
Forgiveness is the first step on a journey to healing. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a hard and sometimes long process but it’s truly worth the effort. For fostering forgiveness benefits not only our spiritual and emotional well-being but our physical life as well.
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