What is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a decision. It is an act of the will. Nothing more. Nothing less.
We can understand more by looking at what it is not:
- Forgiveness is not saying that the offence or hurt that was done “is o.k.” Offenses, especially the most hurtful ones, will never be “o.k.” How can a mother who has lost her child to a murder, for example, ever be “o.k.” with it?
- Forgiveness is also not saying that the offense is to be forgotten. We often hear the phrase, “Forgive and forget.” That might work when the offense was something small, like the stealing of a few dollars. But when the hurt we receive is enormous, it is impossible to forget it.
- Forgiveness is not an emotion. We can still be angry, scared, depressed, or sad, even after genuinely forgiving the one who has hurt us. Our emotions are virtually impossible to control. Thus, forgiveness has to be something apart from being emotionally stable and “at peace.”
- Forgiveness is independent of the pain we feel. It is not a state of being pain free or a state of contentment. Just because we are suffering does not mean we cannot forgive. Similarly, because we continue to suffer after forgiving does not mean that we have not genuinely forgiven. And, to complete the scenarios, just because we do not experience suffering following a hurt does not mean there is no need to forgive; the mere fact that there was a violation is sufficient to warrant—in fact, to necessitate—forgiveness.
The first step in forgiving is to acknowledge that there was a violation, that the offender did something hurtful. When the violation occurs the offender takes something that he or she had no right to take; e.g., my peace, my freedom, my childhood, my marriage, my heart, my trust, my child’s life, my safety, my virginity, my innocence, my inheritance, my life savings, etc…. Justice demands that when someone takes something that does not belong to him, a debt has been incurred. Whatever was taken is owed back. But, in the greatest hurts we receive the damage done is almost always irreparable and the debt cannot ever be paid back. How can a murderer restore the life he took? How can a rapist restore his victim’s integrity? How can a child molester restore his victim back to a state of peace?
Thus, along with acknowledging the debt that is owed, forgiveness is also acknowledging that the offender cannot (or will not) pay back that debt. We have now reached the critical part of forgiveness. In order for forgiveness to be complete, the victim must release the offender of that debt, and turn that debt over to Jesus. The victim then asks Jesus that—instead of the debt—that the offender be given His blessing instead.
Thus, the victim should speak out the words aloud, “Jesus, I release [offender’s name] from his debt to me and I give that debt to you. In place of that debt I ask You to give [offender’s name] a blessing instead.” Jesus, receiving that debt, does exactly that: He removes that debt from the offender, takes it upon Himself, and bestows His blessing on the offender.
Do we have to actually say the words of forgiveness directly to the offender for the forgiveness to be genuine? Saying the words directly to the offender is not always possible nor prudent. For example, it can be that the offender is now dead, or that the offender is a non-personal entity (e.g., a government), or that the offender is dangerous (e.g., an abusive spouse) and pronouncing the words of forgiveness may subject us to more abuse. If it is possible and prudent, the words of forgiveness should be said directly to the offender, either audibly or through written means. Such is the greater and more complete imitation of Jesus who, while suffering on the cross, announced His forgiveness to His attackers in their hearing (Lk 23:34).
It is important to be aware that because the declaration of forgiveness is made does not mean that all negative feelings and hurt magically disappear. Humans are complex creatures and parts of us are frequently at war with other parts. As already stated above, feelings—especially negative ones—are often beyond our control. The enemy will also manipulate our feelings to make us think that, because of the way we feel, that we have not forgiven. Do not give into this temptation!
In such moments, simply direct your attention to those feelings and address them directly: “I do not want you. I have already rejected you. You are not welcome in me. I choose the peace and tranquility that comes through imitating Jesus.” And then renew your act of forgiveness once again by repeating to Jesus, “I release [offender’s name] from his debt to me and I give that debt to you Jesus. I ask you to give him a blessing instead.” Even if the negative feelings come forth multiple times each day—even, say 43 times—then renew your act of forgiveness 43 times. In time, the negative feeling will subside because you are not offering a home to them, nor are allowing them to be nurtured, but are being proactive against them. Peace will follow as a result and those feeling will gradually cease.