What Is Forgiveness, and Is It Always a Good Thing?

Posted on December 26, 2014


for-give verb : to stop feeling anger toward (someone who has done something wrong) : to stop blaming (someone) : to stop requiring payment of (money that is owed)

To err is human; to forgive, divine.

– Alexander Pope

The other day, I ran across some kind of holiday sermon on the radio. The speaker was in the middle of saying that other people’s actions cannot make you feel bad; no, that comes from how you think about their actions. He concluded by saying that we all must learn to forgive.

Now see, this is why I cannot go to church. Something along these lines always finds its way into the sermon, and my head explodes from the effort of staying quietly in my pew instead of following my inclination to leap up and shout, “NOOOOO!” In this case, my curmudgeonly internal voice immediately snapped back at the radio, “Yeah, other people’s actions can make you feel bad! Suppose a drunk runs over your kid? Is a bereaved parent supposed to just think about that action differently and it will all be better? And why should we forgive heinous acts, anyway?”

Forgiveness is one of those things that I freely confess I have never understood. I don’t mean that we should never forgive, I just mean that I don’t understand or agree with the concept as it seems to be defined today:

Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness. Just as important as defining what forgiveness is, though, is understanding what forgiveness is not… when you forgive, you do not gloss over or deny the seriousness of an offense against you. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offenses… it doesn’t obligate you to reconcile with the person who harmed you, or release them from legal accountability. Instead, forgiveness brings the forgiver peace of mind and frees him or her from corrosive anger… enabling you to heal and move on with your life.

Well, that makes no friggin’ sense. If you didn’t forget or excuse an offense, if you didn’t reconcile, if you didn’t release an offender from accountability, exactly what did you do?

Maybe I’m too literal or too binary, but in my mind, there is only anger, resentment, and vengeance on the one hand, and reconciliation and excusing the offense on the other. There’s no in-between.   I cannot conceive of a state of mind in which I simultaneously hold someone accountable for their offense against me, while also releasing my feelings of resentment concerning that offense.

I also don’t buy the notion that granting forgiveness is something the forgiver has to do for his own sake. If that were so, then why do we pray to receive forgiveness for our sins? Why do criminals, or estranged parents, or unfaithful spouses ask for forgiveness from those whom they have wronged? Because the forgiveness is for the offender, not for the wronged party. They ask for forgiveness because they want to feel better, or they want to reconcile with their loved ones. Indeed, I think the only way that “releasing” your anger or resentment benefits you is in cases of a desired reconciliation with an offender who is close to you, but even then, that reconciliation has to come from your own judgment about the seriousness of the offense and what the future might bring.

We are told that anger and grudges are negative and destructive, but I think grudges can have a protective effect, preventing you from further harm from an offender. I really don’t see any reason ever to forgive a stranger who does you serious harm (like the scenario in which a drunk accidentally kills your kid), and I can picture a lot of scenarios in which it frankly would not do to forgive someone close to you who did you serious harm, either. Some people are just toxic. They don’t deserve forgiveness and you shouldn’t have to work on trying to figure out how to rearrange your psyche to grant it.

Personally, I think this whole attitude of “learning to think differently” about the behavior of others wrongly puts a burden on those who have been offended or harmed, essentially telling them to just “stop being angry.” Anger and resentment are valid emotions. Indeed, what does it say about our love and respect for ourselves, or our loved ones, if we aren’t angry when something bad is done to us or them? That’s not divine, it’s just abnormal.