Common Misconceptions about Forgiveness
A few years ago, I was working with a man whose wife had left him, in hopes of restoring the marriage. To keep a long story short, he had acknowledged that he was responsible for many of their problems through his own pride and selfishness and was committed to doing his part in reconciling. Over several months, it became apparent to all that his entire demeanor and way of living was changing… for the better. Even his estranged wife commented to me how impressed she was with his progress and indicated that she would be willing to meet with both of us to discuss reconciliation.
To be entirely fair, he was not responsible for all of their problems; not by a long shot. She also had problems with selfishness and pride, along with a great need to be “right” in every situation.
When we got together, the session went long; our hour together grew into 3 plus. Finally, we came to the part where both parties agreed that they would forgive one another and wipe the slates clean while looking for constructive ways to resolve their remaining issues the following week. As we were all getting up to leave, she stopped suddenly and turned to her husband and said, “I hope you understand that even though I have forgiven you and wiped the slate clean, that does not mean that there still won’t be repercussions.”
As it worked out, she was willing to give lip service to forgiveness, but she had no real intention of ever forgiving him for anything. As a result, their marriage ended in divorce.
“I Must be able to Forget”
This is a common misconception about forgiveness. How can I forgive someone when I can’t forget what they did? We’ve seen quite a few verses on this notion of forgiveness in this study. Can you recall a single one that said anything about forgetting what happened? The human mind just doesn’t work that way, and let’s be honest about something here: If you actually have forgotten about an event, you haven’t forgiven the person, you forgot the whole thing. Most likely if someone reminded you, you’d be back to not forgiving. There are some things that are unwise to forget, especially those that involve abusive behavior. There is a big difference between forgiving and putting yourself or your loved ones in harm’s way. Forgiving means that you are no longer going to hold something against a person, and that you are not going to let yourself hold on to rage, anger and resentment, nor will you seek to impose punishment on the person. It does not mean that you will let them repeat the instance again.
After you forgive a person, the memory will still come back to you, but when it does, you will remind yourself that the incident is over, that you have forgiven the person and that you will let God deal with them as He sees fit, and in time, the wound will heal and the recollections will be less and less of an issue for you.
“They can’t be allowed to get away with it!”
Forgiveness really has nothing to do with whether or not a person gets away with something. Everyone will answer to God for their actions; God is the Judge of all. We are the judges of no one, and God is very particular on that point. If we seek to judge others, we will be required to answer to God for our sin. In some instances, the person who has wronged us may have consequences with the law or society, and your forgiveness doesn’t get anyone out of that consequence. What factors are really behind this misconception? Here are some possibilities you might consider:
Pride, revenge, jealousy, resentment, anger, rage, control issues, embarrassment and the like. Jesus taught us that we are not to judge others, lest we be judged. Don’t these kinds of feelings really just seek to justify our appointing ourselves to take God’s place and hand down our own judgments and punishments to those who have wronged us? Certainly, this is offensive to God.
The role of feelings and emotions
In most cases, our feelings and emotions don’t help us to make the right choices when we have been wronged. In such cases anger, outrage and hurt are normal and sensible reactions, but as experience teaches us, these fade with the passing of time, and we begin to heal. We may not always be ready to forgive a wrong at the moment of its occurrence, but within a reasonable time frame, we come to the place where we can make the choice to forgive, and we should do so. If you consider our opening verses from Galatians, I think this point should be clear, after all, does unforgiveness belong in the category of acts of the flesh, or as one of the fruits of the Spirit? Again, fully healing is a process and may take time, but it is sped up considerably after we make the choice to forgive.
“Hold on a minute, what if the person doesn’t ask for forgiveness?”
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” Luke 17:4-5
Some might quote this verse as “proof” that they needn’t forgive if there is no repentance… and even to justify “letting them have it.” Unfortunately, they would have a contextual problem, however. In Luke’s account, this falls into a section on the duty of a servant, you might find the full context of interest: Luke 17:1-10. I think you’ll discover that Jesus didn’t give you an “out” He gave you a command involving maximum humility. Matthew writes on the same question in Matthew 18:21-33 and follows with the parable of the unfaithful servant, the bottom line of which is forgive or you won’t be forgiven.