“Forgive and forget” is a mantra from my childhood. I wasn’t particularly good at either but notably bad at the latter. Is forgetting part of the forgiveness process? What exactly constitutes forgiveness?
A man I met in a reconciliation workshop had survived child abuse and the wreckage of several family members’ alcoholism. The depth of his 50-year struggle for forgiveness made an impression on me. In the struggle, it seems that what forgiveness is not can present as many obstacles as what forgiveness is.
To forgive is to release resentment and claim to retribution. To be complete, forgiveness is a two part process involving the offender’s genuine remorse for the offense and the victim’s release of resentment. Forgiveness does not release the offender from accountability for her actions. It does not erase financial, legal, physical, emotional, or any other kind of consequences. Forgiveness does not make the offense permissible. To the contrary, naming the offense as worthy of forgiveness marks it as unacceptable. And forgiveness does not restore trust or repair the relationship. A relationship might not be repairable, with or without forgiveness. While restoring a relationship to full trust may be desirable, it is not always realistic. The good news is forgiveness is possible without it.
Trust merits special consideration. While forgiving is the moral choice, restoring trust might not be. Should the parents of a child who has been molested by an uncle release anger and resentment for the uncle? Eventually, yes. Should the parents return to relationship with the uncle? Maybe. Should they trust the uncle? No. Evidence suggests molesters reoffend. Neither family ties nor religious belief require anyone to ignore evidence. Protecting a child is a parent’s moral obligation. In this case, the moral choice is to release resentment and, if the uncle has genuine remorse, to return to a different kind of relationship without trust. Note forgiving the uncle in this scenario would not absolve him of legal consequences for any crimes committed.
Forgiveness can be a struggle if one of the two necessary parts is missing. This is true for the man in the reconciliation workshop. His alcoholic brother is in denial and lacks the capacity for remorse, and the father who abused him died. What can he do when there is no possibility of offender remorse? Even without genuine remorse, there is hope for healing.
The hope starts with a journey inward–introspection. Taking an honest look at how the wounds we received played a role in the wounds we inflicted, and taking responsibility for the harm we caused others, is a step that is completely within our control. The very act of changing our wounded-wounding pattern severs the ropes that tie us to a wounded past. Once free, we can release resentment and pray for our offenders, dead or living, to receive grace. That does not make forgiveness complete, but it does create healing power.
Join the conversation. How have you approached forgiveness when your offender lacked genuine remorse?
Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.