Initially, we paused to honor the pain that prompted the need to forgive. Now, we’ll articulate several of the fears that can cause us to brace against forgiving.
Sometimes the most loving way to engage a subject is to set a sufferer’s mind at ease. With children, this might sound like, “You’ve got a doctor’s appointment today, but don’t worry, you don’t have to get any shots.” It is reasonable to associate doctors with needles, but it easier to go to the doctor if you know there won’t be any needles . . . at least, this time.
Similarly, it can be helpful to set our mind at ease by presenting five of the most common fears associated with forgiveness.
1. FORGIVENESS IS NOT PRETENDING I’M NOT HURT
If we conceive of forgiveness as pretending, then forgiveness becomes a synonym for being fake. Forgiveness becomes a form of self-imposed silencing. Loss of voice only compounds the painful effect of whatever offense has already been committed against us. Forgiveness is not pretending.
Simply stated—but simpler to say than to live—forgiveness is what allows us to express hurt as hurt rather than hurt as anger. Even after we forgive, hurt still hurts. If the person who hurt us gets upset with us for still hurting, they haven’t really repented.
Too often we view forgiveness as the culmination of a journey. But when I say, “I forgive you,” I am not saying, “Things are all better now.” I am saying, “I have decided I will relate to your offense toward me differently.” Forgiveness is the start of a new journey. Forgiveness does not erase the past.
When you forgive, you are not making a commitment not to feel hurt. You are making a commitment about what you will do with the hurt when it flares up.
2. FORGIVENESS IS NOT LETTING SOMEONE OFF THE HOOK
When we let someone off the hook, we are saying that nothing else needs to be done. It’s the equivalent of someone eating your lunch out of the office fridge, and you saying, “That’s okay, I needed to diet anyway.” That is letting someone off the hook.
But when God forgives us, he does not assume we are a “finished product.” God remains active in our life to remove the sin he forgave. Forgiveness is meant to change us, not leave us as we were. Similarly, when we forgive someone, it is right to expect that our grace toward them will have an impact on them. If someone does not agree about the wrongness of their sin and desire to change, then the most our forgiveness can do is set us free from bitterness. It would be unwise to restore the relationship to the same level of trust it had before.
3. FORGIVENESS IS NOT MAKING AN EXCUSE FOR SOMEONE
Sometimes we resist forgiving because we do not want to ratify a perceived downgrade in the significance of the offense. Forgiveness is not a downgrade. Forgiveness does not reclassify an offense from a “sin” to a “mistake.” Mistakes are excused. Sins are forgiven.
Forgiveness inherently classifies an offense at the top level of wrongness. When we say, “I forgive you,” we are saying, “The only thing that could make right what you did was Jesus’s substitutionary death on the cross.” For someone wanting to excuse their sin, real forgiveness is offensive (see 1 Corinthians 1:18–31).
4. FORGIVENESS IS NOT FORGETTING
Most of us wish it were possible to forget our most painful experiences. Spiritual dementia toward our pain sounds blissful.
Forgiveness doesn’t unwrite history. Jesus both cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), and inspired the recording—the permanent remembering—of the events that led to his death. Forgiveness did not unwrite history or mitigate any of the benefits that come with learning from history. Whatever vulnerability true forgiveness brings, it is not the vulnerability of naivety.
So, what does forgiveness mean you are committing to do with your memories, fears, and imagination? Forgiveness does not add anything new to how you respond to your memories, fears, and imagination that wise relational practices would not have already entailed before you forgave.
We want to have a wise relationship with our memories.
• We want to mitigate the torment painful and intrusive memories caused.
• We want to learn any lessons about wise trust our painful memories can teach us.
• We want to prevent mistrust from spreading to other relationships.
Even if we are in a place we never wanted to find ourselves, we still want forgiveness to be part of what God does to contribute to our flourishing from here.
5. FORGIVENESS IS NOT NECESSARILY TRUST OR RECONCILIATION
You may remember geometry class in high school. You were taught “all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares.” A similar relationship exists between forgiveness and trust or reconciliation: “All trust and reconciliation are rooted in forgiveness, but not all forgiveness results in trust and reconciliation.”
When we don’t realize this, we think saying, “I forgive you,” implies things are “back to normal,” and normal is what got us hurt. No thank you!
The decision to forgive and the decision to trust are two different decisions. The first does not necessitate the second. If you are being pressured to believe that forgiving requires trusting, this is reason to push “pause” on trusting the person who is pressuring you.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
1. What fears about forgiveness did this chapter help you set aside? What experiences prompted these fears?
2. Review the sentence “For someone wanting to excuse their sin, real forgiveness is offensive.” Does this statement help alleviate your fear that forgiveness minimizes what happened and allows the person who hurt you to “win”?
Excerpt adapted from Making Sense of Forgiveness © 2021 by Brad Hambrick. Used by permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.