What Forgiveness Is Not
Berkley, a sweet teenage girl, slowly began to distance herself from her close-knit, loving Christian family. Wearing gothic clothes and makeup, she began skipping school frequently and hanging out with questionable friends. After months of counseling, she finally disclosed the hidden secret she’d been harboring for years. A male cousin had been sexually molesting her at family functions since she was a small child.
What did this mean for her family? Since her abuser was a trusted family member, did Berkley and her parents simply need to “let it go” and not notify the authorities? As Christians, they knew they were called to forgive, but did that mean they should sweep it all under the rug and pretend like it never happened?
You may never have been wounded as deeply as Berkley, but everyone has experienced painful things in life. When you are left reeling from the pain of betrayal, you may be wondering what true forgiveness is…and what it’s not.
There are many well-meaning but inaccurate and harmful definitions of the word “forgiveness”. One example is from one of the most respected Bible dictionaries, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2, that defines forgiveness as “the wiping out of an offense from memory so that once the offense is eliminated it no longer conditions the relationship between the offender and the affronted, and harmony is restored between the two.” While this may be acceptable for a slight transgression, it doesn’t apply to forgiveness as it relates to abuse.
Three Misconceptions about Forgiveness
Because of the plethora of views on this topic, it’s important to clear up a few misconceptions about forgiveness. One of the first most common misunderstandings is the belief that forgiveness means forgetting. While the Bible describes forgiveness as the removal or letting go of a debt (Matthew 6:12), forgiveness doesn’t mean that the victim automatically forgets what happened. The definition of “forgiveness” is “to let go of from one’s power, possession, to let go free, release, to let escape.” There is no mention of forgetting in that description. We may try our best to forget what’s been done to hurt us, but we can’t forget the past. Our minds are like computers, so both good and bad events remain forever etched in our memories.
Think about the following illustration for a moment. When you use an eraser to erase a board it doesn’t make what was written any less true. It simply clears the board so that it can be used again. Likewise, when we forgive someone it doesn’t eliminate the offense. It does mean, however, that you aren’t marinating on it any longer. This can only happen when we keep our eyes on the Holy One, remembering the price He paid for our forgiveness.
There are two ways to remember a hurtful event. One is to ruminate on what happened, reliving it over and over again in our minds. When you choose this method, bitterness, anger, and fear multiply until they control your thoughts and actions. The other is to remember what happened with grace. You do this by bowing your painful memories before the Holy One and allowing Him to comfort you. When burdens are laid before His feet in worship, painful memories lose their power making it possible for us to be gracious to the offender. While the memories of painful events will always be with you, in time they will become like a scar that is no longer painful. Even though it will always be visible, it’s simply a reminder of a past wound.
Perhaps you’ve been told that once you’ve forgiven someone you should enter back into the relationship as if nothing hurtful ever happened. This comes from another misconception that says forgiveness automatically grants restoration of trust and reconciliation. If this were true then the victim would be expected to continue in a relationship where they can be hurt over and over again. This misunderstanding may stem from the discourse where Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” (Matthew 18:21) and Jesus answered “seventy times seven.” This sounds like we have to remain in an abusive relationship indefinitely, forgiving the abuser over and over again. This is not what Jesus meant. The Jewish culture was all about religion but Jesus was more concerned about the restoration of relationships. He wanted Peter to understand that forgiveness is governed by love rather than by numbers or rules.
While it’s true that forgiveness should be a reflection of our understanding of God’s forgiveness, we must also remember that healthy boundaries are extremely important. Because of a history of painful relationships, many people are attracted to others that are emotionally or physically abusive. Over time this can cause extreme anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts. If another’s wounds clashes with yours, that relationship may not be safe for you, even though it can be safe for someone else.
If you are in a cycle of emotional abuse with another person, you must forgive—but you also need to change the way you relate to them. Unfortunately, unhealthy relationships are extremely hard to let go of because of the emotional highs and lows that accompany them. Although it may go against everything you believe you need to be happy, in order to establish healthy boundaries you must recognize that God is the only one who can completely fill your emotional tank. If you seek Him with all of your heart, mind, strength and soul, surprisingly you will find that He will become enough for you…no, more than enough.
The third misconception is that forgiveness removes all negative consequences for the one forgiven. When we forgive an offender we aren’t saying that they don’t deserve to be punished. Instead, we are releasing them to God which means letting them off our hook and transferring them to His. This means that we’re not holding ourselves responsible to judge them (James 4:11-12).
God is the only wise judge who can make just decisions and He will repay according to His righteousness. When we give the matter over to Him, He steps in between us and that person and becomes our advocate. Then the offender has to deal with the Lord instead of us.
Forgiveness is an act of trusting God to take care of you. Even though it may seem impossible, our Beloved has gone before us offering forgiveness so that we can forgive others. Are you willing to lay your offenses at His feet and abdicate your right to sit on His judgment seat? When you do this you will be able to leave your burden with the Holy One and walk away free.