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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"Forgive and Forget" or "Forget and Forget"

  It struck me the other day that our culture doesn't know how to forgive any more. This is a little odd because we talk about forgiveness a lot. So far as I know it's still one of the kindergarten virtues; share, say please and thank you, forgive. So let me offer that as my excuse for not noticing it sooner.
  Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to say that we all hold grudges and that relationships cannot be reconciled after an "unpleasantness", that happens quite frequently (though still probably not often enough) but I don't think that it happens through forgiveness. Today if you do something to upset me I seem to have two real choices; I can acknowledge that you really hurt me and I can let that come between us, maybe even retaliate, or I can pretend as though nothing happened and make a point of minimizing the whole event even if you do think to apologize. I think that most people in our culture identify that second point with forgiveness, the sort of "act as though nothing happened" mentality. When we want to "forgive" we have to convince ourselves and everyone else that no harm was actually done; sometimes we understate the damage, sometimes we explain it away, sometimes we just stop talking about it altogether.
  But that is not what forgiveness is. In fact I want to argue that this "ignore it and it will go away" mentality is an incredibly foolish, dangerous and even harmful thing to do. The first and primary problem with this approach is that it is, at bottom, an attempt to deny reality and denying reality just doesn't work in the long run. In fact, if memory serves, Screwtape heartily recommends that humans build up a habit of trying to convince themselves of something they know to be false. He claims that it will make us either give up on the virtue altogether or, even worse, establish a habit of living in two contradictory worlds with no bearing on real life. Reality is a horrendously stubborn thing: if someone hurts me, it hurts. It just does. If I try to deny that it hurts I'm only going to end up hurting worse in the end. This is most evident with physical injury. If you break my leg, the only way I can heal is to face up to the fact that my leg is broken and go and get it set and put in a cast. If I try to deny the injury so that you and I can still be friends, I'll end up walking on the leg and only make the injury worse.
  Probably the most blatant version of this false forgiveness happens on Facebook. Someone insults or upsets me. So I "un-friend" them. But later I want relationship back; maybe I just need more allies in monster backyard, or maybe I am genuinely curious about their lives, or I want to show off my own. So I send a friend request, or they do, and it is accepted. And nobody ever says anything about it again ... until the next time.
  And we do this sort of thing all the time in real life as well. How often have you heard "it was nothing" when it was something? How often have you explained away a verbal barb just so that you don't have to confront someone, so that your relationship with them will still run comfortably. Or, the worst version of this, how often have you just stopped talking about something altogether and acted as though it didn't happen at all. I'm not talking about being easy going, or being slow to take offense, those are good things. I'm talking about when that comment really does hurt and you pretend it wasn't said at all because it would be so awkward to confront the person. You might even have used the word forgiveness; "I've forgiven him so I'm not going to talk about it at all".
  Let me say again, this is not forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn't have some magical power to reach back into the past and change things. What happens in this morally dangerous world actually does happen and no amount of forgiveness can undo it. And we know this, at least we know it when reality hits us hard enough. If my car is stolen, I can forgive the thief 'til I'm blue in the face, and my car will still be gone. Forgiveness is not pretending that nothing happened. Forgiveness is admitting that something did happen and then refusing to let it get in the way of relationship. "You hurt me, but I forgive you" does not mean "you hurt me but I will pretend it didn't hurt", it means "you hurt me but I still want to have a relationship with you."
  Forgiveness is essentially vulnerable on the part of the forgiver and humble on the part of the apologizer. It is incredibly uncomfortable and difficult and when I think about it I'm not all that surprised that we have managed to forget how to do it. I have even seen people apologize and then become angry when they are forgiven: "who does he think he is saying I really hurt him but it's OK, he forgives me, does he think he's better than me?" It even feels awkward to be asked to genuinely forgive, even when we are willing to. It would almost be more comfortable if the other person would have just not brought it up.  I suspect that some of that goes back to our failure to have a healthy understanding of hierarchy but I'll save that for another post.
  In the meantime I would love some feedback; do y'all think that we really forgive? That we acknowledge truth and then refuse to let an injury get in the way of our relationship? And isn't this a more difficult but beautiful concept? Isn't a relationship much, much stronger if the parties can admit to being hurt but insist on maintaining community with one another anyway. Only weak relationships cannot handle forgiveness; strong relationships demand it and grow stronger for it. 


  1. Hey Bill, its Ashley Speights! like your rants!
    I am totally with you on this Bill! Our society is teaching our kids to just pass over the whole issue. For instance, when a kid is deliberately disobedient and they say they are sorry, too often I hear the response, "that's okay." it's really not ok. You disobeyed, you sinned and that is just not okay. We have purposed in our family to tell Judah that we forgive him. I think as our kids get older (our second son is 4 months for those who don't know me) they will hopefully be able to distinguish the difference between true forgiveness and the false idea of 'let's just all get along'.

  2. Yeah, I really like that, we will have to make a point of it with Liam as well. It would be really great for a kid to grow up understanding that forgiveness is not "it's OK", but neither is it "I won't talk to you anymore". I don't think we even have an established mentality which recognizes forgiveness as "that was bad but I won't let it come between us."

  3. Yes, it is an awkward thing in our culture and I think you're right. Come to think of it, I don't feel that I've ever been truly forgiven in the way you are defining forgiveness. When I've apologized, I've gotten the "I still can't believe you did that" or the "It was no big deal; in a way it was my fault...." or simply "Don't mention it." I'll have to pay attention to see why my response has been.

  4. Good observations about the abundance of shallow forgiveness. It doesn't do the job, as you said, it probably does more damage--like letting a scab grow over an infection. I've been struck by the fact that Jesus didn't say, "Father forgive them" until he had experienced the full extent of his suffering (that is the full extent of our offense against him). The point is, he fully acknowledged the offense and fully forgave. Under those circumstances, we KNOW we're forgiven and we're free--indeed!