Bartered Forgiveness

In previous posts, I wrote about two expressions of forgiveness that, when offered, actually inhibit healthy recovery: premature forgiveness (quickly offered but withdrawn when the reality of the offense is recognized), and fake forgiveness (outwardly proclaimed while hidden resentment persists). Let me give you one more: bartered forgiveness.

Bartered forgiveness is offered under the condition that the offender lives up to certain expectations. These expectations are often unstated and may have nothing to do with the initial offense. As long as the offended partner remains content in the relationship, there is no mention of the past offense. But whenever conflict or discontent reaches a high enough level, the offense is once again used as a weapon against the offender.

A friend of mine was going through a difficult period of struggle with her defiant teenage son. One afternoon, in the heat of another argument, her son picked up a BB pistol, aimed it at her head, and pulled the trigger. Out of the split that opened between her eyes, blood poured down her face and onto her sweater. It was a frightening event, but the emotional damage was worse than the physical. Soon afterward, he expressed sorrowful regret and she readily forgave him. She could have continued using the event to shame him, but she chose to let it go.

But imagine a different outcome. Imagine the mother proclaiming her forgiveness and then hanging the bloodied sweater in a closet. A week later, in the middle of another argument, Mom stops yelling, walks to the closet, reaches for the stained sweater, and puts it on. Her son is silenced. She learns that whenever she wears the evidence of his shame she regains control. The shirt becomes her go-to strategy at the cost of her son’s increased resentment and the deterioration of their relationship. Even if she puts the sweater back into the closet each time, her forgiveness isn’t real; it’s just a bargaining chip.

Most of us would be appalled by this kind of manipulation, but how many times do we go back to the closet and pull out some past offense? How often do we hold up the evidence of past hurts in order to gain control by shaming someone else? When have we found more value in holding on to someone’s wrongdoing instead of letting it go, even though we once claimed to forgive them?

It may take time to reach a place of real forgiveness, and it may require effort as you continue to affirm it, but the purpose of forgiveness is to leave the offense in the past. Genuine forgiveness does not allow you to run back and drag the offense into the present each time it seems useful again.

Are you a bartering forgiver? Here are some things you might want to consider doing:

  • Get help from someone who can help you move toward forgiveness.
  • Remember the times when you experienced real forgiveness (from others, from God) and consider what it has means to know your offenses have been left in the past.
  • If the offense is in the past and the offender genuinely asked for your forgiveness, do something to demonstrate the fact that you are willing to finally let it go. You might want to write a long letter describing the hurt you’ve carried around all this time and then burn it once and for all. Whenever you’re tempted to reach back to the offense again, remember your action of letting it go. 
  • Admit your bartering forgiveness to the offender, and ask them to forgive you. 
  • Use resources (books, recordings, etc.) to learn more about forgiveness.

Tim Tedder

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