Decisional Forgiveness

Some people consider forgiveness an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s a bit like bungee jumping; you can either stand frozen or you can take the step, but you can’t go just half-way down. Combine this thinking with the idea that forgiveness is always the best choice and you will eventually find yourself in a dilemma: How can you completely forgive someone who shows no remorse for hurting you?

In my opinion, personal forgiveness is always the best choice, even if the offender doesn’t deserve it. I should admit that I have not been ultimately tested in this belief. If someone intentionally caused great harm to any member of my family, I’m not sure what I’d do, but I hope I would, even then, find my way toward forgiveness. I’ve seen the fruit of unforgiveness and I’d rather not taste it. 

Does that mean I would give up on seeking justice? Not necessarily. Does that mean I would trust that person around my family again? Probably not. But what it does mean is that even if a person is not repentant for a wrong done against me, I believe it is better to release my hands from around their neck and let go of my desire for personal vengeance. 

Have you ever been hurt by someone who is unremorseful or absent? A spouse who left for someone else; a parent who died without ever admitting the damage they inflicted; a friend who betrayed a trust and walked away; a person who stole something that could never be returned? How can you be expected to forgive people like these? 

Maybe by just deciding to forgive.

Decisional forgiveness is a step short of complete forgiveness (more on that next week), but it is still a powerful process. It chooses to let go of personal retribution while accepting the fact that you might never realize the emotional healing that could come if you experienced the offender’s remorse. This kind of forgiveness can happen when you stop focusing on things that are out of your control (the offense or the offender) and, instead, give attention to what is within your ability to change. You are not responsible for the hurt, but you are responsible for your healing.

What can you decide to do?

  • Talk it out.
    If you haven’t done so already, you need to fully acknowledge the pain caused by the offender. Talk about it with someone you trust. Get advice on whether or not it would be beneficial to communicate your hurt to the offender and, if so, the best way to do it.
  • Drop your weapon.
    In whatever way you carry around idea of revenge, let it go. Give up on the idea that you are personally responsible for wishing or creating retribution. If action is required, leave justice to a higher authority: God or the law.
  • Start looking in the opposite direction.
    Instead of obsessing and ruminating about the past, turn around and look at your future. I know this is easier said than done, but the truth is you can change how you think. Start by giving attention to what you feed our thoughts. Get rid of bad mental foods (bitter conversations, revenge movies, anything that feeds anger or causes you to focus on the past) and find better input (Scripture, inspiring songs, encouraging friends, anything that promotes peacefulness and a focus on the future). If you cannot escape obsessive thoughts, talk to a pastor or counselor.
  • Search for empathy.
    If you become too focussed on our pain, your perspective will be limited and your emotional responses will be restricted. You will find it easier to forgive if you can (1) gain some understanding of the offender’s experience, even if it is just an acknowledgment of ways they’ve been broken, (2) be willing to acknowledge ways you contributed to the injury, if any exists, and (3) remember the times when you were forgiven by others.

When I was in grade school, I remember traveling out of state to visit friends of my parents. This couple lived in a secluded home on the edge of a swampy river. I liked sitting at the end of their dock and throwing sticks out into the water. Later, my dad told an amazing story about this couple. It went something like this…

One afternoon, while the husband was away, two strangers pulled their boat up to the dock, approached the house, forced their way inside, and took turns raping the woman. Some time after they left, the husband returned to a broken wife and began the work of loving her back toward healing.

The men were eventually captured and the police allowed the husband to visit them in jail. There was no account of their particular feelings, apart from the regret of being caught, but this man still had something to offer them. “What you did… it was wrong,” he said honestly, but humbly. “You caused tremendous pain to my wife. To me, too. For my part, I want you to know that, because God has forgiven me for many things, I forgive you, too.” I’m not sure what else he said, but I’m pretty sure that when he left, the men locked in that cell were no longer bound in his heart. 

Tim Tedder

Recommended Viewing: The Power of Forgiveness (2007), Directed by Martin Doblmeier

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