Let me admit something to you: I’ve had difficulty writing this. My past posts about forgiveness came more easily, but this time… this time I stalled whenever I considered what to say about complete, full forgiveness. I’m a week past the due date, and still struggling, wondering why this seems so hard. Perhaps it is due to my own tendency to fall short of all-out forgiveness. More likely, though, I am aware of the deep longing to be fully forgiven for my own offenses. And I am also aware of the significant cost to people who endured those offenses and embraced me on the other side of them.
So I cannot treat forgiveness lightly, either in its giving or receiving. In my experience, complete forgiveness never comes without paying the price of painful effort. The deeper the offense, the greater that cost will be.
But the cost brings benefit. Full forgiveness brings restoration to the whole person: mind, body, spirit. It is the kind of forgiveness that most of us long for. It takes us beyond just a decision to a place where we experience healing on an emotional level. We actually feel the release and freedom that comes from forgiving or being forgiven.
Here’s how it works in my marriage. When Sharon and I get into conflict* my analytical mode shifts into overdrive as I argue my case. After all, I assume I’m probably 60-90% right and everything will be settled as soon as she finally listens to my rational argument. In the moment, this strategy seems reasonable even though decades of experience provide clear and compelling evidence to the contrary. The result, of course, is that we become more distant; I back away to leave her feeling alone, hurt, and angry.
Since I’m not a complete idiot, I eventually figure out that I got something wrong again. I admit this to her and ask her to forgive me. Because she loves me, she is quick to grant forgiveness.
But I’ve realized that very often when I simply say to her, “I’m sorry for that,” the sting remains even after she puts the offense behind her. She no longer holds it against me, but still feels the hurt because I simply used words without becoming emotionally involved in the forgiveness process. A change comes the moment I move close to her, look her in the eyes, and speak to her out of my heart instead of my head. When I am honest about my disappointment in myself and show genuine remorse for hurting her, she softens. The sting is removed. Full forgiveness comes.
That “softening” is, I believe, the mark of full forgiveness. It is a compassionate, empathetic response from the offended toward the offender. Without it, we have to settle for something a little less.
Experiencing empathy for an offender should not be required or expected in every circumstance. But if you do want to fully forgive, you need be willing to move toward that kind of compassionate response. How?
In order to realize compassionate empathy for your offender, one of these experiences must be true:
1. Your offender is emotionally involved in the process of forgiveness.
If the person who hurt you is able to express honest sorrow and remorse for their wrong, then you have an opportunity to let down your guard and allow your feelings to soften. You may not get this chance if your offender shows no regret, or if he/she offers a kind of apology that falls short of real contrition.
Even if your offender does show genuine remorse, you will not be able to move toward an empathetic response if you hold on to vengeance. You will have to let go of your demand for personal justice and be willing to step out of your own experience and into the sorrow of your offender. This provides an opportunity for both of you to experience healing.
But what if your offender does not engage you at this emotional level? What if they do not offer genuine remorse? Some counselors believe that full forgiveness can only be achieved if/when the offender is an active participant in the process. But I believe there is another way, although it is difficult as well.
2. You understand and acknowledge your offenses against others, your own need for forgiveness, and out of the grace that has been given to you, you fully forgive your offender.
I hesitate in writing this second option because it can be so easily turned into some sort of moral or spiritual dictate that becomes a “requirement” if you are a truly good person. Let me be very clear: good people do not always fully forgive. And at the risk of inviting an argument, I’d say that even God does not fully forgive every offender. There is a place for justice.
But I do believe that some people are so aware of their own need for grace and forgiveness, and how they’ve received these in the past, that they are able to truly let go of offenses even when the offender is not asking to be forgiven. This kind of forgiveness amazes me and I don’t think I’m very good at it. I have little doubt, however, that giving attention to the way others have had to duck away from the log in my own eye results in me taking less offense at splinters (or even logs) in the theirs (Matthew 7:3-5).
Honestly, it seems to me that Christians have a bit of an advantage in this second point. We believe that if we got what we truly deserved, we’d be in a mess of trouble, but that God took it on himself to pay the price that justice demanded for all our wrong-doing. If we really see ourselves that way, as undeserving recipients of God’s gracious forgiveness, then we should find it easier to move with compassionate empathy toward those who have offended us (Colossians 3:13). That’s the way it should be, at least. In practice, it often is not.
Forgiveness is personal. Forgiveness is hard; it seems nearly impossible sometimes. But I do believe it is always the goal worth moving toward. Lewis Smedes wrote, “We talk a good forgiving line as long as somebody else needs to do it, but few of us have the heart for it while we are dangling from one end of a bond broken by somebody else’s cruelty.” If you’re dangling, I hope you’ll find your heart.
*Hey, sorry to spoil any illusions for those who’d like to think that folks like counselors, pastors, and Oprah don’t get into some good arguments. We do. (Well, I can’t honestly speak for Oprah, but I’m pretty sure…)