Premature Forgiveness

My grade-school friends and I were playing by the side of the road when the Neighborhood Bully came riding by. I knew him only by reputation and so had no idea why he bothered to hop off his bike and plant himself in front of me. Before I could make any sense of the circumstance, Bully punched me in the face.

In those few seconds after the hit, my rattled brain scanned its memory searching for any data that might be useful in issuing an appropriate response. The only retrievable information came from Sunday School lessons teaching me to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies.” So, while Bully’s glare was daring me to fight back, I turned my attention to my feet and mumbled, “I forgive you.”

“What?!”

“I forgive you.”

I figured Jesus was probably really happy with me and so he’d send angels swooping down with swords drawn, causing Bully to either fall to his knees or run away in holy terror. Or maybe he’d be overcome by my forgiving spirit and just back away in awed confusion.

Instead, he punched me again.

Since forgiveness didn’t work, I tried something else: playing dead. I guess it wouldn’t have been as much fun punching a kid whose face was planted in the dirt, so Bully got on his bike and rode away.

The following days were filled with revenge fantasies. I thought of every way that normal me and super-hero me might make Bully pay for his offense. My forgiveness had just been a temporary reaction, not a genuine response. It had been premature. 

I sometimes suspect that clients have offered premature forgiveness for offenses against them. Soon after the experience of a deep wound or the discovery of betrayal, some are quick to explain, “I’ve already forgiven,” only to return days or weeks later confused by how angry they have become and how strongly they want the offender to pay for their wrong. 

Forgiveness is a good thing. It’s God-like. It frees us. It heals. But if you try to offer it before you become completely aware of the offense, your forgiveness will be superficial. Eventually, you will either have to back up and start over, or move into a kind of fake forgiveness (pretending to forgive, but not really).

Small offenses, of course, require small forgiveness. But when you experience a “punch in the face” or even a “knife in the heart” kind of hurt, make sure you take the time to truly understand what happened. Out of this awareness, find your way toward forgiveness that is more honest… more sustainable… more mature.

Recommended reading: How Can I Forgive You? by Janis Spring; Forgiving and Reconciling by Everett L. Worthington.

Tim Tedder