Forgiveness is often one of the hardest acts of love to execute, and frequently the one people struggle with the most. After exploring 14 traits of love last week, today we will look at what it means to truly forgive more closely.
Forgiveness & Consequences
Put simply, the definition of forgiveness is deciding to no longer treat someone with bitterness or condemnation because of a mistake, fault, or hurtful action they may have committed.
Some people hesitate to forgive because they feel if they do, the other person will ‘get away with it’ or somehow think what they did was ‘okay’ – that it didn’t cause hurt or that it didn’t really matter when it did. But forgiveness is not a quick escape from consequences. Someone who cheats on their partner may be forgiven, but they will still have to work through the consequences of broken trust and a damaged relationship. Someone who robs a store may be forgiven by the owner, but they will still have to face legal and financial consequences. Without consequences, the perpetrator doesn’t feel the full impact of their crime and are therefore less likely to learn from their mistakes. This also means that well-meaning people who forgive others and relieve them of the consequences are sometimes enabling them to continue in their destructive patterns. Forgiveness it is not an excuse for what the person has done wrong, but it is aimed at helping them to improve rather than dragging them down or making them feel guilty.
Forgiveness takes time and often requires outside help. It may even mean taking steps to show someone forgiveness even if you are still working through your feelings. It certainly means being honest with them about how you’re feeling and keeping the communication lines open.
Forgiveness & Boundaries
Another reason people hesitate to forgive others is because they aren’t convinced the other person has changed or won’t make the same mistake again. They think that forgiveness automatically equates to trust.
Sometimes people may no longer feel anger or bitterness towards the other person, but nor are they ready to trust them again, and that’s okay. At no point do we have to put ourselves in a position where we’re likely to be hurt again. This is particularly the case when the other person shows no remorse for what they’ve done or for how they’ve made us feel. While love in all its aspects involves risk, if the risk of further hurt is unreasonably high, then it is not one we have to take in order to complete the forgiveness process. Someone may forgive a sexually abusive relation, for example, but that does not mean they have to reconcile with them, have a relationship with them and/or be vulnerable with them. We can forgive people (even without them apologising) and treat them well while still having boundaries in place to protect ourselves. In some cases, not reinstating the relationship may actually be the healthiest thing to do, especially if the other person is not inclined to improve their behaviour. Even if restoring the relationship is possible, remember: forgiveness takes one; reconciliation takes two.
This princple works in the reverse too. That is, if we are the ones who have caused hurt, we may seek forgivenss and face consequences as much as possible, but if the other person is simply unwilling to forgive then reconciliation becomes virtually impossible. However, the problem then lies with them and their inability to let go – we have to accept their choice to hold onto the damage and do what we need to forgive ourselves and move on.
Forgiveness & Love
How is forgiveness an act of love? Forgiveness says, ‘I still believe in and love who you are even if how you act isn’t always perfect’. This can actually create a closer bond between two people and even help the person who caused the hurt to change. In other words, forgiveness separates a person’s heart from their actions. It provides a foundation to rebuild the relationship, if appropriate, and stops one action from causing repeated damage. It heals wounds and reduces bitterness, and it allows us to treat the other person respectfully instead of hurting them in turn, seeking revenge or letting the issue linger and fester.
Holding onto bitterness instead can be both emotionally and physically taxing, so if nothing else, forgiveness is also a release for us. Forgiving someone in our past, someone we may never even see again, can also bring us peace. In all cases it means accepting and dealing with the fact that we were hurt, and then choosing to let that go so we can love again and enjoy healthy relationships. Most importantly, we cannot truly love someone without letting them make mistakes and forgiving them when they are less than perfect. Just as many people have forgiven us for our shortcomings, so must we show compassion when others let us down too.