The Forgiveness Trap: Becoming Stuck in the Hope of Reconciliation
When we properly understand what it means to forgive someone, much of the criticism leveled against forgiveness vanishes. For example, if someone thinks that forgiveness is to find an excuse for an offender’s unfair behavior, we have to correct that misconception. We have to realize that when we forgive we never distort reality by falsely claiming that the injustice was not an injustice. As another example, if someone thinks that, upon forgiving, the forgiver has an obligation to reconcile, we need to understand that the moral virtue of forgiveness is distinct from reconciling (in which two or more people come together again in mutual trust).
Yet, what of this situation: Suppose that Alice forgives Allen, her boss, for several inappropriate advances at work. He is not remorseful, does not intend to change, and dismisses her concerns. Suppose further that in forgiving, Alice sees the inherent worth of Allen, concluding that he is a person worthy of respect, not because of what he did, but in spite of this. Seeing Allen’s inherent worth motivates Alice to stay in this particular job and wait in the hope that Allen will change. After all, if he has inherent worth, then he may be capable of altering his unwanted behavior.
She is clear that forgiving and reconciling are not the same thing. At the same time, she is now staying where she is, waiting in the hope of his changing, waiting in the hope of a healthy reconciliation.
Of course, none of us can look into the future with certainty. No one knows for sure that Allen will not change. Perhaps he will have insight into his inappropriate behavior, have remorse, repent, and ask for a genuine reconciliation with Alice.
How long should she wait? How do we know, given that we cannot predict Allen’s future behavior? A key, I think, is Allen’s current insights into his actions. Does he see them as highly inappropriate or as an “I cannot help myself” story? Does he see the behavior or continually rationalize it?
Does Allen show any remorse at all? Has he made even the slightest overture to repent? Does he have any insight whatsoever into his inappropriateness? If the answers are “no,” “no,” and “no,” then Alice’s waiting in the hope of reconciliation may not be wise if she has given this sufficient time.
When we forgive, we have to realize that sometimes our offenders choose to be willfully ignorant of their injustices and to the damage it is doing. When we forgive, we have to realize that some of our offenders choose not to change at all. Under these circumstances, we should not let our forgiveness set up a false hope. If we do, we are distorting the power of forgiveness and need to re-think our position. Forgiveness is not so powerful that it can always get the other to develop remorse, to repent, and to reconcile well.
Been there. I can recall waiting and waiting and waiting on my girlfriend in the hope of a reconciliation. She was hanging me out to dry and I did not see it. She never was going to come back. I did eventually see that but I wasted a lot of time.
So then, is this a weakness of forgiveness or is it a weakness of human understanding? It does not seem to be a flaw in forgiveness itself. I can see how forgiving someone could lead to falling into this trap, but as long as we see the trap then we can avoid it.
I can’t believe that you just described me. I have done this and it has not been pretty. I will remember to look for remorse and repentance the next time (if there is a next time) that a friend wants to use me for his gain.
Even here, forgiveness is not the villain. Those who forgive need to carefully ascertain the remorse and willingness to repent and when this happens, forgiveness is safe. I have to admit that this “trap” is a very subtle one and so pointing it out is a service to us all.