How might people distort the process of forgiveness?
For decades, our group has been monitoring and trying to correct false definitions of what it means to forgive those who acted unjustly. For example, in defining what forgiving is, some authors have erroneously equated forgiveness with excusing the wrong done, automatically reconciling, and abandoning a quest for justice.
I have come to realize that even the process of forgiveness (how people go about forgiving) can be prone to misinterpretations, to errors in what actually occurs when a person engages in the process of forgiving. To correct these errors, let us consider four responses to these misconceptions.
- As a person walks the path of forgiveness, there is a tendency to say, “I have not done enough; I have not reached perfect forgiveness.” This kind of thinking expects too much of the forgiveness process. As Lewis Smedes said in his book, Forgive and Forget, forgiveness is for imperfect people. We rarely reach a perfect state of forgiving. We must be careful not to disparage ourselves if we still have some work to do on the forgiveness process once we exert time and effort on it. Often in our research, when people are gravely hurt by others and are very low in forgiving, they tend to go to the middle part of our forgiveness scale, not to the higher end. Yet, this progression makes all the difference as people shed excessive anger, anxiety, and depression, and can increase in self-esteem. The message here is this: Try to be temperate. On the one hand, do not expect perfect forgiveness. On the other, do not give it a half-hearted effort, concluding that, since you are not perfect, there is no need to keep trying. Strike the balance between too little effort and too high an expectation for you as a forgiver. You will know you are making progress as your anger lessens and as you wish the offending person well (as Smedes reminded us in his book).
- Here is another worry about the forgiveness process: “My process of forgiveness may create an expectation in the other that he now deserves to be back in my life.” Your engaging in the process of forgiveness may lead to a variety of different reactions in other people. Some may now demand reconciliation. This is not your fault. It is a misunderstanding on the part of the one who acted badly. Other people’s misinterpretation of your forgiving, of your goals in doing so, is not your error. It is the other’s error and so please do not hold yourself responsible (or the process of
forgiveness responsible) for the other’s misinterpretation. You may have to clarify that your forgiving does not necessarily mean that you are ready to reconcile. The forgiveness process, as goodness toward others, remains good even if others misunderstand.
- Here is another: “My process of forgiveness may be so time consuming as to imbalance my full life.” This is another issue of intemperance. We can over-do (or under-do) just about anything. Be careful not to place forgiving so high on the priority list that you spend far too little time with loved ones, or neglect your job, or fail to get adequate exercise or rest. The process of forgiveness is part of a complete life.
- And here is our fourth worry about the forgiveness process: “Even as I engage in the process of forgiveness, I may not end all anger.” This kind of fear is common. People want to be done with anger and discontent which are effects of the unjust treatment against them. Even if all anger does not subside, in all likelihood, as you practice forgiving, and then try again…..and then again…..the anger lessens. You, then, are in control of the anger rather than the anger controlling you.
The definition of forgiveness can be distorted. Understanding the process of forgiving can be distorted. Do not let these distortions deter you from the life-giving practice of forgiving.