Ask Dr. Forgiveness

I am having a difficult time with forgiving. Here are some of my life’s stories. Perhaps you can help me see the usefulness of forgiveness or perhaps I can help you see the futility of it. 1. At work, a poor-performance report stays with a person forever. There is no mercy. Forgiveness seems futile in the workplace. 2. Politicians use forgiveness to dupe the public into accepting immoral or illegal behavior. Forgiveness is an excuse. 3. On a more personal level, I was repeatedly bullied in school, as a child. I was urged to “forgive” my aggressors, so they would not get punished, and I did. Later that day, they would ambush me after school and beat the living daylights out of me, and ridicule me for having “forgiven” them. Their take was that they had “gotten away” with it. 4. My mother refused to forgive me for the duration of my entire life. When I was in my mid-30s, she would scream at me at the top of her lungs with white-hot fury about misdeeds I had committed at age four. She never forgave me for anything. 5. I have had other life experiences in which people have been brutal. The result is that I feel that forgiving people for the sadistic acts they have inflicted on me is ridiculous…It merely gives them license to do it again and expose my weaknesses and insecurities to them, so they can hammer me even harder. Forgiveness is a fake.

Thank you for the challenge about forgiveness. First, I am sorry that people have treated you so poorly throughout your life. No one should have to endure that. Now, let us turn to each of your five points. I will show you that in each case, forgiveness is not the bad guy here.

1. A permanent record of poor-performance is not an indication that forgiveness itself is bad. People who do not show mercy are not giving forgiveness a chance.

2. Yes, politicians and others sometimes try to hide behind forgiveness for personal gain. That is not the problem of forgiveness itself. This is false forgiveness, playing pretend with it so that one can stay in power. This is not the fault of forgiveness.

3. At school, your teachers needed to help you to see that when you forgive you can and should seek justice at the same time. To “forgive” and then be seen as weak is a failure of the teachers, not a failure of forgiveness. If they encouraged you to forgive, they needed to encourage you to seek justice at the same time. They needed to help you stand up for yourself as you forgave. They were giving a wrong message about forgiveness and that is not the fault of forgiveness itself.

4. Your mother’s behavior showed a lack of forgiveness. This is not the fault of forgiveness, but it is your mother’s choice. She seems to have had a lot of built-up anger inside of her. Had she forgiven those responsible for this anger, she probably would not have taken her anger out on you. Forgiveness is not the bad guy here because your mother did not try forgiveness.

5. Forgiving people for acts of brutality and sadism should not cancel out your right to a fair solution. You need to realize, and this is very important in your case given what you have suffered, that you should place forgiveness and justice side-by-side. As you have mercy on people, expect fairness from them.

In none of these cases do I see forgiveness as ridiculous or fake. It is the failure of people in your life to forgive and to help you balance forgiveness with justice that are the problems. In the future please remember these issues. I challenge you this way so that you do not toss out forgiveness without a very good reason for doing so.

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My partner was very abusive for a long time at the beginning of our relationship. Verbally, emotionally, once physically. I stayed by her through it and through her hard process to fix herself. I didn’t realize that I had built up walls of self-preservation and anger in order to stay with her. I started to take that out on her and for 8 months was likely emotionally abusive as well. But I’ve since realized it and have begun to seek therapy and work on my anger towards her. She has decided to leave the relationship, but I think we can fix this. How can we both move forward and forgive each other? I know we have something good here.

Without having talked with your partner, it is difficult to know what her past has been like. I suspect that she was treated very unjustly at some time in her past. She needs to look at that first and, if she is willing, to forgive those responsible. It seems that her trust is damaged and it could stem from past injustice. Your relationship has its best chance to mend if she can see and confront past abuse and then forgive those responsible. She will then have learned the pathway to forgiveness when it is time for the both of you to forgive each other. I recommend Chapter 13 of the book, The Forgiving Life, when it is time for the two of you to work on mutual forgiveness with each other.

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I am 55 years old now, when I was 14 my dad made inappropriate suggestions to me, just those words devastated me, i told my mom, she didnt punish him, he died several years ago without saying “I’m sorry”, i have never been able to trust anyone, been married 3 times, I was a single mom,catered to my 2 sons now they have abandoned me, I have tried over and over to forgive, it’s been 5 years since my last divorce, i can’t seem to get over him, he’s definitely gone on with his life and i’m still crying about him,the only person I considered my “best friend”, my sister, got married and never spend time with me anymore, I woould support her in everything but as i go through this pain, she is not there for me, I’m so tired of the ‘pity parties”, i know it’s wrong, I want so much to forgive and get pass the anger and pain.

You have a remarkable and important insight: Your father’s inappropriate behavior when you were 14 has affected each of your important relationships ever since. I recommend working on forgiving your father first because it is central to the rest of your life’s story. Please consider the material in Chapter 12 of The Forgiving Life book, which centers on forgiving one’s parents.

Now, once you have walked that path of forgiving your father, you have a very important question to ask yourself: How has my own behavior toward others been affected by my father’s inappropriateness? You may be tossing your own angers and disappointments onto others who had nothing to do with the abuse you suffered. If this is the case, I recommend two approaches. First, work on forgiving yourself through the exercises in Chapter 10 of The Forgiving Life. Then approach those whom you have hurt and seek their forgiveness. These issues are discussed in Chapter 14 of the book. That chapter walks you through the somewhat complex path of forgiving, seeking forgiveness, and reconciling.

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I have been separated from my husband for 2 years. I left because of his infidelities. We had a combined family of twelve, the real life his, hers, and ours. My family was devastated. His infidelity was open, and blatant… he dated a girl half his age…her kids even called him “Daddy.” Over the past couple of years, I forced myself to accept things for what they were. It was truly painful. Now he wants to reconcile, and doesn’t understand why things can’t be like the way they were. We are both Christians. I talk to him regularly, we have dinner, and he tries to assist me in any way possible. But I can’t help thinking about how he openly flaunted his affair. We have the same friends, some of our family accepted his relationship. Some of our family went so far as to visit their home at the time and seemingly cast my children and I by the wayside. My children were devastated. They didn’t understand how someone who came home every night, and took family trips, etc. could do something like this, and come back around and expect everything to be okay. The eldest is 22 and the youngest is 11. I thought that I was over the pain and the trauma of the situation, but I’m not. We love him, but I don’t want to open my children or myself to feel this kind of pain again. As a Christian, I don’t want my children to be unforgiving… but how do I teach them about forgiveness when I harbor resentment ?

First, I am sorry for the pain that you have. We have to very clearly distinguish between your reconciling with and forgiving your husband. There are important differences. The most immediate issue is reconciliation, which is when two or more people come together again in mutual trust. The basic question is this: Can you trust your husband now and if so, what is the evidence? Trust usually is won after a series of steps to rebuild that trust.

The second issue is forgiveness. You and the children can begin today to forgive your husband/their father. When you forgive, you are working on reducing and even eliminating your resentment toward him and offering mercy, which may or may not include a welcoming back to the marriage.

We have resources in our Store for children and early adolescents who wish to learn to forgive. My book, The Forgiving Life, may be helpful in your forgiveness journey. I recommend that you forgive your husband for each injustice that particularly has wounded you.

Forgiveness is a journey that can take time, so please be gentle with yourself and please allow the children time to be angry and to grieve because for some time now their family has not been intact.

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