What is forgiveness, anyway?


I’ve been grappling with the nature of forgiveness lately in my personal life. You might, as a result, find this post to be much more personal than usual, but I hope you’ll bear with me.

Recently, a close friend let me down in a particularly damaging way. This wasn’t just a careless action on his part, but a deliberate one that he knew would have significant impact on me. Indeed, it left me reeling, confused and deeply hurt. I won’t go into details as I’m still processing what happened and I’m sure, in any case, that my friend would not want what he did broadcast to the world (or at least, the small number of people who read this blog!)

He has asked for my forgiveness. He has not said he is sorry for what he did, rather he has apologised for the effect it had on me, which is not the same thing. I’ve told him I can, and do, forgive him, but having done so, I realise I don’t know, in practical terms, what forgiveness means. What does it entail? What does it feel like? What actions does it require on the part of the forgiver? Sixty+ years into life, twenty-five as a Christian, and I find I really don’t know. The bible, as I suggested last time, is of no help. For all its advocates blather on about how it, and the Christian faith generally, are all about forgiveness, it hasn’t anything substantial to say about how forgiveness actually ‘works’.

Does forgiveness mean I have to somehow forget what my friend has done? Popular songs seem to suggest that’s what it’s about; ‘let’s forgive and forget’; ‘a time for forgiving and for forgetting’ and so on. But how do I do that? I can’t delete the part of my memory that knows what happened and seems determined to bring it into my conscious mind at every opportunity (usually in the middle of the night). I can suppress it to an extent, think of other things, make myself busy ‘to take my mind off things’, but that’s not really forgetting. I suppose I can resist the temptation to muster up a grudge but that, I think, would be for my benefit, not his.

Does forgiveness mean then that I allow things to continue as normal? I’m not sure that’s possible when I can’t now trust my friend. He could do the same thing again and I’m not prepared to leave myself open to that possibility. Forgiveness doesn’t, I’ve discovered, restore trust; but does this mean I’ve not really forgiven him? We could renegotiate our relationship, put it on a different footing perhaps, but wouldn’t such caution and readjusting also suggest I’ve not been able to forgive him?

Does forgiveness simply mean I won’t seek out some form of retribution or revenge? Possibly, but as I’m not inclined to do these things anyway – I’ve never believed that two wrongs can somehow make a right – I’m not sure I’d actually be (for)giving much with such a semblance of magnanimity. Perhaps, then, I might quietly let the friendship he and I once enjoyed drift quietly away into oblivion. I have, after all, to protect myself from the effect of his doing something similar in the future. I could let time take care of the problem, its passage allowing the pain, along with the friendship, to pass.

This is, in fact, the course I’m taking, and I’ve told my friend as much, but he doesn’t see this as the forgiveness I promised him. In truth, neither do I, but it’s the best I can do.

According to some parts of the bible (but not others), God forgives us our sins. He does this by magically covering them up with the blood of his sacrificed Son. It’s mumbo-jumbo, of course, but perhaps those who invented it had the same problems I have with forgiveness. In the end they realised that the only way they could ‘explain’ it was with wishy-washy hocus-pocus. It’s not much use in the real world though. Anybody out there got any better suggestions?


8 thoughts on “What is forgiveness, anyway?

  1. I think the answer is that you don’t have to forgive your former friend. It’s OK not to.

    Forgiveness should be earned, not just given. Your friend hurt you in a very deep way, and has lost your trust. Now they want you to behave as though it never happened, without their having to earn their way back into your good graces. You do not have to do this. You are within your rights to demand that they do something to atone for what they did if they want your forgiveness. That they actually try to make up for the harm they did you. Only once they have shown by actions (and not just shallow empty words about “I’m sorry if you were offended”) that they are once again deserving of your trust, only then do you forgive them. And even then, you don’t have to readmit them to your circle of friends, until they have earned that, too.

    Anger is a powerful tool. We need it. It can help us focus our actions, and it can protect us too. A person who you thought was a friend did you harm, and you are angry, and rightly so. That anger can warn you against leaving yourself vulnerable to their doing it again. Just because they asked you to stop being mad at them doesn’t mean that you can, or that you should.

    That doesn’t mean that you need to take retribution, or revenge. Don’t feel guilty about being angry, either. Use your anger to help you make wise decisions about how much you will let this person be a part of your life in the future.

    The christian emphasis on “forgiveness” just turns people into doormats. It’s one of the more toxic teachings of that religion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Ubi. Your calm, considered advice is really helpful. I was feeling guilty about my anger, and the old Christian conditioning – still there after 20 years – was telling me, ‘you must forgive him, you must; 70×7 and all that.’ You’ve given me a different perspective and I really appreciate it. Thank you.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. If you felt certain that your friend would not do something like this again, and that he was truly sorry, and had changed in this area, or even was trying to change and to do the right thing, would you be willing to continue the friendship?

    Some relationships are toxic, and should not be continued. Anger can also be a healthy and positive emotion. I think healthy boundaries are important, but on the other hand no long term and close friendship is going to go without the need for forgiveness at some point, and survive.

    I’ve been married for over thirty years. My husband and I love each other deeply, but we have had to be willing to forgive each other many times, and work through a myriad of issues. I think in the long term this has made our relationship stronger and more enduring.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am a bit confused by your blog, You tell of a betrayal and your wrestling with the whole forgiveness thing, yet forgiveness is a trait taught buy a person you call a fraud? Umm divine intervention on your conscious??..cant be there is no God remember..wait what drew me to an atheists blog…..dang interesting how things work isn’t it….I don’t think so. I’ll keep you in my prayers.


    • The reason you’re confused, Woody, is that you seem to think Jesus invented forgiveness – he didn’t. It’s true he promotes the notion of forgiveness but his teaching is, as I say in my post ‘Forgiven’, shallow and inconsistent.

      There’s no divine intervention involved in my writing about forgiveness nor in your ending up here. Do you really believe in a god who spends his time directing people’s thoughts while at the same time doing absolutely nothing to help the millions starving in the world today?

      Liked by 2 people

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