I recently suggested to a friend that he should forgive his ex. Ok, so she had treated him badly. Ok, so when opportunity arises, she continues to try to make his life hell. But he is eaten up by anger at what she’s done, so, I suggested, why not forgive her? For his sake, not for hers. No, he told me. People who forgive open themselves up to being used as a doormat. But it isn’t the same thing at all.
Forgiving someone doesn’t mean letting them off the hook. I once met an American man whose daughter had been killed in a bombing. The father of the victim had been overwhelmed by grief at his loss, but had forgiven the perpetrator, who was now locked up on Death Row, awaiting his execution. Forgiven him to the point where he wrote letters pleading for the sentence to be changed to life imprisonment. It wasn’t that he wanted the man to walk out of prison, scot-free. But he understood he had to let go of his anger and he knew that another violent act – the execution of his daughter’s killer – would not bring his daughter back.
Forgiving someone who has hurt us in a past relationship does not mean we go back to them or allow them to continue treating us badly or even that we have to be friends with them again. It simply means letting go of the anger we hold in our hearts towards them.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we don’t hold someone accountable for their actions, but it does mean that we don’t seek revenge. It doesn’t mean that if a crime has been committed, we shouldn’t seek justice and it doesn’t mean allowing the offence to occur over and over again.
Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. I have forgiven my ex-husband for the hurt that he caused me. That doesn’t mean that I want him back. It just means that I have let go of my anger and my suffering and no longer entertain fantasies of bumping into him in the street when I’m on the arm of some George-Clooney or Will-Smith lookalike.
Forgiveness does not mean not facing up to the reality of a situation. I have forgiven my ex-husband but there came a point in our marriage when I had to face up to the reality that his actions and words upset me deeply and I no longer wanted to be around him. You can leave a situation but still forgive the person whose actions have made your departure necessary. I can forgive a man who has cheated on me – but that doesn’t mean I have to stay with him.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean we have to tell the person that they’re forgiven. We forgive for our own sake, not for theirs, because carrying all that anger, hurt and bitterness around with us simply isn’t good for our souls.