5 Myths of Forgiveness
Definitions are important - the words we use create the world we inhabit. Unfortunately, many of us were handed bad definitions for good words, meaning growth often requires the unlearning of old things.
Forgiveness is one of these words.
Conversation around forgiveness often feels more like a weight to bear rather than a breath of fresh air. The word may even trigger memories of being told to forgive in a way that furthered the pain you experienced in the first place. These myths about forgiveness may be laden with good intentions from well-meaning people, but they harm rather than heal. Let’s explore five myths about forgiveness.
1.“If I forgive them, I am condoning what they did.”
Truth: Forgiveness is not condoning.
There is a fear that to forgive someone would mean that we condone what happened, that we aren’t taking what happened seriously, or that we are minimizing the impact of what occurred. Forgiveness is not condoning someone’s behavior or what happened - it is not saying that something wasn’t wrong. That person has made a muck of your life and/or the lives around you. They caused pain, hurt and suffering and you are now having to work through its effects. What happened was real. It hurts terribly. Minimizing is not forgiveness; it is denial.
2. “I should feel like forgiving them.”
Truth: Forgiveness is not a feeling.
Your feelings are important. Don’t ignore your emotions, engage with them. You are likely not going to feel like forgiving that person - that is OK. Often, we hear that our feelings don’t matter and we “should just forgive that person.” Forgiveness is a process and not a feeling, so it may take many years to work through the pain or the trauma of what happened. That is OK and perfectly normal. Forgiveness is not an event, it is a process. It takes time.
Forgiveness is a choice, meaning there may come a time when we choose to forgive and go against what we are feeling in the moment. Again, this is not to negate our feelings of hurt and betrayal. It is to say that forgiveness is an intentional act of one’s own volition. It is a commitment to liberate yourself from the prison of bitterness and resentment.
3. “I should just forgive and forget.”
Truth: Forgiveness is not forgetting.
We are not computers who can shut off various systems of remembering. Pretending to forget what happened is another form of denial rather than a sign of forgiveness. We will likely always remember. It is what we DO with our remembering that matters.
Contrary to how it may seem, remembering does not have to hold us hostage. It is vital to our freedom. Remembering can be part of the path to forgiveness.
Some people are dangerous, hurtful, abusive, divisive, or toxic. Remembering that is really important. By remembering, for example, you might set up appropriate boundaries so they are not allowed to harm you like that again. A healthy response to hurtful people is creating boundaries with that person.
4. “Forgiving means I am letting them get away with it.”
Truth: Forgiveness does not negate consequences.
Forgiveness is not the measuring stick of justice, it is rather a place where we can slowly reframe and heal the painful parts of our stories. If someone did something wrong, there are consequences. They could be legal, monetary, or relational. It could be all of these and/or a host of consequences. To forgive someone does not mean they are absolved of the ramifications of what occurred.
5. “If I forgive them, I have to reconcile.”
Truth: Forgiveness is not reconciliation.
Reconciliation takes two willing parties and all sorts of agreed upon conditions being met. You might forgive someone, but it is a very different issue for the relationship to return to the way it used to be. Because of what happened, it may be impossible to return to how the relationship was. Forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things. When we conflate forgiveness and reconciliation, we limit real forgiveness from occurring--especially for those who have experienced abuse.
If we mandate the equating of forgiveness with reconciliation between a victim and an abuser, you can create opportunity for re-victimization for abuse survivors. So while reconciliation is possible in certain situations, it is not always possible or in the best interest of those that have been hurt. We have to establish a new definition of forgiveness that does not require reconciliation, but that provides a way forward for the hurt.
A New Definition
Forgiveness is not condoning, it is not a feeling, it is not forgetting, it doesn’t negate consequences, and it is not the same thing as reconciliation. So, what is it?
Stanford University research psychologist, Fred Luskin, defines forgiveness as, “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.” It is the personal act to release the one who harmed you from your personal desire to pay him or her back for the offense. Instead of hurting him back, you release the hurt and take it out of circulation. What they meant for ill, you courageously declare through your actions that the pain is going to stop here. As one author writes:
“Forgiveness means refusing to make them pay for what they did. However, to refrain from lashing out at someone when you want to do so with all your being is agony. It is a form of suffering. You are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out on the other person. It hurts terribly. Many people would say it feels like a kind of death. Yes, but it is a death that leads to resurrection instead of the life-long living death of bitterness and cynicism. You are not giving it any fuel and so the resentment burns lower and lower.”
Forgiveness is about bringing the forgiver a newfound peace that provides freedom. It is a releasing of deeply held negative feelings, but it is incredibly difficult. It is a pathway to empower yourself to recognize the pain you experienced without letting the pain define you. It is a place where healing can begin.
 Luskin, Fred. Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. HarperSanFrancisco, 2003.  Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Penguin Books, 2018.
BIO: Robert LeLaurin is a graduate level intern at the MTS Counseling Center. He desires to help others feel known, accepted, and challenged to grow in new and meaningful ways.
You might find Rob reading a thought-provoking book, eating amazing food with friends, or traveling the globe with his wife. Rob earned his B.A. in Biblical Studies at Moody Bible Institute, an M.A. in Biblical & Theological Studies from Western Seminary and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Counseling Psychology at North Park University.