Forgiveness has always been a highly-emphasized value in my family. We were taught that whenever someone apologizes, you must respond with “I forgive you,” and not “It’s okay” or “Thank you,” or “Don’t worry about it,” because it’s not okay for people to hurt you. More importantly, forgiveness is healing and restoring for everyone involved.
Let’s think about the phrase “I forgive you." The word “forgive” is also used in discussions of money -- more specifically, debts. Debts can be forgiven. The debtor is “in the red,” so to speak, when it comes to their relationship to the person to whom they owe money. The person who is owed has lost money. For them to forgive the debt results in a personal financial loss. The ex-debtor is now no longer in the red in this relationship, and the two are now equals in this respect. Both parties know what happened and have learned from the experience (the ex-debtor probably won’t be receiving much more financial assistance from this friend in the future, for example) but they are once again on common ground.
When it comes to our actions, they can be viewed in similar terms. When I do something that harms someone else, it’s like I’ve taken something from them. I have made them upset, robbing them of a good mood, or I have made fun of them in front of other people, robbing them of self-esteem or dignity. When I am forgiven, the person I’ve wronged doesn’t get back what I “took” from them, but we can move on with our relationship on more even footing, though we both probably learned lessons from the whole ordeal.
Obviously, forgiveness is incredibly important to the person being forgiven. Personally, when I know I’ve hurt someone, I feel extremely guilty and that’s all I can think about until they tell me that they’ve forgiven me. Forgiveness provides healing and closure for the person who has wronged another; it eases the feelings of guilt and allows them to think more critically about their actions and how the situation might be avoided in the future. For me, this clarity doesn’t usually come until after I know I’ve been forgiven and I can quit worrying about the relationship that I’ve jeopardized.
Something that my family always talked about is that forgiveness is an essential part of the healing process for the forgiver as well. If someone has wronged you, you get hurt. If you stay angry or hold a grudge against the person who hurt you, it will be impossible to forgive them. That grudge or anger will sit inside of you and fester until it becomes a little bomb just waiting to explode. All of that toxicity will completely undermine your relationship with that person and it will fall apart, either peacefully or cataclysmically. The process of truly forgiving a person who has wronged you results in your fully letting go of any grudge you might hold against them, repairing the relationship.
Now, there’s a difference between forgiving someone in your heart and actually telling them that they have been forgiven. For some reason, the words “I forgive you,” are incredibly hard to say. They often get stuck in my throat and it’s all I can do to force them out of my mouth, not because I don’t mean it, but because there’s something inside me that doesn’t want to utter those words.
Genuinely saying the words “I’m sorry,” involves making a sacrifice. You are conceding that you did something wrong and that you want to heal the pain you’ve inflicted. In apologizing, you might sacrifice some dignity or pride. You also acknowledge that you might’ve sacrificed some respect or trust when you did whatever it was that you’re apologizing for.
Genuinely saying the words “I forgive you,” also involves making a sacrifice. When the person apologized to you, they sacrificed some pride and acknowledged that they have lost your trust. Now you’ve got the high ground, right? You lost something when you were wronged, and now the person who wronged you has lost something. They have effectively been put in their place, and now you might feel a certain amount of entitlement to your new position on the high ground.
"Wait!" you say. "When the other person apologized, they made a sacrifice! That means we're even now, right? I lost something when they wronged me and now they lost something when they apologized."
Yeah, no. That's not how it works. Just because you both have lost things doesn't mean that you're now on good terms. The only way to restore neutrality to your relationship is forgiveness. When you forgive what they've done to wrong you, just like a financial transaction, you take a loss. You can't get back what you've lost, but you're letting it go in the interest of restoring your relationship with the person. This restoration is why it is so important to vocalize your forgiveness. Even if you've forgiven the other person, if they don't know that this is the case, the relationship will still be broken. It can only be fully restored when forgiveness is vocalized.
Telling someone that you forgive them can be super tough. Tune in next week for a discussion about the internal struggle that occurs when forgiveness itself gets tricky.