These observations may be of some service in understanding and clarifying the erroneous notion that forgiveness should ever be equated with appeasement or confused with unearned trust. They are not only unequal, they are opposites. This is important on many levels. How we forgive as well as when and why we ought to offer forgiveness is fundamentally important psychologically and interpersonally as well as theologically.
In my many years of working with people in this area, I have met a great many people with an extraordinary diversity of personality styles, problems, and pathologies and they have taught me a great deal. One of the things I’ve learned from them is the importance of forgiveness in any area, whether that’s from addiction, anxiety, depression, abuse, developmental trauma, or the ordinary offenses of life.
Forgiveness and appeasement must both be very clearly defined.
Forgiveness is the letting go of hatred, resentment, and pointless, pervasive and paralyzing fear and/or resentment or codependency. It does not mean that we must be foolishly fearless or naïve. It does not mean that we stop protecting ourselves or deny what is truly dangerous around us. It does not mean that we ignore the obvious or trust what is intrinsically untrustworthy. It does not mean we relinquish our God-given capacities for discernment and good judgment. When evil comes knocking we should lock the door.
Forgiveness is not banal and is never another word for “niceness.”
Appeasement, on the other hand, often parades as benevolence but is actually cowardice and codependency, a derivative of a particular form of fear that is so consuming, so pervasive and pathological it is flatly denied. When we appease, we essentially give up rational fear even though we may truly need it. We think that by being “nice” or by giving the bully what he wants, that he will stop being a bully. Appeasement doesn’t prevent bad behavior. It perpetuates and encourages it. That is foolishness.
Discernment and The Bad Guys
Many people believe that forgiveness is easier to understand when it pertains to one bad guy who is truly contrite. Forgiveness does not imply a lack of discernment or judgment. Quite the contrary. It requires a greater discernment.
Can true forgiveness be the key to both seeing things more clearly and protecting ourselves better?
There are two parts to this dilemma. The first is the nature of forgiveness, which is often misunderstood. And the second is the potential of self-protection without being driven to a red-line by hate and fear.
Forgiving Is Not Excusing or Denial
It is my personal belief that there are things right-mindedness and spiritual maturity call us to do and NOT to do. And I want to state up front that a great deal of my thinking on these matters has been influenced CS Lewis, who gave us quite a bit to digest on the issue of forgiveness:
“I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often…asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking Him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says, ‘Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your contrite apology; I will not continue to hold it against you, and I release you from any judgement I have made against you. It does not imply that I immediately trust the offender or be reconciled to the offender, but it does mean we have done as God has asked us to by forgiving from the heart.
But excusing says, ‘I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.’ If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive… if we forget this, we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses and made appeasements all the way around.
Real forgiveness between two persons, as he so rightly points out, does not mean pretending the hurt has not occurred and does not require that we look away from the wrong doing. Forgiveness—even God’s forgiveness, which is infinite—starts with a steady gaze at the sin itself. To forgive entails an acknowledgment of the wrongdoing and then, when there is contrition and repentance, potentially a reconciliation, but that is not always possible. As Lewis reminds us again and again, true forgiveness demands that we look at the deed squarely, “seeing it in all its horror,” after which we are able to extend compassion and be reconciled with God over the issue.The deed and all its underpinnings must be shed for good. It is this understanding of forgiveness that makes it possible to fight an enemy without hating him.
Forgiveness is not Codependence
Many people who come into my office live with rather troubled people, some of them truly awful. Some of them are being abused, some are stuck in situations with alcoholic parents that are frighteningly chaotic, others in marriages with addicts or thieves who are stripping them of every reasonable creature comfort. I know one woman whose addicted husband stole all her clothing to sell on the street so he could buy a night’s worth of methamphetamine. By the time she was able to take her daughter and herself to a battered women’s shelter, she had all their worldly goods contained in one paper shopping bag.
Traumatized people can’t help but bristle at the mention of the word forgiveness. And I understand why they do. I also know that they will never recover without it. My task is to help them see that forgiveness does not mean they need to allow the behavior to continue or accept the next empty promise any more than acceptance means approval. In their lexicon, the term “forgiveness” implies that they have to pretend they were never abused or tortured or victimized. To forgive in their minds, means a tacit cooperation in the codependency and abuse. When I say the word “acceptance”, their hearts hear “denial” and their minds see a continuation of all that is wrong and truly morally and emotionally “unacceptable”.
It is imperative for there to be some contrition and an effort to change the negative behavior in order for forgiveness to be wholeheartedly given and for reconciliation to take place. Father Russell Radoicich, an Orthodox Priest in Butte, Montana, clarifies the it this way, “Consider the difference between ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Please forgive me.’ One is a proclamation and the other is a supplication. One involves ‘I’, one involves ‘the other.’ One is prideful and arrogant, almost a rant, the other is humble, contrite.” There is no doubt that he is right and that we must be discerning enough and clear-minded enough to know the difference so that we are not manipulated into putting ourselves in harm’s way.
However, while a full reconciliation may depend on repentance, and the willingness of two parties, our forgiveness does not. In fact, we can forgive a person who is quite ill and committed to a path of destruction using words we have heard before, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Putting ourselves in harm’s way is another matter.
BH/ Adapted Judith Acosta