What’s on your mind today?
Me? I’m thinking about forgiveness.
What does it mean to forgive? Simply put, forgiveness is the act of mustering enough compassion for someone who has hurt or wronged you to move forward rather than allowing bitterness and anger to eat away at your mind and heart. But does that mean we have to let someone continue to hurt us?
I think forgiveness is a tool for self-empowerment. When you forgive someone you take away their power to hurt you. Of course there are exceptions where withholding forgiveness can also be empowering. Victims of sexual assault often find the path to healing when they allow themselves to be angry at their attacker.
My daughter asked me what I thought about forgiveness. I think the key to forgiveness is intent. When we are talking about whether or not to forgive someone, intent matters. I created the example below to help my daughter understand forgiveness. I call it The Reckless Driver.
Let’s imagine you are standing on a corner waiting to cross the street. The crossing sign lights green and tells you to walk, so you step into the street and proceed to walk. Suddenly, a car comes rushing up the street and hits you! Thankfully, you are not killed but you do have a broken leg. You are lying in the street bloodied and bruised with your leg broken and you’re in terrible pain. The driver gets out of the car holding their cell phone. The driver was texting and driving and didn’t see you. The driver walks up to you. Now, there are several different ways the rest of this scenario could go.
The driver gets out of the car apologizing profusely. The driver says “I”m so sorry I hit you. I should not have been texting and driving. I hurt you. I feel awful about this. Please forgive me.” What would you do? You are in terrible pain and shock so you might not do or say much, but once that shock wears off you have two choices. You might be furious with the driver. This broken leg is certainly going to interfere with your plans and your lifestyle for several months and it’s going to cost you a lot of money. You could stay mad at the driver and refuse to accept their apology. I heard it said once that holding onto bitterness and resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Did the driver intend to hit you? Intent matters. In this example the driver did not mean to hurt you. The driver knows their reckless actions are the reason you are hurt. They accept responsibility for their actions. They are truly sorry. Your bitterness and resentment are worthless to you. The guilt the driver feels is their punishment. Your resentment and bitterness are now your poison. Holding onto them will only hurt yourself. Forgiveness will allow you to move forward to a place that is more peaceful which is certainly better for healing. Unfortunately, not every situation in life is this easy.
Let’s imagine the driver got out of the car and looked at you lying in the street bloodied and in pain and said “Why are you laying in the street like that?” This driver has no idea they hurt you. You explain to the driver that you are lying in the street because they hit you, but no matter how much you try to explain it, the driver just doesn’t understand that because of their reckless driving you are lying in the street with a broken leg. What do you do? Did the driver intend to hurt you? No, but they don’t understand that texting and driving is the reason you are hurt. This is dangerous. They could hurt you or someone else again. Still, holding onto the anger and resentment doesn’t serve you at all. In this instance it also doesn’t punish the driver. This person doesn’t understand they did anything wrong and will likely just rationalize your anger as you being crazy. Forgive them, but remember when I asked if forgiveness means we have to allow someone to continue to hurt us?
Forgiveness does not mean the person who wronged us doesn’t have to face the consequences of their actions and it doesn’t mean we must allow that person to hurt us over and over again. The driver who was texting and hit you must face criminal charges for reckless driving. They will likely lose their driver’s license for awhile and be required to pay restitution. Pursuing prosecution of this person does not mean you don’t forgive them. Its not unchristian. Its simply a matter of teaching the driver that their actions have consequences and removing the opportunity for this person to hurt you again is an act of self protection. It’s not done in anger. It’s a matter of fact. If someone in your life hurts you over and over it’s okay to set boundaries. You may limit the amount of contact you have with this person. They may see it as punishment and try to make you feel badly, but remember it’s just a form of self protection.
Still, some experiences in life are very confrontational. Now we must imagine the driver gets out of the car and starts screaming at you “What the hell were you doing in the street? Look at what you did to my car! This is just great. Now, I’m going to be late for my appointment.” This asshole thinks they are the victim. They just hit you and not only are they not taking responsibility for their actions but they have the audacity to think they are the victim! You know people like this. Maybe its a relative like a sibling or a parent. Now the situation is even trickier. Can we set up boundaries with family members? What do you do? Again, did they intend to hit you? No, but they did hit you and they somehow have rationalized this in their mind that they are the victim rather than you. You need to forgive this person so you can have peace. You deserve peace. But again, you do not have to let this person continue to hurt you. You can set boundaries that limit your exposure to this person. Boundaries are not a form of punishment. They are put in place for protection. You need to control the setting in which you will interact with this person. Forgive them but don’t let them continue to hurt you. They may not understand, and that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you find peace.
Now let’s imagine a strange but sadly common scenario. What if the driver knows they hurt you but they really don’t care. Imagine the driver gets out of the car, sees you lying in the road, shrugs their shoulders and says “Oh well.” Now what? Did they intend to hit you? No. But they did hit you, they acknowledge their personal responsibility but, they really aren’t sorry. The answer is the same as above. Forgive them, but set boundaries.
Finally, let’s imagine that the driver intended to hurt you. Imagine the driver saw you step into the street and stepped on the gas hoping to kill you or at least hurt you. What do you do now. Like I said, intent matters. This is where withholding forgiveness can be empowering. Allow yourself to be angry. Let yourself feel the anger and rage. Remove that person from your life if you need to. Withhold your forgiveness for as long as you need and when the anger no longer serves you, let it go.
My daughter asked me if setting up boundaries is disrespectful. Is it disrespectful to say, a parent, if we do not forgive them and set up boundaries? No. First, no one, not even your parents should be given respect out of a sense of requirement. Respect is earned. It is never given. No matter what the relationship between people.
Respect is earned through trust. If we cannot trust someone then we cannot respect that person.
Remember, forgiveness is a tool in our mental tool box. It’s used to bring us peace. It’s not meant to bring the one who hurt us peace although by design it can. Use this tool as often as you need and as often as you can.