Negotiating Forgiveness

I want to write about forgiveness and I am warning you right up front that I am going to draw heavily on the Christian religion.  If you adhere to a different religion or no religion at all I still believe you will benefit from this if you can manage an open mind.

Forgiveness, by definition, is the action or process of forgiving or being forgiven.  It implies that there exists a debt between two parties.  Somebody owes somebody something whether it is money or an apology or whatever, perhaps some kind of restitution.  When you forgive, you let go of that debt so that it is canceled.  To negotiate, by definition, is the act of trying to reach an agreement or compromise through discussion with others.  So, negotiating forgiveness is the process of trying to cancel a debt that is owed.

In Christianity there is a very famous section of scripture referred to as The Lord’s Prayer.  It is found in the sixth chapter of the book of Matthew and about half way through it there is an appeal to God for personal forgiveness.  In the King James version of the bible it is translated like this:

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

In the Common English Bible:

Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, just as we also forgive those who have wronged us.

In the Book of Common Prayer which is based on the Tyndale Bible:

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.

In a “debt” we owe somebody something, in a “wrong” we have harmed somebody without just cause, and in a “trespass” we have stepped somewhere that we shouldn’t have.   All three of these interpretations bring out a nuance of what it means to need forgiveness.

There are three basic situations that you might find yourself in as it pertains to forgiveness.
1)  Somebody has wronged you.
2)  You have wronged someone else.  And the most difficult one is…
3)  Someone thinks that you have wronged them but you don’t feel that you are guilty.   Let’s take a look at these in order.

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The least complicated kind of forgiveness is when somebody has wronged you because you can negotiate this without involving the person that wronged you.  I said that this is simpler not easy.  All forgiveness is a sacrifice.  Remember; when you forgive you cancel a debt that is owed you.  It’s going to cost you something to forgive which is why it feels like a rip-off.   You are the one who is suffering because you have been wronged and now you are expected to let that offense go without justice?  It seems so unfair to pay a price twice.   It takes great personal strength and courage to forgive but it is worth it.  When you refuse to forgive you are tied emotionally to that person until you do.  They will probably move on with their lives but you will be dragging those negative memories around with you like a corpse on a chain.   We forgive so we can be free of that death, and healing can begin.  Breaking the chain does not mean that they will escape justice.  God will deal with them, let him handle it.   In the case where human laws have been broken it is important to report the crime to the police so that you and the society as a whole can be protected but if you can avoid reporting it with a vindictive attitude you will hasten your freedom from the offense.

Some people try to negotiate this kind of forgiveness by confronting the wrongdoer.  Don’t confront the wrongdoer, that is seldom effective.  Often times the wrongdoer doesn’t feel as though they owe you anything and your wound will only be made worse.  Other times, when a wrongdoer admits their guilt the two parties end up negotiating restitution.  Receiving restitution does not bring forgiveness and you will still be tied to your abuser.  If you are caught up in a legal situation, allow the courts to dispense justice as they see fit but don’t think for a minute that a favorable case judgment will heal you, only the sacrifice of forgiveness will set you free.

What if you don’t feel like forgiving?  As I said before, forgiving is a sacrifice, a function of your own personal will.  You choose to forgive and it’s going to cost you when you do.  If you wait until you feel like forgiving you may wait forever, all the while bitterness spreading through your soul like gangrene.  You forgive others because you rightly love yourself and you want to be whole again.  As crazy as it sounds, I have found that the best way to get past the negative feelings is to pray for the person that wronged me.  When I say “pray for” I don’t mean calling down fire and brimstone on them!  I mean praying for their rehabilitation.  “Lord, please help ‘so and so.’  You know how much pain they caused me.  Please change their heart so that they don’t harm anyone else.  Please help them to become the best that they can be.”  In the preaching business that’s what we call a “clenched fist” prayer.  It isn’t an easy one to send up with sincerity.  Somebody has done me dirty and I want them to pay! Sometimes I force myself to say it and there is nothing but bitterness in my heart when I do but I make the sacrifice.  The next time I pray for my wrongdoer I may only be an ounce less bitter but the fact is that I AM LESS BITTER.  It can take a long time but eventually your heart will heal and you will no longer need to pray for that person.  The chain will have been broken and you will no longer feel as though you are tied to them by negative emotions.  I have found that the proof that I have truly forgiven somebody is when I no longer tell the story of the offense.   The debt is wiped clean and as far as I am concerned, it never existed.

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The second forgiveness scenario is when you have wronged somebody else.  This is a bit more complicated because now you have to involve another person and one you have wounded.  It can get real ugly real quick because of the suffering they have experienced.  Regardless, when you know that you have screwed up it is important for you to seek the person’s forgiveness for two reasons.  One, you need to be free of guilt.  If you don’t seek to be free from your guilt then your heart will become hard and eventually you will no longer feel guilt when you do wrong nor much of anything else.  You pay a huge price for languishing in guilt whether you have negative emotions about it or not.  Don’t “not” seek forgiveness just because you don’t feel guilty.  Whether you feel anything or not is of no consequence.  If you know you are in the wrong, face up to it, suck it up and try to make things right.  You aren’t responsible for how they will respond to you, only for your good faith effort in the process.

The second reason we want to seek another person’s forgiveness is so that they can be free.   You may have been able to move on but they probably haven’t.  Seeking forgiveness when you aren’t suffering from feelings of guilt is a tremendous act of love towards the other person because there is nothing in it for you.  You’re not hurting so why should you care?  It also takes a lot of courage and humility because often times, when you seek to reconcile with the other person they will respond out of bitterness and try to hurt you in return.  You must not allow yourself to become tied to the whipping block or get sucked into restitution.  Allowing yourself to be abused or granting them restitution will not result in their freedom from bitterness.   The exception to this is when you owe somebody something physical like money or the destruction of their property.  Restitution could be and should be offered as part of the reconciliation process.  What I am talking about is when you have harmed somebody emotionally.  There is no way to repay somebody for that.  I heard of a situation where a girl was abused by her father.  Later in life he gave her a substantial cash payment as his way of saying that he was sorry.  She was happy to have received the cash but she remained bitter to the core, she just transferred it away from her father to other people.

The best process is to seek out the other person and simply tell them that you are sorry for the pain that they feel you are responsible for.  Do not attempt to justify yourself with excuses in any way whatsoever.  Any excuse will just communicate insincerity and blow up the entire attempt at reconciliation.  If they choose to forgive you, receive it with thankfulness and patience.  I say patience because once they have made the commitment to forgive you it may take quite some time before they can shake off the bitterness they have embraced.   If they choose not to forgive and/or are abusive try not to respond in kind.  With humility let them know that your hand remains extended in an offer of reconciliation and that you would be grateful if they can ever find a way to forgive you in the future.  The reason for this is that you need to make sure your heart is clean in the matter so you can walk away free and that there remains behind a lifeline for them to grasp should they ever want to crawl out of their pit of bitterness.  The final thing that you can do is to pray for them no matter how they treated you when you sought reconciliation.  Pray for the very best for them, life, and freedom, and joy, and prosperity.  God, who sees from heaven, will look down upon you with great favor for your act of love towards the victim.   You will know that you have been truly forgiven when they are no longer willing to even mention the offense you committed.

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The third and most difficult scenario is when someone thinks that you have wronged them but you don’t feel that you are guilty.   This is a nightmare scenario because they are probably going to insist that you admit responsibility before they are willing to forgive you.  Own whatever you can with sincerity and apologize for it.  Either they will forgive you or they won’t.  If they don’t, at least you can walk away free knowing that you did what you could to bring healing to the relationship.   Sometimes a person will hold you in unforgiveness because they are easily offended.  In a sense, they have chosen to be wounded and you can’t take responsibility for a condition that they have chosen.  Like I said, this is a nightmare situation, a powder keg ready to blow up at any second.   We seek forgiveness from these kinds of people out of love for them not because we are guilty.  They are hurting and will suffer in bitterness if we don’t seek to set them free.  Find something in the situation that you can take responsibility for and express your regret for their injury.  Be very careful because often people who are easily offended use their injury as a way of trying to control people around them.  If we care about people we can’t allow them to fall into a controlling attitude.  Unfortunately, my experience with trying to reconcile with these kinds of people usually ends in the dissolution of the relationship because they insist on penance from you for things you are not responsible for.  As in scenario two, leave but leave a lifeline behind should they ever decide that freedom is better than the bondage of bitterness.  Let them know that your hand remains extended and that you are willing to carry on a relationship with them if they can find a way to forgive you.  They will probably send you away, hurling abuse at you as you go, while they add your perceived crime to their bank account of bondage.  Often times the easily offended feel they are richer the more people they can convince themselves owe them something.  In truth, they are some of the most bankrupt of human wreckage and we should earnestly pray for their deliverance.  If we love these kinds of people we will not feed their sickness by pretending we owe them a debt that does not exist.  When these people are close family it can be particularly painful as the fabric of the clan is torn.

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The last thing that I want to mention is the situation where both parties are wronged.  This means a combination of either situation one and two or one and three.  The key here is not to focus on obtaining an apology in exchange for yours.   “I won’t apologize to her unless she apologizes to me” is nothing more than a hostage exchange and it won’t bring real freedom.  Focus on owning up to whatever you can take responsibility for and attempt to set the other person free from their bitterness.  If they don’t reciprocate because they are too wounded, too weak to admit any responsibility in the conflict, that’s not on you.  Remember, you are making a sacrifice when you forgive so make the sacrifice and forgive them whether they admit any wrong or not.  You need to be free from bitterness even if they don’t want to escape.  To fail is to remain tied to that person through negative emotions.  You will be dragging each other around on a chain of death until one of you is desperate enough to forgive and break free.  I often see this between divorced couples.   They dissolve the married but they are still joined together in bitterness, stronger than ever, “till death do us part” so that they can’t move forward with their lives without poisoning future relationships.  “But they started it.  They hurt me more than I hurt them!”  Do you want to be right or do you want to be free?

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I hope this discussion on negotiating forgiveness has been of use to you.  It was a long piece and I am grateful to you if you have made it this far.  I pray to the Creator of all things that you and I would be able to walk through this world as free people, being able to present to him clean hearts, a clean conscience, and clean lips that are able to utter the following words without hypocrisy…

Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, just as we also forgive those who have wronged us.


A friend of mine dubbed me “The voice of reason in a very unreasonable world” which I am flattered by because I am less than that.  Having said that, if you enjoyed my writing I invite you to scroll to the very bottom of this page where there is a button labeled “Follow”.   If you press that button you will receive a notification whenever this blog is updated with new posts.  Thank you for reading.

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