Forgiveness is Not a Contract

Forgiveness is incredibly powerful but often misunderstood. If we are to approach forgiveness with open eyes and a fresh perspective, to truly challenge ourselves to understand it in a new way, it is helpful to talk about what it isn’t.

As children, many of us will learn that forgiveness is part of a contract. One child does something to hurt another — perhaps they take away a toy or call the other child a name — and an adult intervenes. The adult tells the child who behaved inappropriately to say they are sorry. They do, reluctantly. Then the child who was wronged is told they must say “I forgive you”.

While both players said their lines, the only lesson learned was if you say sorry, you will be forgiven, and if someone says sorry, you have to forgive them.

I can think of many times as a child, when I observed or was made to participate in this exchange. I was well aware of the hollowness of both sides of that contract.

A child made to say sorry without knowing why understands nothing about the harm they have caused. They are not being taught how to take responsibility for and modify their behaviour. If anything, it teaches them to be more careful about not getting caught.

The child who is slighted wrestles with a sense of justice not being served. Forced to offer something they aren’t ready to give starts them on a path of resentment and teaches them nothing about establishing healthy boundaries.

It is not always the case, of course, that children are taught about apologies and forgiveness this way. Some adults use a different, more practical approach — one that is less contractual. For example, when I was a child, my mum was very clear that saying ‘sorry’ didn’t cut it. I had to think about the consequences of my actions and, when I was ready to offer an apology, it was to begin with ‘I apologise for…’ and end with a clear statement acknowledging the harm I had caused.

Because of this, I came to appreciate how both the apology and the offer of forgiveness are things we do for ourselves. We apologise because we regret our actions and want to show that we own up to them. To offer an apology is to take personal responsibility and set the intention to act with more care and wisdom in the future. We can make the most heartfelt, genuine, well-thought-out apology — accepting total responsibility for something we’ve done — and the other party is completely in their right to not forgive us.

Even if we aren’t forgiven, we aren’t lying to ourselves or pretending to be any different than we are. We’re showing a willingness to address a shortcoming and change our behaviour. An apology is how we accept, for ourselves, that there is no justification for what we said or did and set the intention not to do it again.

On the flip side, the idea that we can forgive someone when they’ve not apologised may seem radical, if not outright absurd. This is only the case, of course, if we think of forgiveness as an act of condoning bad behaviour.

Just as an apology is not about seeking validation or absolution from outside ourselves, forgiveness is not condoning bad behaviour or offering absolution when someone has caused us harm. Forgiveness is not about saying it was okay when someone hurt us, nor dismissing someone’s words or actions as them ‘not knowing any better’ — oftentimes it’s abundantly clear that they did know better.

I’ve come to understand the power of forgiveness best from listening to how people respond to things I might have previously considered unforgivable. When the parents of children killed in mass shootings state that they forgive the person who took their child’s life, they are not saying that it was ‘okay’ or that the shooter didn’t know any better. They acknowledge why someone did something. When people carry out such atrociously violent acts, they are not happy, content people. Almost always there are signs that these people felt isolated, bullied, abandoned, or rejected in some way.

These are reasons. All of them totally valid. You can have a lot of reasons for poor judgement and bad behaviour and negative choices. Forgiveness recognises the humanity of this — that no one does anything because they want to feel worse. It acknowledges that a fellow human being may have had many reasons to act as they did, but a valid reason is not an excuse.

In forgiving an individual who has caused us incredible harm, we are acknowledging their humanity and recognising that carrying around resentment, anger or indignation causes us to suffer.

It’s also important to remember that forgiveness isn’t something we just do once, and it doesn’t mean we won’t or shouldn’t feel anger or sorrow for the harm that was caused. There is nothing wrong with how we feel, but we benefit no one by cultivating emotions that create a sense of separation.

And so we begin to understand what forgiveness is.

Forgiveness allows us to take ownership of how we feel. It invites us to listen to how anger communicates that a boundary has been violated, and how sorrow tells us that we need to grieve.

Forgiveness recognises how anger or hatred cause harm, and that our pain does not justify perpetuating an already painful, devastating situation. It is the choice not to escalate a situation with retaliation.

Forgiveness is a choice we make not to hold onto our anger and let it fester and turn into hatred.

Forgiveness is an acknowledgement of shared humanity.

Forgiveness is good for the heart, mind and body.

Forgiveness is an act of compassion.

Forgiveness is an act of grace.

But the most important thing I’ve learned about forgiveness is that it is a lifelong practice. We will come to it again and again for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes it will come easily and sometimes it won’t at all. Ultimately it is something we can only do in our own time, but the more we do it, the clearer our understanding will be: We forgive so we can heal.

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If you enjoyed this piece you will probably enjoy the episode of Everything is Workable the topic of forgiveness, as well as my interviews with Grace Heavy Runner and Sharon Salzberg.