As I concluded my last post (which you can read here), I gave you a simple definition of forgiveness. As a reminder, here it is:
Forgiveness is giving up the right to get even. It’s giving up the right to pay someone back either directly or indirectly – for what they did to you.
Now, if that’s what forgiveness is: let me tell you six things that forgiveness is NOT. I want to strip away all the excess from our understanding to make it more doable for us.
Forgiveness is not Forgetting
We always hear people say, “Forgive and forget,” right? Well, how do you forget abuse? How do you forget betrayal? How do you forget injustice? You don’t. So a lot of people think that since they can’t forget, they can’t forgive. That’s not true.
Forgiveness is for the hurts you can’t forget. We can forget the small hurts, but the big hurts need something more: forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not Excusing
People are often afraid to forgive because they don’t want to send their offender the wrong message, like, what you did is really no big deal. But the truth is: forgiveness requires blaming someone, not excusing them. This quote will hopefully explain what I mean:
We do not excuse the person we forgive, we blame the person we forgive… we do not forgive people for things we do not blame them for…we cannot forgive a wrong unless we first blame the person who wronged us. – Lewis Smedes
If someone does something wrong they deserve to be blamed for it. Forgiveness doesn’t excuse or diminish a wrong, and it doesn’t necessarily eliminate the consequences for a wrong. Just for example, God has forgiven everyone of us here for the bad we have done, but many of us are still experiencing the consequences of what we’ve done, right?
Or, here’s another example: Parents, if your teenager says, Mom/Dad, do you forgive me for coming home an hour late last week with the car? Your answer should be yes, I forgive you; meaning, you won’t stay mad at them or punish them with a silent treatment or denigrate them in any way. You’ll continue to feed and cloth them.
So they might say, “Great! Can I take the care out on Friday night?” The wise parent will say, “No,” to which the teenager will complain, “But you just said you forgave me!” And the wise parent will say, “Yes, I did forgive you. But there are still consequences for your actions and the house rule is: you come home late, you lose care privileges for a week.”
Forgiveness is not Trusting
Just because I forgive you doesn’t mean I trust you. If you broke my trust, I am a fool to trust you until you rebuild your trust with me. Forgiveness and trust operate on two separate timelines. I can forgive you immediately, but trusting you again may take days, months, or even years.
Forgiveness is not Reuniting
Trust and reunion go hand in hand. If I can’t trust you I may not be able to get back together with you. This is especially true in marriage in the case of abuse or maybe an affair. The offender often assumes that if they are forgiven that means they can continue with the person they hurt, just as before the offense. Sometimes they intimidate their spouse into getting back together but I would caution against that, unless the offender has shown true sorrow and has at least started the process of rebuilding trust.
Lewis Smedes put it well when he said:
Forgiveness has no strings attached…with reunion, there are several strings attached.
Forgiveness is not a Feeling
Forgiveness is a choice… a choice to not retaliate. So actually, you can forgive and still feel anger. Does that surprise you? Paul told the Ephesian church to:
Go ahead and be angry…but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. – Ephesians 4:26
So, for example, if you hurt me, I might say, “I’m really hurt by this. I’m really mad. What you did to me was wrong. But… I’m not going to retaliate. I’m not going to spite you, or slander you, or ignore you. I forgive you, but I need some time to work through my anger.”
Forgiveness is not Conditional
Forgiveness is not based on the behavior on your offender. They don’t have to do anything to earn forgiveness. They don’t have to jump through any hoops to be granted forgiveness. Forgiveness is free. Trust is earned, but forgiveness is free.
Now, a lot of people think that’s not fair. But think about it. If forgiveness is conditional, then that means I can’t forgive you unless you behave in a certain way. But what if you don’t meet my conditions? That means I can’t forgive you. Do you see what I’m saying here?
If my forgiveness is based on your behavior…YOU are in control of me. You control my emotions, my story and my relationship to God. You are forcing me to stay angry with you, so…Not only did you hurt me in the past but I am also allowing you to infect my future. That’s not smart.
Don’t infect your future with the pain of your past. The smart thing for me to do is forgive you and take back control of my life and story. Let’s go back to what Jesus said to Peter about forgiveness. The word Jesus used here, that we translate as forgiveness, is the same word that is translated as divorce. The word means to separate.
Jesus is saying – bring a separation between you and your offender. Quit obsessing about what they did. Quit trashing them in front of your friends. Quit losing sleeping over them at night and rehearsing conversations that you will probably never have with them. Don’t get stuck in the past. Let it go and move on with your life.
I’ll use Dennis Allen as an example. I’m sure he has a long list of people that he feels let him down. Maybe the General Manager didn’t hire the players he needed. His coaches didn’t train the players well enough. Or the players didn’t play their hardest. He might be mad at God for sending him to the Raiders instead of the Packers. Or maybe he’s mad at himself for not studying enough game tape, or instructing his coaches better.
But do you see where that kind of thinking leads?
If he brings all that baggage and regrets with him into his next job, he’s doomed to fail again. He will sabotage his start over by not forgiving. The next time won’t be better than the last time. He needs to “divorce” himself from his past. That’s what forgiveness is.
He needs to release his past before he starts his life over.
Now, be careful with the word divorce. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not talking about divorcing yourself from the person. I’m talking about divorcing yourself from the consequences of your loss. If you want to start your life over you need to believe that God can help you start over no matter how much you lost. You see, this is where people get stuck. They are in awe of their loss more than they are in awe of what God can do to help them recover from their loss. So here’s an exercise that might help you.
Write out what was done to you. You might put, “I was abused,” or “I was betrayed,” “I was lied to,” “I was taken advantage of.” This is what I call the primary loss. This is the obvious loss you experienced. But after you write down the primary loss, then write down the secondary losses.
Secondary losses are all the things that you lost as a result of the primary loss. For example, let’s say someone swindled you out of $10,000. That’s the primary loss. But that money represents many other losses we don’t see.
There is the loss of what you wanted to do with that money. Let’s say you wanted to start a business. So you lost your business. You lost your dream of becoming financially independent. Because you lost the money you had to take a second job. Now you’ve lost time away from your family and church. Or maybe your spouse had to take on a second job and that put stress on your marriage. Maybe it prevented your kids from going to college or it caused you to have to move.
There is a whole domino effect that flows from the primary loss. The list can be very long. Write it all down. When you get all done THAT is what you need to forgive. You aren’t just forgiving the person for stealing your money. You are forgiving them for all the secondary losses as well.
Most people don’t understand this, so they offer a shallow forgiveness for the primary loss and then wonder why they are still so mad. It’s because they didn’t forgive the person for everything. Other people misunderstand it too, that’s why they say things like, “Come on, it’s been ten years. They should be over it by now!” They say that out of ignorance. They have no idea what the secondary losses were in relation to the primary loss.
So, take your list and bring it to God. If you are full of faith you can say: God, you are bigger than my losses and so I will forgive them right now! But not everyone has that much faith. If you aren’t so full of faith you might say: God, are you bigger than my losses? Can you cover my losses? Can you cover what’s been done to me or what I’ve done to myself or am I stuck for life with “Can’t Win” written over my name? Then go about your daily life and see what God does.
I think God wants to show you that he will help you start over. I’m confident of that because years ago, God spoke to his people through the prophet Jeremiah about starting over:
“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” – Jeremiah 29:11-14
What’s God telling them? He’s saying: I’m going to help you start over. You see, God is a god of resurrection. He’s a God of do-overs. So if you want to start your life over, call on God for help.
He said here that he will listen to you and bring you back from your captivity.
I taught on this subject in a series titled: Starting Over. If you would like to hear this message in podcast form, you can listen to it here and also download it from iTunes.