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Clearing up misconceptions about forgiving Print E-mail
Guest column
Thursday, Mar. 09, 2017 -- 12:00 AM
Robert Enright

Second in a series of seven articles on forgiveness.

Lent is a time of seeking forgiveness for sins and then practicing forgiveness toward those who have been unfair to us.

When we forgive, we give the gift of goodness to those who have not been good to us. As we are forgiven, we forgive, as the Catholic Church teaches (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2838).

Sometimes, when people reflect on this link between being forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance and then forgiving others, there may be some apprehension in now extending that forgiveness to those who have been hurtful.

To forgive may seem unreasonable or even unfair. After all, why should I forgive someone who is abusive to me? Why should I go back to that relationship and suffer further abuse?

Our task here is to examine some common misconceptions of forgiving. If you have one or more of these, perhaps any apprehension you have about forgiving someone may lessen. We make five points about what forgiveness is not.

First, when you forgive, you are not saying that what the other person did is now all right. You are not saying that his or her unfairness somehow now is fair.

What the other person did was unfair, is unfair, and always will be unfair. When you forgive, you do not re-write the fairness of the act; instead, you are now responding to the other person in new ways, with compassion, not because of what was done, but in spite of this.

Second, when you forgive, you are not automatically going back into an abusive situation. Suppose your boss is continually verbally abusive, harshly criticizing, and creating an unhealthy atmosphere for you. You can forgive and look for another job. You can forgive and not reconcile.

Reconciliation occurs to the extent that he or she realizes the hurtful pattern, is willing to change, and is willing to genuinely accept your forgiveness. Even though you may not reconcile, when you forgive, you are struggling to see the boss as a person, as someone made in the image and likeness of God, despite the boss' imperfections.

Third, when you forgive, you are not giving up the quest for fairness. You can forgive the boss and ask for fairness. Forgiveness does not ask you to be silent in the face of cruelty. Let the virtues of forgiveness and justice grow up together.

Fourth, when you forgive, you are not just "moving on" from a situation. Instead, you are trying, in your mind and heart and in your actions, to see and respond to the other as a person of worth. You are trying to offer kindness as best you can toward the other.

You do your part to make a reconciliation possible, even though the person may spurn this gift and make the reconciliation impossible, at least for now.

If you think about it, you can "move on" by dismissing the person (she is not worth my time) or by holding resentment in your heart (I am "moving on" because I cannot stand the person). When you forgive, you may have to "move on" from the situation, but you nonetheless are acknowledging the personhood of the other.

Finally, when you forgive, you are not asking yourself to stay miserable. The paradox of forgiving is this: As you offer kindness, respect, generosity, and love to the other, you begin to be quiet inside. You begin to experience a reversal of bitterness.

Be patient with yourself and with the process. As they say, Rome wasn't built in one day!

Eventually, you may begin to find that joy is growing in you. This is part of the abundant life, made possible by God's grace as you learn to forgive, and in the forgiving there is thriving.


Robert Enright is a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, author, and founder of the International Forgiveness Institute.