What Does It Mean to Forgive?

Those who find forgiveness hard to fathom, may be approaching forgiveness all wrong. 

Imagine a parent who has just lost their child to a malicious murder. Would it be wrong to feel rage, anger and even hate toward the perpetrator? Would it be wrong to want justice? Of course not.

If conjuring up warm and fuzzy feelings towards someone who has just performed demolition on your life is the definition of forgiveness, then I’m afraid God has tasked us with an impossible ask. Fortunately, He has not. 

Feelings are neither sin nor virtue, C.S. Lewis says. Just as it’s neither a sin nor virtue to like apples and hate carrots, how you feel towards another human being is neither a reflection of how good you are or how bad you are. It’s a simple matter of fact.

This is so important to understand when you are trying to forgive someone. 

The moment you understand that feelings are neither sin nor virtue, you can stop focusing on them, trying to justify them, and even stop feeling guilty for them. Don’t we often pine over why we feel a certain way about someone? This is all a waste of time, largely because we can’t really control how we feel. At least not right away.

What you should focus on instead, is what you can do. How you respond in spite of how you feel, this act is sin or virtue. 

This contrary action to your feelings does not mean you are giving up on justice and betraying yourself. In fact, the more you move toward an action that is contrary to your feelings, the more you will motivate God to act, and heap burning coals on your enemy's head, the Bible says. You are leaving vengeance in the hands of the only fair omniscient judge there is. Only God has walked two miles in your perpetrator's shoes. Only God knows what your perpetrator has been through. Only God knows what your perpetrator deserves. 

Vengeance belongs to the Lord, and he will repay. But we cannot have our revenge without staining our own hands. Only God can avenge without turning evil himself.

So what are the actions you can take?

1. Don’t fantasize about their demise. You might not be able to control what thoughts enter your mind. But you can control how long the stay there. But fantasizing about someone's demise is a conscious effort. If you catch yourself thinking about how they will suffer, turn your thoughts to something else. The refusal not to fantasize about someone's demise is an act of hate, even if you are not physically acting or even plotting revenge. Why is this seemingly innocuous act harmful? what you feed your heart is what comes out of your mouth.

The same advice can be applied when you're trying not to like someone so much. If you are trying to get over someone you know is not good for you, stop fantasizing about them, the good times you had, and the good times you could be having if you were still together. Often times when your replay a reel from your memories past, the details get augmented in a way that supports how you feel. 

2. Don’t slander them. In the simplest form, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all. While it’s important to confide in someone, don’t let the purpose of the conversation be to smear someone’s reputation

3. Find one commonality between me and my perpetrators. This will humanize them. You can't forgive someone you feel superior to. Finding a common thread between you and your perpetrator...

4. Confront the perpetrator if possible. Lying dormant and letting your perpetrator continue the injustice and step all over you is not godly. I believe it’s important to confront your offender, so long as the opportunity exists. Let them know how wrong this was and how much it hurt you. Grant them the opportunity to apologize.

Let this simple Q&A be what grounds you when you are in the trenches of a hate war like I currently am. When, not if, they come, don’t waste your time on your feelings. Focus your energy on action. This very action, to do right in spite of a wrong – this is forgiveness.

You may not always succeed at doing the right thing. But by merely trying to obey him, you are obeying him. And when you’ve continued down this path to commit to do right in spite of your feelings, the great Lewis says we will discover the “great secret.” And it is a good secret, indeed.

“When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking hime less,” says Lewis.

“The Germans, perhaps, at first ill-treated the Jews because they hated them: afterwards, they hated them much more because they had ill-treated them. The more cruel you are, the more you will hate; and the more you hate, the more cruel you will become – and so on in a vicious circle for ever.”

Since that fateful day I had come to grasp the meaning of forgiveness – to act in spite of how I feel – I’ve found myself hating less in feeling. It is a far cry from having loving feelings towards them. But I can also attest that the more acts of love I pour into raising the two of you, the more I love you in feeling.

So perhaps you can’t perform Jedi mind tricks on your feelings, but you can alter your feelings by taking the road less traveled. While we might initially and instinctively act based on our feelings, in the end our feelings follow our actions.