Forgiveness Doesn’t Excuse Their Behavior. Forgiveness Prevents Their Behavior from Destroying Your Heart Part 1

I recently came across this quote on a friends Facebook page. It brings me back, once again, to the challenge of forgiveness.   A couple of insights are emerging for me: 

  • First, is my tendency to operate with a narrow understanding of what forgiveness is, and what it makes possible, and 
  • Second, is the importance of forgiveness to one’s ability to remain healthy in relationships characterized by stubborn and unresolvable conflict.

My earliest encounters with this topic were probably in the context of Sunday school.  Forgiveness IS at the heart of the Gospel message.  In addition, as those who have been forgiven, we are admonished to practice forgiveness in relationship to those who have wronged us.  I remember at the time that it did not make sense to my friends and me.  At that age we were more likely to punch someone who had wronged us as to forgive them.  

Out of this context emerged an understanding of forgiveness as a somewhat structured interaction involving at least two people.  Both parties had to commit to this process and play their requisite roles for it to be successful.  Maybe you will recognize this model.

  • You start with an offender and an offended.
  • The offender has done something that has been interpreted as an offense by the offended.  The offense may be perceived by observers of the situation as ranging from relatively insignificant to very significant.  The offended experiences the event as outside of their expectations and will most likely interpret the offense as intentional.  They will begin to question the safety of the relationship and the trustworthiness of the offender.
  • The offender may or may not be aware that they have offended.  If the one offended has responded overtly and identified the offense then, it might be assumed that there is awareness.  On the other hand, the offender will most likely not be aware of or acknowledge the offense in those situations where the offended shuts down, clams up, and disengages.
  • There is now a rift in the relationship that needs repair.  And here is where the limits of this model show up.
  • For repair to occur, the offender must complete the first step by acknowledging the offense and requesting forgiveness from the offended.
  • It is now in the hands of the offended to grant forgiveness.  In this model the offended will assess the sincerity of the request and grant forgiveness if and when determined appropriate.  If sincerity is found lacking, well who knows . . .

So, what do you think?  To what extent does this align with your understanding of the process of forgiveness?  In the literature this has been referred to as “situational forgiveness”, or the forgiveness of specific acts.

I do believe that this model represents what may be the ideal of forgiveness and is   considered by some to be essential for full reconciliation within a relationship.  However here is the challenge.  What if the offender does not request forgiveness?  What if they are unwilling or unable to acknowledge the offense and/or believe that the behavior was perfectly justified given the situation?  What if the offended is unwilling to offer forgiveness?  What if the offended does not believe in the sincerity of the request? What if they experience the offense as so great that they are unable to let it go?

These scenarios are typical for me.  In my work with those experiencing conflict the possibilities described above are very familiar.   This is particularly true in workplace conflict and on teams. Here is a simple example:

  • You are in a meeting with colleagues. You are relatively new to this team.  In discussing a strategy for improving communication within the department, you share a process that you found effective in your last job.
  • Another member of the team, a veteran, immediately challenges your suggestion.  You are reminded that, “You are not at your last job” and that, “if you had been listening to the conversation you would realize that your suggestion is completely inappropriate to the situation being discussed”.
  • Others on the team look uncomfortable but do not say anything.  You shut down.  Discussion on communication dwindles and the group moves to another topic.  Eventually the meeting adjourns.  
  • You are still in a bit of shock as to how you were treated.  Another member of your group approaches you and apologizes for the behavior of the veteran team member and informs you that they treat everybody that way.  You will eventually get used to it.

Get used to it!  Are you kidding?! You don’t treat people that way!  The more you think about it the more upset you become.  You share what happened with others close to you and receive a full range of advice on how you should respond.  What do you do?

We have the key ingredients identified in our model above. We have an offender and an offended.  And yet in this case the offender is not likely to request forgiveness for their behavior.  From their perspective this is just the way they show up in this environment and nobody has ever called them on this behavior in the past.  As far as they are concerned there is no problem.

So, what is the offended to do?  Or let’s look at a different scenario.

  • You are having coffee with a long-time friend and in the conversation, it is revealed to you that they are having difficulty with one of their children.  The child, an adolescent, is showing a significant change in behavior.  This behavior is causing real stress in the home and the child is having difficulty functioning in school.  Your friend and their spouse have been asked to come in for a meeting with the Vice Principal and the Counselor. 
  • Your friend shares their fears and concerns with you openly, appreciating the opportunity to “unload”.  At the end of the conversation, you are thanked for listening and asked if you would keep the conversation to yourself.
  • Later, upon returning home you share the conversation with your spouse.  They share the friendship, and you want them to be aware of the struggle that is being experienced.  You are respecting the request for confidentiality but cannot imagine that it was extended to your spouse.
  • A couple days later you see your friend again and in passing, ask how the meeting went, and offer the support of yourself and your spouse.  Your friend looks confused and hurt.  “What do you mean (name of spouse)?”  “You agreed to keep what I shared confidential.  I meant everyone!” Your friend excuses themself and leaves before you can explain yourself and apologize for breaking their trust.
  •  A couple days later you are at a community gathering and see your friend.  You make eye contact.  Your friend turns and walks away.  Attempts to connect are unsuccessful.  You feel lousy because you have hurt a good friend who was already hurting, and you don’t know how to fix it.

Two different stories: both involving the basic ingredients for forgiveness to occur.  Yet in the first, one party does not see the need to request forgiveness and in the second, one party appears unwilling to grant forgiveness.  

The choices made at this point in both of our stories are more significant than we realize.

In the context of our original framework, the option of forgiveness seems to have been taken away from us.  So I guess we are stuck.  Or are we?  

. . . to be continued