Forgiveness: What it IS and ISN’T

The Voice Within by Neil Crosby CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Flickr
The Voice Within by Neil Crosby CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Flickr

I often get quite annoyed when the topic of forgiveness comes up.  I am afraid this leads people to the false conclusion that I don’t believe in forgiveness.  Actually, I think it’s a beautiful thing.  What I object to is what I view as our culture’s misunderstanding of it.  To illustrate, here is something I wrote awhile ago, in a fit of frustration:

I am not Dorothy.  This is not Oz, and forgiveness is not a pair of magic ruby slippers that will take me home. Why is this concept so hard for people to understand? Maybe I am the one that does not get it.  Perhaps having a happy childhood where you feel loved and secure gives you the power to believe in fairy tales, unicorns and four-leaf clovers. People talk about forgiveness as if it is Aladdin’s lamp–just say “I forgive” and peace will instantly come into your heart and all your troubles will fall away.   I forgive okay?  I forgive a thousand times over if that will make the pain go away.  I will do it. I FORGIVE So why don’t I feel better?

Therein is my frustration.  Now let me illustrate how it can be beautiful.

When my mother died, I felt angry, very angry.

I’m tempted to tell you why I was so angry so that you will see my point of view and not think I am a heel.  But I’m going to resist. It’s all behind us now, no point in rehashing it.  I hope you will trust me–I’ll leave it at that.

Remember the movie Ghost with Patrick Swayze?  I imagined something like that, my Mom’s ghost watching me and I ranted and raved and told her all the things I couldn’t tell her when she was alive.  The day before I left for the funeral, I spent time in therapy ranting some more.

Then Wednesday, I got on a plane to fly home.  As I sat there contemplating the days ahead, I made a startling revelation.  I wasn’t angry any more.  All the anger, i.e. the pain–was gone.

I want to make this point perfectly clear . . . I did not consciously “let it go”. It let me go.  I simply didn’t feel the anger and pain anymore. I think what happened was that all my life, I felt a need to protect my mother.  I couldn’t tell her how I really felt.  So when she died, I finally allowed myself to feel the anger and let it out.  Because I did that, the anger was resolved (buried feelings don’t die). At last, my anger was gone, the pain was gone, and I felt peace.

And because I felt peace, I forgave my mother.

This is how (in my saner moments) I always thought forgiveness would happen. Exhibit A is my post Forgiveness is Not a Magic Bullet.  In that post, I shared a story from the Old Testament about David, Nabal and Abigail.  In short, David and a group of men were working for Nabal protecting his sheep from highway men (robbers) for a pre-determined fee.  However, when it came time to pay the fee, Nabal pretended he had never made the agreement.

David gathered his men and made a plan to march on Nabal’s house and seek their revenge.  While they were on the way, Nabal’s wife, Abigail met them on the road.  She gave them everything that Nabal had agreed to pay them, and then asked them to forgive HER.  David and his men accepted her offering.  In this story, Abigail is a “type” of Christ.  Like Abigail, He comes to us, and heals the wounds that other’s sins have caused us and then asks us to forgive Him.*

Notice that the debt was paid, and the wound healed, BEFORE forgiveness was requested.  This is how it happened for me.  I could not heal until I worked through those feelings.  Denial based forgiveness does not work.  I needed to have the freedom to express my feelings and  work through them. Then I could see the gifts that the Lord has given me to replace what I had lost.  Peace filled in the empty space where anger used to lie.

Forgiveness IS a beautiful thing.

Photo Attribution here

*Many thanks to author James Ferrel who illuminated this scripture for me in his book, The Peacegiver.


  1. Amazing. So so amazing. I love it when you talk about forgiveness because you talk about it in such a real way.

  2. I know this post is a couple weeks old by now, but I really, really needed this today. I had a (mostly) unicorn-filled childhood, but there are other things in my more recent life that hurt immensely, that were traumatic and to me, feel unforgivable. Thank you for reassuring me that I’m not wrong or a bad person for not being able to forgive just by willing myself to do it.

    • Thanks so much for commenting Robin. It means a lot to me that something I said was helpful to you! You are NOT a bad person for not forgiving. Take the all the time you need to heal. Forgiveness has no time limits.

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