By Dr. Ned Hallowell
To understand forgiveness, you must first understand what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not turning the other cheek. Forgiveness is not running away. Forgiving someone does not mean that you condone what the person has done, nor does it mean that you invite them to do it again. It doesn’t mean that you don’t want the offending person to be punished. It doesn’t mean that you forget the offense, nor does it mean that by forgiving you tacitly invite bad things to happen again. It doesn’t mean that you won’t defend yourself.
So what does it mean? Forgiveness is one of those words that we assume we can define, but when asked we stumble. Before you read on, try it yourself. How would you define forgiveness?
The dictionary can help. My American Heritage College Dictionary defines “forgive” as, “To renounce anger or resentment against.” It goes back to a Greek root word that means “to set free,” as in freeing a slave. Ironically, when we forgive, the slave we free is ourselves. We free ourselves from being slaves to our own hatred.
According to the dictionary definition I just cited, in order to forgive we must renounce resentment or anger. We do not have to forget, ignore or condone anyone or anything. We just have to renounce our anger and resentment. Even doing that may seem impossible, especially if whom or what we are trying to forgive has hurt us deeply. How do you forgive murder, child abuse or any other horrible offense? How is anyone supposed to renounce anger and resentment in cases like those? How do you stop feeling what you are feeling, or at least how do you renounce what you are feeling? And exactly what does that word “renounce” mean?
Turning to the same dictionary, I look up “renounce,” and find the following definition: “To reject, disown.”
This helps. In order to forgive I am not required to cease to feel anger or resentment, only to renounce anger or resentment, which means to disown my anger and resentment.
This distinction is crucial, not just a nicety of language. One of the chief reasons that people don’t try harder to forgive or be forgiven is because they think it is impossible. They think that forgiving means ceasing to feel anger, hurt or the desire for revenge. If forgiveness means that you cease to feel any anger or resentment toward that person, then for most of us forgiveness is indeed impossible—if not immoral—when the injuries are severe.