What is it that we do, exactly, when we forgive? Lewis Smedes, who is the closest thing I know to an expert on forgiving, says we must start by understanding what forgiveness is not and then look at the three stages that are part of what forgiving is.
First, forgiving is not the same thing asexcusing. Excusing is what we do when we consider extenuating circumstances for our behavior. We excuse expectant fathers for driving fast because they are taxiing a woman in labor, for example. Forgiveness is what is required precisely when there is no good rationale to explain away why someone did what they did. When an action is excusable, it doesn’t require forgiveness.
Forgiving is not forgetting. All that forgetting requires is a really bad memory. Sometimes, if a hurt is severe enough, it can be buried away out of fear or trauma. It is in some sense forgotten, but it hasn’t been forgiven. Scripture writers sometimes use the language of “‘forgetting” to describe how God deals with our sin, but this doesn’t mean that God has a memory retrieval problem. It means that our past sins become irrelevant to his dealings with us. Forgiving is what’s required precisely when we can’t forget.
Forgiving is not the same thing asreconciling. People sometimes think that forgiving someone means we must reunite with them no matter what. I think forgiveness and reconciliation are two separate things. Forgiveness takes place within the heart of one human being. It can be granted even if the other person does not ask for it or deserve it. Reconciliation requires the rebuilding of trust, and that means good faith on the part of both parties.
The first stage of forgiveness is the decision not to try to inflict a reciprocal amount of pain on everyone who has caused hurt. When I forgive you, I give up the right to hurt you back. Even though you may hurt me deliberately, personally, and deeply, I suspend the law of vengeance. I seek to stop entertaining fantasies of vengeance in which you are tortured or fired from your job or suddenly gain fifty pounds. Of course, letting go of vengeance doesn’t mean letting go of justice. Justice must still be honored. Justice involves the pursuit of fairness. Vengeance is the desire for retribution. Vengeance by its nature is insatiable.
The next stage of forgiveness involves a new way of seeing and feeling. One thing that happens when we get deeply hurt is that as we look at the one who hurt us, we don’t see a person—only the hurt. When we hold fast to unforgiveness toward another person, we tend to believe only bad things about them. We want to forget their humanity. When we forgive each other, we begin to see more clearly. We do not ignore the hurts, but we see beyond them. We rediscover the humanity of the one who hurt us. He is the product of a fallible mother and father; he is lonely or hurting or weak or nearsighted—just as I am. He is also a bearer of the image of God—just as I am.
The third stage of forgiving, the one that shows you have begun to make some real progress, is when you find yourself wishing the other person well. You find that your prayers no longer drift into anger fantasies in which your enemy finally realizes he’s treated you horribly but it’s too late to make amends and he will spend eternity wallowing in unrelieved guilt. You hope for good things for them. You genuinely hope that things are well between them and God, that their relationships are healthy, and that their life is happy. Of course, this does not happen all at once. And it usually doesn’t happen once for-all; you will have some backsliding, some moments when you would like to hear they’ve gotten bald or fat or have been turned down by a dating service. But the trajectory of the heart is headed in the right direction. When you want good things for someone who hurt you badly, you can pretty much know that the Great Forgiver has been at work in your heart.