More on Forgiveness

I want to elaborate on my last post.   Forgiveness is not easy, and there are lots of useful tips that begin with something like, “In order to forgive, first . . . [insert important, worthwhile spiritual point].”

But before all that:  In order to forgive, first someone must do something wrong.

Our culture is awash in fake forgiveness.  Part of it is linguistic — the words “I’m sorry” mean “I have sorrow”, and you can grieve many things, not only your sins.  The words “I apologize” have at their origin the idea of a defense, or explanation, that may well have nothing to do with guilt.  But we respond “I forgive you” to some of these innocent sorrows and defenses, and that can create the false impression that we are frequently forgiving when really we are not.

For example:

My mother-in-law is half an hour late.  I rant and stew.  How could she make me wait?!! And then she arrives, and it turns out there was a bad accident, she had left home early but was stuck in traffic for an hour [of course I didn’t have my phone with me, she did call], she is terribly sorry [she really is] that I was inconvenienced.  Well, I could say “I forgive you”, except she never did anything wrong.    She’s completely innocent.  If anything, I’m the guilty one, assuming the worst about her and getting mad before I even knew what had happened.

When we pretend we’re forgiving someone, but really they are innocent, that’s what I mean by “fake forgiveness”.    It is a genuine letting go of anger and bitterness, but it’s not the hard kind of forgiveness that Jesus demands.

Another kind of fake forgiveness is the “I understand”.   I once had a priest yell at me, in church, as I was saying my penance after confession.  He was a crotchety old man, hard of hearing, in a lot of pain due to various ailments, and probably fed up to here with other parishioners that were eerily like myself.  He was wrong.  A priest certainly should not march out into the pews and loudly and angrily continue the topic brought up in confession.  But I could understand.  Grumpy guy.  Grumpiness happens.  I was glad it was me and not some other person whose faith would be more easily shaken.  I argued with him, he took my point, two grumpy people satisfied to have each said our due.

–> But “I understand” can’t be the foundation of forgiveness.  It is a help, for certain.  It is the proverbial spoonful of sugar, that camaraderie and compassion for fellow sinners that makes it easier to overlook faults not unlike our own.  But Jesus asks me to forgive even the people who are just really, really bad.  The ones who have no excuse.

The nice thing is that many of us get to mostly wade in shallow waters.  We get to “forgive” innocent people, and we can comfortably go about excusing the genuine but minor wrong-doing that we face from day to day.

But what if we kept our perception of right and wrong perfectly clear?

To my mother-in-law, I wouldn’t say “I forgive you”.  I’d say: You haven’t done anything wrong.  Thank you so much for thinking of me, that is very thoughtful, but I’d be foolish to be mad at you when you are perfectly innocent.

And to Father Grumpy, instead of “I understand why he’s so crotchety, he’s old and over worked and his knees are killing him today”, It would be just:  That was wrong.  He should not have done that.  That was a real injustice against me, and against the sacrament, and against his ministry.  But I forgive him.  He doesn’t have a right to do what is wrong, but he does have a right to be forgiven, so I guess no excuse for me being Mrs. Grumpy the rest of the day.


Oh, I know.  These are ideals.  You think I’m any good at this?  No way.  I most certainly am not.  And I don’t guess I’m explaining it well, either.

But this is the staircase of depravity I was talking about earlier.  If I’m regularly patting myself on the back for “forgiving” innocent people, I’m fooling myself.  I haven’t got a clue about forgiveness until someone actually does something wrong.

And then if I explain away every real wrongdoing with a “he had a good reason”, “nobody is perfect”, “I’d be tempted too,” then I’ve missed my chance.   Of course I should understand — I could write a book on human weakness, of course I understand.  But I need to go beyond that.  Both so that my soul gets practice actually forgiving, and as a favor to my fellow sinners.


The first person who showed me forgiveness was a department secretary.  I owed her a form.  I didn’t fill out the form on time.  She came to my cube and said, “You didn’t give me the form.”

I made a thousand excuses.  I couldn’t bear to be actually wrong, because I didn’t know then that you could be wrong and still live.

And she kept saying to my every excuse, “I forgive you.  I forgive you.  Jennifer, I FORGIVE YOU.  (Now please shut up and fill out the form.)”

I finally shut up and filled out the form.

What? I had done something wrong?  And she freely acknowledged I DID SOMETHING WRONG?  And she wasn’t mad?  Even though I really had done something wrong?  At cost to her?  And she demanded nothing in repayment.  Not an apology, not an ‘I’ll make it up to you,” not even an “it will never happen again”.  Not even the pleasure of berating me for twenty seconds.  Nothing.

It was a completely new world to me.


And that’s the world I was talking about yesterday.  If that helps at all.  I know, I know.  Forgiving small things is so much easier.  Yes. Yes.  But it’s a start.   I think we kid ourselves if we say we can tackle anything bigger, before we’ve got a handle on how to forgive the little sins first.

And yeah, supernatural aid definitely required.

10 thoughts on “More on Forgiveness

        1. Post #1 was motivated by some comments elsewhere about clergy caught up in scandalous situations. (Whether only accused at this time, or proven guilty, and how the laity and the accused handled the matter).

          [I’m going to not name names because a) I’m speaking to a wider issue, and b) if I mention this or that particular scandal, invariably someone will swoop in with strong opinions about the guilt or innocence this or that person, and that’s not something I’m in any way equipped to discuss.]

          Post #2 (this one) by your comments on #1, and the realization that I was probably confusing people in my first attempt, and needed to at least try to clarify my thinking a little. Plus having had the chance to think up more thoughts.

          Or else I’ve been listening in on all the bugs my nieces planted around your house, and am making a point to post on topics that’ll get your attention, hehe. And you thought I just wanted a book signed . . .


          1. Knew it! 😉
            Speaking of which, pray for the sequel. Sending it out this week…Wednesday, if all goes well! I looked & looked for those present, perfect, and not-so-perfect verbs, among other bits! 🙂

          2. Will pray! (Yes, I’m late seeing this, but prayer goes outside time and back in again, so it’ll sort.)

  1. It’s so nice to know someone with clarity on these issues. 😛 Yes, I understand all of this, very well.

    The part of apology you didn’t mention is saying I’m sorry without true repentance. “I’m sorry you didn’t like the dinner I made for you.” “I’m sorry you found out about my affair.” Well, that’s nice, isn’t it? But A) you haven’t acknowledged your own part in the problem, and B) you haven’t apologized for it, either.

    I had a discussion recently with my father-in-law, who teaches in an online college. He gets the usual sob stories from his students, some legit and some not. But when it’s legit, he struggles to accept the “I have sorrow for you” idea that can be expressed in “I’m sorry.” But it’s a worthwhile effort, even if you don’t use those words.

    I haven’t had any moments of clarity in being wrong, but rather a long, somewhat painful journey into the world of Wrong. lol It doesn’t help that my dad has a clinical aversion to being wrong. It was very challenging, at times, to be his daughter.

    1. Yes, definitely. There’s a place for the genuine “I really am innocent, I meant no harm, and I am very sorry you suffered from my actions (or something associated with me).” But the “Well, I’m sorry if my adulterous affair offended you, darling,” or “I’m sorry if anyone feels upset that I embezzled the retirement”, that’s galling.

      [Oh, forgiveness. You should have seen my snapping at my child this morning. I DO NOT have this one mastered. Just do not.]

      But what about your dad (who I don’t know, so this is not really about your dad), or other people who struggle with “I can never, ever, be wrong”?

      We live in a very condemning culture. I can expect people to mock me and make bad assumptions about me, if I do something as innocent as dressing in last year’s style, or openly enjoying a food that has gone out of favor with the health police. Heaven forbid I take up the wrong hobbies, or prioritize my free time toward all the wrong hobbies.

      And in that environment — utterly unforgiving even of things that are *not* wrong — well, you know what’s coming if you do do something wrong. And the condemnation brigade will also condemn anyone who gives you a second chance.

      So I have sympathy. I think the cultural solution is for people like you and me to get in the habit of openly admitting when we are wrong. Just so that other people can see how it’s done. As it happens, I get plenty of opportunities. I suppose I take advantage of 2%, and the rest I hope no one was looking.

      1. I think you may have a point about modeling repentance to others, but I don’t like it! I was in a situation where I tried to apologize, several times, and the person just wouldn’t hear me. So, exasperated, I threw out several not-really-genuine apologies, and he took them. *sigh*

        1. Heehee. That’s funny.

          I’m not a really good role model, either. I have a vivid imagination, so it’s easy for me to think up what one *should* do. Actually doing it is something else altogether.

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