What Kind Of Fudge Is Forgiveness, Anyway?



Dear Henry,

As a person who has gone through some significant traumas in my life (you can read about them here), forgiveness is a word that gets brought up a lot. So much so that I wonder if people even understand what that word means, and there are some days I want to shout the word of Inigo Montoya and say, "You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means."

I know I didn't understand what forgiveness meant for the longest time. The definition of forgiveness I was taught was the definition abused children everywhere are taught. Forgiveness meant you stopped crying and pretend everything was ok and that nothing terrible had happened.  Relationships restarted immediately, and there were no repercussions to the offending party.

Let me tell you straight up; that definition is entirely and unequivocally false.

My journey to forgiveness began with establishing the proper definition of the word because, as Joan Didion wrote in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, "The ability to think for oneself depends upon one's mastery of the language."  Proper definitions matter tremendously.


When you look at the modern definition (per Merriam Webster), to forgive means 1. To stop feeling angry about 2. To stop requiring payment & 3. To cease to feel resentment. This is a new definition of the word and evolved alongside modern psychology. It was developed in an order to help people heal, but I think it asks too much of us. I prefer the 1828 Webster definition of "to forgive," which is simply To pardon a debt, to overlook.

The 1828 definition is also the definition Jesus used.

In the original Greek writing, when Jesus commands us to forgive, He uses the word aphiemi, which means to release from obligation or debt or to abandon. He doesn't ask us to like them, He doesn't ask us not to be angry or hurt, and He doesn't ask us to forget. The forgiveness of God is an entirely different word, aphesis, which means to pardon as if it never happened. God has also made it very clear that only He can grant the aphesis kind of forgiveness. All we can do is pray that God does not consider what grudge we hold for another when He does His final tally. 

If you remember correctly, this is a pass/fail event and to fail is awful. We don't wish that on anyone. 

So often, especially in my experience, forgiveness began with the realization that there is nothing productive left to say, or to quote Khaled Hosseini from The Kite Runner"I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night."


Still, despite the realization that I have nothing of value to say to any of the players involved in my forgiveness requirements, I've always felt condemnation, both from myself and others, about how I handled my forgiveness, especially when it came to ending the relationship. Never mind that it could be physically dangerous (and would most certainly be physiologically damaging) to be in the presence of some of the people I have had to forgive.

Counseled often to meditate upon Jesus's act of forgiveness on the cross, it finally occurred to me that, although Jesus forgave those who condemned and crucified Him, Jesus never (except for St. Paul, who He blinded and laid out on the road to Damascus) sought a direct relationship post-resurrection with anyone who hurt Him (although the door was always open to God's forgiveness and entrance into the Church). Jesus also never willingly entered King Herod's presence. King Herod, if you remember, was the person who ordered the beheading of John the Baptist, Jesus's cousin, and someone whose execution must have been a profoundly wounding thing.

Trying to outdo our Lord Jesus in establishing and maintaining relationships with those who have harmed me was stupid and perhaps a little blasphemous.

Still, I get so angry about all the things I "never had" and still "don't have" regarding my relationships with the people I have had to forgive.



I recently read C.S. Lewis's book The Screwtape Letters. In one letter, the demon Screwtape writes to his nephew Wormwood, "Whatever men expect they soon come to think they have a right to." and basically asserts that once a human is convinced they have the "right" to something, they will damn themselves trying to keep that right.

Despite all of the political assertions otherwise, a right is something fundamental to the human person. Therefore, it can not be taken away. Fundamentally, the only things we humans have the right to are our thoughts, feelings, and what we put on our souls. Everything else, including our lives, can be taken away.

That, I think, was the key I needed to find peace with forgiveness. To acknowledge that nothing worked out according to my (and maybe the world's) expectations sucks and is very sad. But knowing I didn't have the right to anything I had expected throughout my life has freed up a little of the hurt and allowed me to better realize what blessings I received.  

It has also allowed me to realize that I don't have the energy to maintain unhealthy relationships with people just because they feel they have the right, and I don't have to feel guilty about losing the people who have hurt me. God doesn't expect me to.

And that was a wonderful thing to realize.

xoxo a.d. elliott



a.d. elliott is a wanderer, writer, and photographer currently living in Roanoke, Virginia. 

In addition to the travel writings at www.takethebackroads.com, you can also read her book reviews at www.riteoffancy.com and US military biographies at www.everydaypatriot.com

Her online gallery can be found at shop.takethebackroads.com

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