A woman lent a small fortune to a man. When it came time for him to repay the money, he was unable to, for he had made foolish investments and lost everything. The woman, having worked hard for the money she had lent, told the man that he now owed her interest on top of his original debt.
Days and weeks passed and the man was unable to pay back the woman. Her anger grew steadily. She put great time and energy into pursuing what she was rightfully owed. She sometimes called the man multiple times a day. She arranged meetings with him several times a week. The man’s failure to repay her occupied her thoughts during the day and kept her awake at night. She was so filled with righteous indignation that she could no longer enjoy the finer things in life.
After talking with a wise counselor, she did something astonishing. She drafted a formal cancellation of debt and personally delivered it to the man.
“I don’t understand. Why would you cancel my debt?”
“It’s obvious that you are unable to repay me. I have become an angry person. I have been a slave to the debt you owe me.”
“So I do not owe you anything? Are you serious?”
“We will likely never do business again, but you owe me nothing. All is forgiven.”
As the words left her lips, she felt better than she had felt in a long time. She had learned that not all debts will be repaid. For the first time, she understood that forgiveness is as much a gift for the forgiver as it is for the forgiven.
Last week, I wrote about revenge. This week, I write about forgiveness.
It can be hard to forgive. Stories like this, however, remind us that it is much harder on us if we don’t.
Wrongs Remain Wrong
It may be so hard to forgive because we mistake forgiveness for exoneration, the act of finding someone innocent. Forgiveness does not undo the past or somehow turn a wrong into a right. Forgiveness is not saying, “It’s okay” when someone has hurt us. An act of evil is never okay and we should never give anyone the impression that we think it is. Forgiveness does not whitewash wickedness, immorality, or depravity.
Forgiveness frees us from taking on the futile task of trying to balance the scales of history. Forgiveness reminds us that no act of revenge will ever make up for a wrong committed against us.
Forgiveness should not prevent us from exercising wisdom in our relationships; when we forgive, we may still find it necessary to change the boundaries in the relationship we had with the person who wronged us. In the vignette at the beginning of this post, the woman found it necessary to terminate her business relationship with the man after he was unable to repay her. She would be an unwise businesswoman if she did not. There are times when it would be incredibly foolish to remain in relationship with someone even after we have forgiven that person. Forgiveness does not repair all marriages after an affair. Forgiveness does not restore all friendships broken by betrayal. Relationships can be irreparably damaged even if we forgive.
Forgiveness, Goodness, and the Fight Against Evil
Forgiveness is one of the weapons the good use in the fight against evil. In 1967, Dr. King taught us of the futility of violent revenge, forgiveness’s mortal enemy, “Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate…Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” In the fight against evil, acts of mercy, kindness, perseverance, and forgiveness keep a good society from devolving into the very thing it is fighting against.
The Exercise Of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is a process, not a moment. I tell my clients that they will know they are in the process of forgiveness when thoughts of the wrongs committed against them become reminders to forgive. Forgiveness asks us to redirect our thoughts that wish bad things on those who have hurt us. Forgiveness tells us that it is futile to pursue debts that cannot be repaid. Forgiveness saves us from the darker aspects of our nature that seek to fight violence with violence, lies with lies, and evil with evil. Forgiveness requires us to starve our desire for revenge with grace, hope, and love.