uncomfortable thought/inconvenient truth

Mrs. Upright of Head Over Wheels posted a reply to my “uncomfortable thought.” I started replying to her in the comments box, but it got too unwieldy, so I’m moving it here.

The essence of her post is that it’s easier to forgive someone who hasn’t hurt you than someone who has, and she names someone whom she needs to forgive, saying that in God’s eyes, unforgiveness is sinful the same way the sin was that prompted the unforgiveness.

It’s a good point. 

But it’s also not my personal experience. I actually find it’s harder for me to forgive those who have hurt others. People who hurt me I can forgive, and I usually do. (There are two people I’m still working on. I’m no longer angry at them, but I’ve had a hard time with it.)

I don’t feel it’s my place to forgive someone who hasn’t hurt me. That’s the job of the wronged party. As a third party, I end up trying to excuse the person, and sometimes that’s impossible.

But what about the situation outlined at Head Over Wheels? Where the offender harmed someone she loves?That’s the toughest situation. It puts you in a bad position: you’re harmed indirectly, so it feels necessary to forgive or at least set aside the anger, and yet you aren’t really in a position to forgive because you weren’t the target of the person’s actions.

Someone who harms my children had better get out of my way. That’s how I feel about the matter, but since I’m not the victim, I’m not sure how it would resolve. Must I forgive if I wasn’t hurt directly? But harboring anger is sinful. 

Two years ago, I came up with a little theory of forgiveness. There are two kinds: bilateral and unilateral.

Bilateral forgiveness looks like this:

Jack: Will you forgive me?

Jill: Yes, of course I forgive you.

Unilateral forgiveness looks like this:

Jill: Jack hurt me, and I don’t think he’s even sorry, but in my heart, I forgive him.

Unilateral forgiveness doesn’t involve the forgiven party at all. The forgiven party may never know he’s forgiven; he may never know he harmed you. All that’s necessary is for you to forgive. 

What I’m talking about here is unilateral forgiveness. Most often if it’s bilateral, the offender is willing to work with you and is repentant. The tough situations are where the person shows no remorse. And if the person isn’t sorry, why forgive?

Forgiveness frees us from the anger and the burden of carrying old hurts. It’s a gift from God to be able to let go of that kind of burden, and it deserves more than four hundred words in a weblog post. But one of the obstacles to forgiving someone is the idea that if we forgive, we’ve “let him get away with it.” 

In most cases, the person already got away with it. We’re not letting him off the hook. (If criminal behavior was involved, the law still should come down on the side of the victim and the criminal pay the penalty.) What we’re doing is letting ourselves off the hook, getting in touch with the brokenenss of the perpetrator, getting in touch with our own, and in renewing our understanding of that person’s humanity, renewing our own humanity.

That said, unilateral forgiveness is tough, and it takes a while. Sometimes it never comes, but in those cases, I have to hope that God takes into account how hard we’ve tried, and how deeply we were wounded that we couldn’t.


  1. Kit

    I am with you on this one, that’s for sure. Case in point: my brother left his wife of 17 years after carrying on an affair with a high-priced call girl in the Philippines – he was “outsourced” there by his CA employer to head up a customer service call center. Wife and kids were finishing up the school year, and planned to move overseas to join him. But surprise! He brought this other woman and her illegitimate 15 year old son back with him to make the big announcement, and has since married her. (I would not go to the wedding, which has estranged me from my own family for being “too judgmental.”) Without going into huge detail, he liquidated all their stocks and assets, took out home equity loans for cash, and then declared bankruptcy. Leaving his former wife and mother of his children stranded and homeless (kids stayed at my mom’s for over a year). All while making over $100K/yr.

    The woman, wife, and lawyer in me is so disgusted to share DNA with this person – and to be censured by my own family is completely bizarre to me. So you’re right – I was not the injured party, but I am certainly an outraged one – and there’s a lot of forgiving to be done. Being the stubborn person I am, it hasn’t happened yet…I can’t let go of the outrage I feel on behalf of my sister in law, nephew and niece, as well as the disgust I feel toward the instigator of all this harm. My own mother and sister (both of whom went through infidelity problems and failed marriages) being so supportive of him, and so angry at me for refusing to participate in the new marriage, is unfathomable.

    So I guess I need to be added to your prayer list, Jane!

  2. philangelus

    Wow. That’s just…

    By comparison, the two people I need to forgive (although they violated their authority in a pretty bad way) didn’t do anywhere near that much harm. Clearly I need to get over myself.

    I’ll pray for you, but again, wow… “Unfathomable” indeed. 🙁

  3. Jenni

    Wow – that is a very difficult one! I will pray for you, too, Kit.

  4. ivyreisner

    I love these differences between Judaism and Christianity. For the Jew, forgiveness is not a mandate. A lack of forgiveness is often appropriate, and plain common sense. The “eye for an eye” idea comes right out of Exodus.

    Personally, I think there needs to be a balance. Spending weeks furious about being cut off on the highway is probably self-destructive. Saying “Oh, poor dear. There, there. It’s okay.” to a murderer is destructive to society overall.

    If society is to function there must be a line. Those who have held to the moral side must say to those who have crossed it, “You are no longer of us. We do not accept you, and we never will.”

  5. ivyreisner

    Oh, Kit. That’s so awful. I will pray for your family, that all be enlightened.

  6. philangelus

    Ivy, it’s perfectly possible to forgive a murderer and then convict his sorry behind and put him in jail for life.

    Forgiveness does NOT equal letting someone off the hook for making amends. Forgiveness would mean the victim no longer lets the offender own that part of her heart, that part of her anger, that part of her energy.

    But the law still holds.

  7. Kit

    Thanks, all – it has been a little over a year since the wedding, and 6 months since I got kicked out of the fold. What is really odd to me is that I’ve found, now that the initial shock of being told I was no longer welcome at family gatherings until I “get over it” has worn off, that by and large, I feel like I am not missing out on much. I used to talk to my mother several times a week, especially while expecting the baby with my husband overseas, yet now…I don’t miss it. I guess this whole mess has finally driven home the point that we have incompatible value systems, and that I don’t have to rely on my family to have a happy and fulfilling life. It’s sad, but at least it’s not an active hurt anymore.

  8. knit_tgz

    You know, usually I have the hardest time forgiving one specific person: myself. (Yeah, pride. I know.)

    But on the “forgiving other person” issue, I have the hardest time “forgiving” (*see note*) those who hurt children and then make them feel guilty (a lot of abusers do this), or those who have a position where they are supposed to be caring for someone who cannot fully take care of him/herself (too young, too old, sick, poor, etc.), and instead abuse that person. I do not need to know the victim to have a very hard time “forgiving” them.

    Note: I do not think it is my place to forgive those persons as I was not the offended one. What I mean by “forgiving” (between quotes) is thinking of that person as a fully human one.

    Kit: (hug) What a terrible situation…

  9. CricketB

    If someone you love is hurt, you are also hurt, so yes, it is appropriate for you to forgive them for the harm they did you indirectly. The immediate victim is responsible for doing her own forgiving.

    Forgivness is for the forgiver, not the forgiven.

    However, as a parent or role model, it’s important to model forgiveness, so the child will learn how rather than be poisoned by it.

    My worst experience with forgiveness is rather tame, but took me two years to deal with. Two online acquaintances, who got along great with each other, had a huge fight and split. One later told me that “Two is a bug on the winshield of life.” What’s worse, One helps others deal with hurt and forgiveness. Is this what she’s teaching them?

    I get that you need to move on, but a fellow human being is not a bug to be splatted and sprayed and wiped off the windshield! If you need an analogy, try the two of you are driving beside each other, and one or both hit a muddy patch. That stuff on the windshield is mud. Yes, take a different road from her for a while, but don’t diminish your former friend. If we brush off everyone who ever hurt us, we’d be islands.

    Forgiving the harsh words was easy, but not that she might be teaching that to people in similar situations. It’s one of those things I finally put in God’s hands. (Don’t ask how can an agnostic do that. It just feels right.) She is a human, and I pray God intervenes so a healthier message gets taught.

    Kit: Hugs. Divorce splits more than the immediate family. I hope they’re able to get decent legal advice and get some of their money back.

  10. soujahshade

    Thank you Phil for refering me to this post…
    This post is helping with the healing progress, giving me another outlook in minutes as I failed under my own logic for months…

    Thank you.