Full Disclaimer; I am agnostic. My wife is Christian and I go to church with her. This past Sunday the sermon was about forgiveness. It was a good sermon and it reminded me of some thoughts that I have had on the subject. Even though I am agnostic, I do believe that many of our values and morals have been influenced by religious teachings. The idea of forgiveness is, I believe, a big part of many religions, so I don’t doubt that my own ideas are influenced by religious teachings and other philosophies that are ingrained in our culture. In Christianity, one of the fundamental ideas is that Jesus is the mechanism by which mankind’s sins are forgiven. This was definitely part of the message of the sermon on Sunday. I don’t remember the exact specifics, but there was then a correlation made between the forgiveness of Jesus and people’s ability to forgive. I appreciated and enjoyed the sermon, but I do remember feeling that there was a little bit missing in terms of the practice of forgiveness for the individual.
By practice of forgiveness, I mean the repeated act of forgiving for the benefit of getting better at it. Forgiveness is definitely something that is not natural for people. In order to get better at it we need to practice it. But in order to practice it in the most beneficial way, I believe it helps to have a strong concept of what it is and what it does. My hope is to lay out some ideas on the subject in order to organize my own thoughts about it more. I have not really researched this or studied it, so these are probably ideas that are already out there or else they are ideas that don’t really make sense.
A quick internet search for the definition of forgiveness reveals only brief explanations of the word. There are slight, but interesting variations of the definitions. Google defines the word forgive as, “stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake.” Similarly, Merriam-Webster defines the word as, “to cease to feel resentment against (an offender),” but also as, “to give up resentment of or claim to requital.” Finally, Dictionary.com has many definitions of the word, including similar phrases like, “to cease to feel resentment against,” and, “to grant pardon for or remission of (an offense, debt, etc.)” All three sites also mention the idea of forgiveness in the financial sense of canceling debts. Hopefully this lengthy explanation will simplify the idea of forgiveness so that the slight variations of the word can be encompassed into one understanding.
The first thing I notice about these definitions is that there are two different objects that the action of forgiving has an affect on. To “stop feeling angry,” or “to cease to feel resentment,” is definitely an action that affects the person who is doing the forgiving. Party A has been wronged, or has the feeling that they have been wronged, consequently, they become agitated because of having been wronged. If that person then decides to forgive having been wronged then then they change their agitated state.
The other view of the word is, “to give up … claim to requital,” or, “to grant pardon.” This perspective places more emphasis on how the party that committed the offense is affected. It implies that the offending party is somehow beholden to the wronged party, and so when the wronged party forgives, the offending party is affected by no longer being beholden. Party B wrongs Party A. Party B is agitated and feels that they now owe something to Party A. When Party A forgives Party B, Party B no longer feels that they owe something to Party A. This is particularly true with the idea of forgiving monetary debts.
So which is it? Is forgiveness more about Party A, the wronged, or Party B, the offender? Well, the world is a complex place, so to make matters easy I will simply answer, “Yes.” Yay! Easy! End of blog. Thanks for reading! Just kidding. I do believe the answer is, “Yes,” in that forgiveness is about both Party A and Party B. Sometimes more A and sometimes more B. And just to spice things up, I would argue that there is a third party, Party C, that is always affected. When there are two parties that have a disagreement then the thing that is ultimately affected is the relationship between the two parties. This relationship is Party C.
When I speak of relationships, I mean any type of interaction between two parties where both parties understand the role that they play to each other. Complex relationships, like family or marriage, are familiar, but I am also referring to relationships that can be as simple as a shopper and a sale clerk or even two people, who don’t know each other, walking along a sidewalk. A classic relationship is when two people, who don’t know each other, share an elevator. Many people find this awkward. I believe that one of the reasons for this awkwardness is the extended period of time of a relationship that is very narrow and small. As I think about it, this is a whole different blog topic. The bottom line, for this blog post, is that relationships are a two way street. Once the relationship is established, it immediately has a value. It can be positive or negative. It is also different for each party involved. So for a relationship of two parties, the relationship has two parts. For this example, each part will have a simple value of positive or negative.
So now that all the parties are identified we can try and line them up into some sort of de-humanizing, quasi-mathematical construction. I originally called it the Forgiveness Formula. But, I know that anyone with a little math background will roll their eyes at calling this a formula. It has a nice alliterative ring to it, which should have been a signal to me that someone has already thought of that. A quick search revealed multiple instances of the name in various media. So I will just call it some sort of systematic analysis. In review, here are the parts of the system:
- Party A, the one who has been wronged,
- Party B, the one who did the wrong,
- R, the relationship between the two.
- I called this Party C before, but changed my mind now and I will just call it R.
- R is made up of two parts:
- Party A value, labeled RA
- Party B value, labeled RB
- For now the values will simply be positive or negative.
Now that we have the parts we can define the actions and reactions. To distinguish these from the parts I will use lower case letters.
- When one party wrongs another party I will label it “w,”
- When one party asks for forgiveness, or apologizes, I will label it “a,”
- When one party forgives another party I will label it “f.”
Before I label the reactions, I forgot to mention that each party has its own value as well. This value represents that party’s state of being. For this example, I will represent this value as a positive or negative. Now I can define the reactions because they all relate to the values of the parties and the relationship. There are only two basic reactions: changing from a positive to a negative, and changing from a negative to a positive. Since there are four parts (A, B, RA, RB), when these two basic reactions are applied to each of the four parts we come up with eight reactions:
- A changing from positive to negative,
- A changing from negative to positive,
- B changing from positive to negative,
- B changing from negative to positive,
- RA changing from positive to negative,
- RA changing from negative to positive,
- RB changing from negative to positive, and
- RB changing from negative to positive.
Now that we have everything sorted out, let’s put them into a little diagram. In this figure, a relationship is present and we will assume that everything is positive and good between the two parties. Look at all the pluses!
Now we can throw in an action and see what happens. As mentioned before, we are going to examine what happens when B wrongs A. You may ask yourself, “What did B do? Why did B do it? Did B mean to wrong A?” These are all valid questions, but things get really complicated really quickly, so I will keep it simple by saying that B’s action was unintentional, with no malicious intent.
So what happens with B’s innocent wrongdoing? Once A perceives the offense, A’s value is decreased. This decreases A’s relationship value with B. Once B perceives that A’s relationship value has decreased, then B’s value decreases as well. This, in turn, decreases B’s relationship value with A. Domino effect!
What can be done now? All this negativity gets me down. In this simple example, both parties want to be positive again. Traditionally, (or is it culturally, or is it just logically?) the offending party (B) would initiate a reconciliation by offering an apology for the offense. The offended party (A) would accept the apology and forgive the offender (B) and then all would be good again. This can be interpreted in the system as in this diagram.
This would be the prevailing opinion of how a resolution to a conflict should occur. It emphasizes the importance of the apology and how the wrongdoer must take responsibility. Forgiveness is important, in this method, but it cannot happen without an apology first. It is almost like a business transaction. I feel like the emphasis on the apology and on the wrongdoer is too strong. I feel like the emphasis should be more on the offended. This is not to say that the wrongdoer should not take responsibility and does not need to learn from their actions. It is merely an observation that, from the offended’s position, the power to change their own value, the wrongdoer’s value, and the value of the relationship, lies within themselves and does not necessarily depend on an apology first.
What’s interesting to note, when the system is broken down into its parts, is that even though the apology starts with B, it does not change B’s value back to positive. In the system, an apology starts with the offending party (B) as an attempt to change the relationship back to positive (RB). If A accepts the apology, and forgives B, then A’s value becomes positive and so A’s perspective of the relationship (RA) also changes back to positive. Only once both parts of the relationship are back to positive can B’s value now change back to positive. But if A declines the apology, for whatever reason, the change back to positive stops there. A remains negative, therefore RA remains negative, and finally B remains negative. Because B remains negative, RB will change back to negative unless B decides to keep trying. This is what I mean by A having the power over the system. This makes sense to us when we think that the one who is wronged should have ultimate say on whether the system should be positive again or not. But because we have that sort of barter mentality of the system, we put the responsibility on the wrongdoer to change the system back to positive, when in reality they don’t have the power to do so.
Therefore, I believe the emphasis should be on the one who was offended, (A). The emphasis should be on the one who has the power to make the system positive again. Part of the problem with this is that we naturally feel like the wrongdoer is getting away with having done wrong. Again, I don’t think the wrongdoer should not be held responsible. But if both parties want a positive outcome, then either the wrongdoer understands their wrong doing and will apologize anyway, or they don’t understand and having the one who is wronged issue their honest forgiveness allows the relationship to start to be positive again. If the relationship is positive then there can be communication about the issue for more understanding on both sides.
Forgiveness is where the power to fix the system lies. If A can honestly issue forgiveness to B then A increases their value positively, and permanently. This increases RA positively and permanently. Now to complete the change back to positive, B must accept forgiveness and ultimately issue an apology or some sort of resolution so that B’s value can be positive and RB can be positive. But to reiterate, regardless of what B does, A has fixed themselves and allowed the system to be fixed as a whole.
And to reiterate again, this gets really complicated quickly and probably brings up even more questions. At least it does to my mind. The main question for me is, “How does one go about honestly forgiving someone else?” This is another blog topic, probably a whole book in itself. There are probably many books about it already actually. In fact there are probably books about the topic I just wrote about. Maybe I should have just read them. Or maybe you should have read them instead of my blog post.
In any case, thanks for reading to the end. It got kind of long. And now I’m just dragging it on. I’m not sure why.