Forgiving Does Not Mean Condoning

How to reclaim your self confidence, stop anger, release gulit - Clifford Edwards


A few years ago, a guest post on a blog I had at the time, sparked several interesting comments and a couple of intriguing questions. In the post, the guest blogger “Hank”, beautifully and courageously shared about his journey of forgiveness, since being molested as a teen by a Catholic priest decades ago.

One of the comments prompted by the post included the following: “I have a difficult time with this topic because forgiving somehow gets confused with the perpetrator of the wrong getting let “off the hook” so that they can continue to harm others.”

This comment addresses one of the most prevalent misconceptions about forgiveness.  The misconception is that in forgiving, we’re also condoning.  The question might be restated, “If I forgive ___________(fill in the blank), doesn’t it mean that I’m letting them off the hook for their actions, or making what they did to me okay?”  It’s also one of the reasons that people most frequently give as for why they refuse to forgive someone or something in their past.

There’s a long answer, and a short answer to this question.  Let’s start with the short answer.  “No, when you forgive, you’re not condoning the actions of the other.”  Forgiveness is something that you have to choose to do for yourself.  It’s ultimately not about the other person at all.

Through choosing to forgive, you’re able to set yourself free from the bondage of resentment, anger and blame and release the mental and emotional burdens of a past experience.  Giving yourself the gift of forgiveness, doesn’t really have anything to do with the other party and their actions toward you.

“How can that be?” you might interject.  You might think that the hurtful incident had everything to do with the other’s actions toward you.  After all, they abused you, cheated you, took advantage of you or hurt you in some other way.  So this brings me to the longer version of the answer.  Yes of course, it takes two to tango so to speak.  The hurt that you felt as the result of your experience with that other was real.  They were intimately involved in the violation of you.

There’s a ‘but’ coming, and it’s a big one too.  BUT even though they hurt you or violated you in some way, you’re the one who has been continuing to carry it around. You’re the one who has been perpetuating the anguish.  As the old Buddhist proverb states so simply, yet elegantly, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

Choosing to forgive is choosing not to suffer. It’s a choice you need to make selfishly, for your own best interests, and if necessary, without consideration of how it will affect anyone else.  Since you have the ability to perpetuate the anguish, then you have the capability to end it as well.  Forgiveness is about setting yourself free from the self-constructed prison of suffering and negativity.

Think of it this way, when you’re holding a grudge, resentment or anger toward someone else, that person is always living in your consciousness – they are always with you.  Emmet Fox, an influential spiritual thinker and leader of the early 20th century once wrote: “Our resentments bind us to the person with a cord stronger than steel.”  You must realize that you’re actually expending your life energy to drag them around with you!  They may drop below and exist under the surface of your awareness some or much of the time.  But they’re always there.  You only need to be reminded of the person or incident in some small way, and all of a sudden they burst right back into your awareness, bringing a flood of negative feelings and painful emotions with them.  What may have started out to be a great day for you, can quickly be turned into hours of suffering, with your thoughts driven into a downward spiral of toxic internal dialog laced with anger, judgment, righteous indignation, shame, guilt, regret etc…  From personal experience I know that’s a sure recipe for a small, miserable life!

For years I carried a large and arduous load of resentments, blames, grudges, moral indignation, anger and the like.  I blamed my limitations and inabilities on my family, the church of my youth, grade school teachers, ex-bosses, former co-workers and many others.  I could quickly and passionately recite a litany of offenses that I’d been subjected to in my life.  I could tell you in detail how each of the others had victimized me, and why they were wrong in their actions.

I righteously clung to my beliefs that I’d been hurt – even crippled – by what I considered to be the thoughtlessness, callousness, stupidity, selfishness, arrogance, maliciousness or abusiveness of the others involved.  I spitefully placed each of the people and incidents in my internal “victim’s hall of blame and shame.”  Then when somehow reminded, I would periodically have opportunity to visit them in my mind, reliving the events and incidents, and torturing myself with hateful, self-righteous, resentful and thoroughly disempowering thoughts and feelings.

A big resentment in particular was against my second grade teacher.  I’ll call her Miss Thompson, and she was a big, physically imposing, early 50-ish woman.  As a young child I had a hard time staying focused in class and I was easily distracted.  It was a lot of effort for me to pay attention and give sustained effort to assigned tasks and activities.  These days I’d probably be tested and diagnosed as being ADHD or something similar.  But in the 1960’s that wasn’t even a consideration in most school systems – certainly not in mine.  So I didn’t perform well in class, and that frustrated Miss. Thompson to no end.  She knew I was smart because there were some things that I did brilliantly.  But overall, I consistently underachieved in my school work.

Now I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I believe that Miss Thompson must have also felt frustrated and unhappy in her life in general, and that I became a focus and convenient outlet for those feelings.  Several times during that school year, she got angry with me for not finishing an assignment, or not paying attention in class.  On those occasions she came up to me, wrapped her large, strong hands around my thin wrists and then lifted my small arms up off the desktop and slammed them down repeatedly, while verbally berating me.  Bang, bang, bang, bang – over and over again until I was stinging and crying from a combination of the shock, the physical pain and the humiliation of being singled out and abused in front of my classmates.  Oddly enough, I don’t believe that I ever told my parents about it, I just thought I must have deserved it somehow.

As you might expect, those experiences left a lasting effect on me.  In my young mind I didn’t know how to process and deal with it all.  I didn’t have the maturity or insight to understand that her actions meant more about her and her issues than they did about me.  So I made the interpretation that her physical and verbal treatment of me meant there was something wrong with me.  I made it mean that I wasn’t good enough.  It was years later that I was able to look back on the experience from a more mature perspective, and recognize the inappropriateness of her actions.

At the same time I also became aware of the shame I still carried and how my sense of self-worth had plummeted as a result.  That’s when I got angry about it.  I became righteous and judgmental of Miss Thompson and I created a grudge – a big grudge.  I blamed her for many of my problems; I blamed her for my limitations and low self-esteem.  Of course there were a multitude of other members of that “hall of blame and shame” who I made responsible for the same sorts of things.  As I write this, I realize that it doesn’t really make sense to blame multiple parties for the same effects.  But anger, resentment, blame and the like aren’t rational, they are emotional, primal and without clear reason.

I have to admit that I dragged that particular bucket load of resentful, angry and shameful feelings around with me for years.  Also from time to time, I would dredge up a mental image of Miss Thompson to judge, berate and chastise her in my mind.  It was all part of a larger pattern of playing the victim and giving away my power, creativity and joy to people from my past, through my insistence on holding on to the grudges.  It was part of a pattern of negativity and toxicity that plagued my thoughts, cannibalized my life force energy and kept me feeling stuck, unworthy and incapable of expressing myself authentically and powerfully in the world.  Though Miss Thompson had caused me the pain at age 7, I chose to continue reliving the experience time and again.  I chose to repeatedly revisit the stinging feelings of physical pain and personal shame and in doing so I chose to suffer and cage myself for many additional years as a result.

Being that this is the long answer it’s taken me a while to get around to the second point – or maybe it’s the main point – of my response to the original question.  If you’ve gotten lost in the story as I did, I’ll remind you that the question was in essence “If I forgive, doesn’t that let the other person off the hook or make their actions okay?”  Again, NO it doesn’t.  To risk repeating myself and sounding like a broken record (or maybe these days I should say a corrupted .mp3 file), the purpose of forgiveness is to set yourself free.  Liberating yourself from a mental and emotional burden has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of someone else’s actions.  Choosing to no longer suffer through hundreds or thousands of replays of an incident or the pointless exertion of flagellating your victimizer in your mind, is not the same as letting them off the hook for their actions.

Back now to Miss Thompson, what she did to me as a 7 year old was clearly inappropriate and abusive.  It was not okay for her to treat me – or any other young, innocent child – like that.  I was incapable of defending myself or even escaping the situation.  I felt like I had no other option but to sit there and take it.  But it was not okay!  Then later as an adult, I deluded myself by thinking I was somehow punishing her or holding her accountable for her abuse by hating her, judging her, flogging her in my thoughts and mind.  But the truth is that I was just flogging and hurting myself.  Ironically she likely forgot me soon after I moved on to third grade, and found some other child to use as an escape valve for her stored frustration and unhappiness.  But I carried her with me every where and every day until decades later – and likely until long after she had passed away.

It was only when I came to understand that my sole means of escape and relief from the suffering was through forgiveness that I finally made the decision to let go of my judgments, resentment and blame. In doing so I was able to finally stop carrying her around with me.  Through forgiveness, I’ve relieved myself of a lot of other people and incidents too.  And I’m happy to report that I was able to eventually close down the infamous ‘victim’s hall of blame and shame”!

In more current times Miss Thompson would be fired, arrested and jailed for treating any child the way that she treated me.  But regardless of whether she was held accountable by any school administrator, legal system or other authority, I have to believe that she always had her conscience to contend with and I suspect that she was also beset by her own snarling, punishing pack of internal demons.  In addition, there are the other levels of spiritual accountability or karma to face as a soul or being.  But by the time I understood the true nature of her violation of me, I had no legitimate way to take recourse against her.  And my continued judgment, anger or hatred did not accomplish a thing in terms of chastising her or keeping her ‘on the hook.’

In other circumstances things would be different.  As an adult, I now have the knowledge, experience and ability to stand up for myself, to set boundaries and to hold others accountable or responsible in ways that I couldn’t as a kid.  This means that forgiving does not equate with choosing to be passive and refusing to take any action against a person or organization that might intentionally or accidentally hurt or violate me or someone close to me.

For example, I had an employee several years ago who stole from my business.  When I found out, I fired him immediately, reported him to the police and he was held legally and financially accountable for his theft.  I also forgave him for the incident, so that I wouldn’t have to be burdened by anger, resentment or judgments of him moving forward.  In the act of forgiving, I was able to deal with the aftermath of the situation much more neutrally and rationally.  I was able to approach it with a clear focus on what would be in my own best interests and the interests of everyone else involved too.  So in choosing to forgive, I was actually able to deal more effectively with the situation as I held him accountable.

The point is that if you choose to forgive some incident from your past or the actions of a person or organization, the one who gets let off the hook is you!  You actually put an end to the abuse because you no longer have to suffer at the hands of your victimizer time and time again in your own mind.  In the present if you choose to forgive someone for an offense, then you can still be responsible for yourself and take whatever action is needed.  But you can do it without the internal noise and distraction of judgments, anger, blame and righteous indignation.

All right we’re almost there.  Now getting back to Hank and the example he gave of being molested by a priest.  Again, clearly that was inappropriate, inexcusable and the man should have been held accountable.  In Hank’s story, I believe that no action was taken against the priest by the Church, or through the legal system.  In fact as we well know, for the most part, the Church actively worked to hide and protect the pedophile and predator priests.  In the time of Hank’s experience, these men were simply shuffled from one parish to another, and definitive action to stop the abuse was never taken.

This too is clearly NOT OKAY.  It also expands the circle of culpability from a single individual, to include eventually the entire Church itself.  So the responsibility and need for accountability shifts as well.  And again, the Church’s response was also not okay.  The systemic cancer of secrecy, denial, cover-ups and shifting of predators from place to place that has metastasized and spread throughout the body of the Church and exists to this day – none of that should be condoned either.

So we might say that Hank has a right to remain angry, that he would be justified at feeling outraged at the Church’s stonewalling and refusal to be held accountable for the crimes of its priests.  We might think that he would have a good reason to feel resentful about the injustice of it all and to blame the incident for scarring him emotionally, holding him back and negatively affecting the entire course of his life.  But from the perspective of forgiveness, to do so would be the same thing as to say that Hank has a right to suffer, that he is justified in reliving that old experience and torturing himself with it every day.  It would be to claim that he has good reason to allow all of that baggage to make him feel unworthy, damaged, and unable to fulfill his dreams and desires.  We could absolutely defend and rationalize that he should hold on and not forgive.  But we’d do so at the cost of the true value that he has to offer to himself and others, at the cost of the gifts, abilities, visions and contributions that Hank could otherwise make to the world.  We’d be endorsing a choice to remain a victim, to play small and squander his unique talents instead of stepping into an expanded reality of possibilities, growth, evolution, creativity and fulfillment.

Through forgiveness, new possibilities become available and new courses of action open up.  In Hank’s case through forgiving, he might also decide to work through various legal, social or political channels to hold the Church accountable for the actions of the priest that molested him.  He might also have the freedom to stand up, and work with others to take clear and effective action that could eventually bring systemic change to the Church and open up the space for true accountability and widespread healing to occur.  Yes, it’s true that anger and resentment might also prompt someone to take action.  Yet I’ll assert again that action can be planned from a broader perspective, and taken more effectively and clearly if the journey of forgiveness is underway.

I was grateful to Hank for generously and courageously sharing his story and helping to bring additional insight to this exploration of forgiveness and condoning.  I’m not in any way suggesting here what he should or should not, will or will not do, but simply using his experience to bring more illumination to the concepts we’re discussing.  I know that his own journey of forgiveness is continuing.

Finally, I hope that you’ve found value in this somewhat long and winding piece.  I hope as well that it has answered the question posed way back at the beginning with more definition.  Thanks for reading.

Thank you for the article Cliff Edwards! 🙂