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DENNIS GARVIN: Forgive – The Impossible Verb

Dennis Garvin

Online Merriam Webster dictionary definition #1 of ‘forgive’: to cease to feel resentment against (an offender).

Let’s be honest: this is impossible, unless you are hypnotized or have Alzheimer’s.  If someone hurts or offends you, the memory of the event and the resentment about the event are welded together. It is obvious that we have somehow combined ‘forgiveness’ with a large dose of forgetfulness.  Interestingly, the phrase ‘forgive and forget’ is not found anywhere in the Bible.

This would be laughable if it were not so widely misunderstood.  However, I think we can blame a misapplication of a Bible verse for the current misunderstanding:

“I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins. “ Isaiah 43:25.

Folks, this is something that God can do, but we cannot.  Furthermore, God doesn’t ask us to.  If someone steals money from us, we are careful afterward to not leave our money lying around so they can steal again.  Nowhere in the Bible are we called upon to be idiots.

Okay, so if forgiveness does not involve forgetting (for humans), and if forgiving doesn’t involve treating the person as though they hadn’t offended you, what actually constitutes forgiveness?  I first became interested in this issue when I spoke with a patient of mine who was tormenting herself for her inability to ‘forgive’ a terrible offense against her when she was a child.

In the Old Testament, Levitical law was established to govern the lives of people who identified as members of tribes; tribes that were being brought together as a nation.  Tribes had their own rules and governance.  Levitical law, had it attempted to cancel and supersede tribal law/custom, would have failed.  Not because of God, but because of humans.   Jews living in the time of the Old Testament were instructed to subordinate their tribal customs of punishment to this law.  Indeed, Islamic and Hindu religions were also applied in this way.

In the Old Testament, there are references to a Goel Hadam, a ‘blood avenger.’

This was a member of the tribe or family of an injured or wronged person.  It fell upon this Goel to punish or extract compensation from the offender.  While this was mentioned mostly in the case of death (accidental or premeditated), it also had application in the case of theft.  Additionally, Old Testament law provided for ‘cities of refuge,’ towns to which the offender could flee until the authorities could intervene and determine guilt or innocence.  If he was found guilty, punishment could be performed by either the legal system or the Goel.

This idea of a blood avenger has not passed from our cultures.  We still hear of vendettas, the McCoy-Hatfield feud, even modern day equivalents of the Montague-Capulet disharmony (Romeo and Juliet).  These are nothing more than modern examples of an ‘eye for an eye’ mentality.

However, most punishments for civil and criminal injuries are now in the court system.  The confusion over punishment has, naturally, spilled over into how are we to respond to offenses that do not rise to the level of legal action?  Verbal insults, taunting, disrespect- these are hurtful, although legal, offenses.

To better understand forgiveness, we should probably use a foreign or ancient language.  Most romance languages use some form of ‘Pardon.’  What, after all, is a legal definition of this word?  It simply means that punishment is not applied.  The offender is not deemed innocent, nor is he treated as though the offense did not occur.  Suddenly, the act of forgiveness seems somehow more realistic.

This idiotic idea that forgiveness involves overlooking an offense would have been alien to most people living before the last few hundred years.  Indeed, dictionaries as recent as a decade ago did not include the above definition at all, let alone as the first option.  Please refer to this link for more information.

Okay, so if forgiveness actually involves pardoning an offender, it simply means that we are aware of the offense, we are aware that we have been wronged, but we are not going to seek retribution.  If a person offends you in a manner subject to civil or criminal court, notifying the authorities does not mean that you are failing to forgive; you are electing to defer the issue to a legal proceeding.

So, forgiving and forgetting is not derived from any religion or rational human philosophy.  Forgiving simply means you will not personally seek revenge.  In no way does it prevent you from adjusting your life and treating the offender in the way that their behavior deserves.  Nor does it preclude warning other people about the behavior.  If someone offends you and you decide to not beat the stuffing out of them or shoot their dog, you have forgiven them. Ultimate revenge?  Get out of God’s way and let him handle it. He has been doing it for years and can probably do a better job:

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.    Romans 12:19

One other lesson can be taken from the above Isaiah verse: note that God is forgiving ‘for my sake’.  I believe that, despite Hollywood’s proclivity for producing movies where vengeance is the central theme, a failure to pardon someone who hurts you is actually toxic to your well-being.  You recall the event and fantasize about a violent response.  Your heart races and your blood pressure rises.  You brood at night.  Meanwhile, the transgressor is sleeping quite well.  In short, you have volunteered for ongoing victimhood; first, of the offense itself, then of the failure to pardon them ‘for your own sake.’

Try this: if you have a circumstance where you cannot forgive (using the silly definition), try instead to pardon the person.  Say out loud that this act means you will not pursue or entertain acts of revenge.  And, because you are doing this for your own sake, you can add that you are pardoning the person because they just aren’t worth your time and trouble.  That might not be biblical, but it sounds healthier than the alternative.  Then, sleep well.

Dennis Garvin

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