In her book “How Can I Forgive You?” Janis Spring takes a thoughtful look at the difficult process of forgiveness. What makes her book particularly useful is her insightful thoughts on why and how individuals forgive or choose not to forgive or maybe settle for acceptance. Because forgiveness is such an important part of being a part of any family, I have decided to devote the next four columns to four aspects of forgiveness discussed in her book: (1) cheap forgiveness, (2) refusing to forgive, (3) acceptance, and (4) genuine forgiveness.
Cheap forgiveness, like anything cheap, is easy to obtain. And, like anything that is cheap, it has almost no value and little durability. This is because cheap forgiveness is most often based on fear, in particular, a fear of one’s own anger or a fear of being rejected. So, in order to preserve a relationship, the offender either ignores your pain, too frightened to tap into your anger and risk rejection or the one offended is so desperate to preserve the relationship that he is willing to do anything — even forgive — so that the relationship continues. But cheap forgiveness is premature, superficial, undeserved. It’s cheap because it is offered before you have a chance to process the impact of the violation, ask anything of the offender, or think through what lies ahead.
Why is cheap forgiveness so tempting to offer? Actually, there are many advantages, at least on the surface, that entice the individual to bestow cheap forgiveness. (1) Cheap forgiveness keeps you connected to the offender. By not looking too deeply at your own feelings, you don’t risk saying something or doing something that may jeopardize the relationship. (2) Cheap forgiveness may make you feel good about yourself, even righteous and superior. Others may even perceive you as a saint. “I wish I could forgive like you.” (3) Cheap forgiveness may protect you from confronting your own complicity in the conflict, and keep you from wiping your slate clean, too. By doing this, you are protecting both yourself and the relationship. (4) Cheap forgiveness may nudge the transgressor toward repentance. “Can’t you forgive me? After all, I have forgiven you.” (5) You may believe that cheap forgiveness is good for your health. “Isn’t it bad for me to carry this anger, these unresolved feelings toward another?”
Although cheap forgiveness may be appealing in the short run, it loses its appeal over the long run. Consider the disadvantages. (1) Even though you may preserve your relationship, you do so at the expense of blocking any opportunity to develop a more intimate bond. The process of openly and honestly communicating your feelings to a receptive person can be an opportunity for understanding, emotional growth, and deepening the relationship for both of you. (2) Cheap forgiveness may give the transgressor a green light to continue mistreating you. You become the proverbial mat that allows others in your life to walk upon. Why wouldn’t they? (3) Cheap forgiveness can easily make you sick, both emotionally and physically. Unresolved feelings, even if they are buried deep within, have a way of festering and creating unnecessary anxiety that weighs heavily on your physical and emotional health.
Are you tempted to forgive too easily? In her book, Janis Spring encourages you to ask yourself several important questions. Do I compulsively seek to repair relationships, regardless of the circumstances or my feelings? Do I beat up on myself when someone mistreats me? Do I make excuses for the offender? Do I repress or deny a violation? Do I fail to know my anger or my despair? Do I fail to voice my objections or my needs? Do I often feel powerless, trapped, manipulated, snuffed out? Do I pardon the offender as a way of asserting my control, dominance, or moral superiority? Do I extend a generosity of spirit to everyone, and therefore to no one?
Is cheap forgiveness my typical, robotic response when someone hurts me?
If this might be you (or someone you know) please continue reading the next three columns on forgiveness.