Defining forgiveness

I’ve already had a great comment suggesting that the question of forgiveness is largely determined by how we define forgiveness. I think that’s exactly right. Before we can know whether we are to forgive conditionally or unconditionally, it’s important to know what forgiveness is.

The online Oxford dictionary defines forgiveness this way:

verb (past forgave; past part. forgiven) 1 stop feeling angry or resentful towards (someone) for an offence or mistake. 2 excuse (an offence, flaw, or mistake).

Some things that forgiveness is:

  • Interpersonal – As Lewis Smedes said, there are many things that can hurt us – nature, circumstances, unjust systems – but we can only forgive people.
  • About our response – The definition above deals with our response to an offense, not to the offense itself. In other words, the question is not an objective evaluation of the offense. It is about how we choose to respond to that offense.

According to this definition, forgiveness isn’t some things:

  • It’s not understanding – We may be called to forgive some things we will never understand. We may also understand what has prompted some behavior, but not be ready to forgive. Forgiveness and understanding are two different things.
  • It’s not downplaying the offense – Forgiveness does not mean that we minimize what has happened or downplay it. It doesn’t mean avoiding the issue. You can forgive someone and still allow the authorities to deal with the offense, for instance, in a legal matter.
  • It’s not forgetting – We will never forget some of the things we have to forgive. Forgiveness does not mean pushing something out of our minds; it means that we deal with our response in a certain way as we remember.
  • It’s not the same as restoration or reconciliation – Forgiveness may lead to restoration. You can forgive someone for stealing money from you, for instance, but you may not choose to keep them as your accountant anymore. It also is not the same as reconciliation. Two friends may forgive each other, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will continue as best friends.

My main beef with this definition is that it is feelings based: to “stop feeling angry or resentful…” Forgiveness may lead to a change of feelings, but it doesn’t begin there.

Maybe Wikipedia’s definition is better:

Forgiveness is the mental, and/or spiritual process of ceasing to feel resentment, indignation or anger against another person for a perceived offense, difference or mistake, or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution.

We’ll look at some Scripture in upcoming posts on the topic.

What do you think? How would you define forgiveness?

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada