What Is Forgiveness?

After I wrote the post It’s OK If You Can’t Forgive, I came across this video of Oprah and TD Jakes. They promote a common definition of forgiveness, which is to let go of your anger toward an offense. In fact, that was the definition I worked with in the prior post. I now realize there is more to it than that.

TD Jakes delivered two lines that summarize his message:

When you hold onto your history, you do it at the expense of your destiny.


Forgiveness does not exonerate the perpetrator. It does not justify their behavior. Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself…because you let it go so that you are available to be your highest and best self.

Those are points well-taken. Sometimes, all we can do is let it go. Sometimes that is the best gift we can give ourselves. Maybe the offender is dead, for example. But most of the time not only is the offender available but they are probably someone we know well or even live with. In those cases, the “letting it go” definition of forgiveness falls short.

There’s an easy way to demonstrate this.

Suppose someone has grievously wronged you. Let’s say he has stolen your identity. He has drained your bank accounts, trashed your credit rating, and then, just for the fun of it, destroyed your reputation on social media. To make it worse, this person is your brother.

By reading your Facebook posts, he has learned that you were captivated by TD Jakes’ message. So he comes to you and says in all sincerity, “I stole your identity and did all these terrible things but will you now let go of that history so you can embrace your destiny? Will you just let it go so you can be your highest and best self?”

Even if he was sincere, it would be hard not to feel he was mocking you and that his so-called request for forgiveness was nothing more than an additional way to demonstrate his power over you. There is just so much missing from what he said. Where is the contrition? Where is the pledge of restitution? He does not respect you enough to even acknowledge the pain he has caused you. You might feel you ought to forgive him (by Jakes’ definition) but you would be unsettled about it, and rightly so.

Now instead suppose he were to say this: “I stole your identity and did all these terrible things. I knew what I was doing was wrong but I did it anyway. I have made your life a catastrophe for the last several months. I’m truly sorry and I want to make it right. It may take me some time, but I am going to repay everything I stole fourfold. I will also do everything I can to restore your good reputation: I will let people know that I told lies about you and that you are a good person. I do not deserve your forgiveness, but if you can forgive me someday I will be grateful.”

You would probably forgive him at that moment and embrace him as your brother. It would be a full forgiveness, not just a “letting go” because forgiveness is more than that. It is welcoming the other person back into the fold. This is part of the message of the famous Parable of the Prodigal Son. The consummation of forgiveness is drawing close, not letting go.

This has a demanding corollary: If you think you have forgiven someone close to you because you have let go of their offense against you, you have completed only half the work of forgiveness. The rest of the work, to restore your relationship, is something you’ll have to do together.

Edited to Add: If the offense is too grave, too likely to be repeated, or both, there can be no welcoming back to the fold. An obvious example of “both” is the priest who has sexually abused children. No matter how contrite he is, there are many reasons why he should never again be alone with children. If he is truly contrite, he will enforce that ban on himself.

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