Myths of Forgiveness

Who among us has not winced when we publicly pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive others”?   We say it in the Lord’s Prayer each Sunday but do you often then look around and wonder how you can really forgive one of your fellow worshipers.   We say it because The Great Commandment tells us to 'love our neighbor.”   Notice that there are no exceptions.  In fact Jesus specifically tells us to love our enemies. 

          What often prevents us from developing an understanding and a will to forgive are the many myths surrounding the process. During our childhood and early adulthood we internalize ideas about forgiveness from personal experience and from things we hear from parenting figures that seem to make sense.

We allow these myths and fears to get in our way and become locked into building a rationale for NOT forgiving.  In fact, in most discussions I have lead on the topic of Forgiveness,  most of these myths are raised in the question periodfollowing the first presentation.  Therefore, lets look at these myths before we go further in trying to understand the process that leads us to forgiveness. 

 1. I can’t forgive because I can’t forget.   

          “Forgive and forget”  is a cliche based on the notion that one can “forget” an egregious wrong.  Modern psychology tells us that this type of “forgetting”  ( called denial) leads us to bury the experience in the unconscious, something that can lead to serious mental consequences.  However obsession or continually rehashing the event in our mind or byrepeating it to others is not the same as remembering or recalling the offense.

          We must learn from our experiences, which means we must remember the important things that happen to us, especially when not to do so can lead us to continue to put ourselves in danger.  Denial is a defensive position we imagine will protect us from further hurt or humiliation.  In true forgiveness, we work through the emotion charge of the event until we have resolved the issues and the pain. 

2. If I’ve forgotten, it means I’ve forgiven. 

          As noted above, if you attempt to put the awareness out of your mind without working through your feelings you may do this by employing the defense of denial.  This is neither forgetting nor forgiveness.   Giving up from fear or emotional exhaustion is also not forgetting.  It is a defensive move and the desire for revenge is just below the surface.  It can also come from a false sense of “self” in which the victim needs to see herself ina place of innocence or moral superiority. 

 3. If I forgive someone but don’t feel it, than I am being a phony.         

          We must remember that “forgive” is a verb,  an action wordIt is not a feeling.   When we get to the section on the process of forgiveness you will see that it is not an attempt to feel better about oneself or to deny that one has been hurt.   Forgiveness starts with an act of will, a need to get ridoneself of a desire for revenge.  Just as in giving up any habit, one has to “wantto want to”  to begin. This is often the hardest step to take. 

 4. Some people don’t deserve to be forgiven.

This myth is based on the belief that good people thrive and bad people are punished.   The reality of this world is that bad things happen to good people and bad people often thrive.   The hard truth is that the person who pays the price of un-forgiveness is the victim.  The victim often becomes judge, jury and executioner.   These are not roles that lead to happiness. 

 5. If I forgive that means I have to trust the person who hurt me. 

Forgiveness has nothing to do with trust which is an issue for reconciliation.  Trust is based a belief that t person will act in a certain way.  Recalling how we were hurt allows us to be realistic in our expectations of future behavior.  Trust must be earned.  But forgiving allows the other a chance to change behavior,  make atonement and earn back our trust.  But this can only happen if steps to reconciliation are taken .  Forgiving is the first step towards reconciliation and not a condition for it.  

 6. To forgive a person who hurts you is to tell her that she can go and do the same thing again.

To forgive someone is not to condone behavior.  We forgive the person not the action or injury.


 7. Forgiving means giving up my anger and I need my anger to feel safe.

Getting in touch with anger is one step in the process of forgiveness, but we mustn’t get stuck there.  Processing the anger empowers us to act, whereas denying it only paralyzes. us.  We can forgive without forfeiting the right to use anger in self-defense, but we must be realistic about just how much it protects us.

          The idea of anger as protection begins with the childhood believe in anger as punishment and power.  It comes from being afraid of our parent’s anger.   When we are hurt it is natural to feel anger but wielding anger as power comes from weakness and an attempt to appear invulnerable.  it is like owning a monster dog and keeping it caged.  It must be fed and we do this be rehearsing how we have been wronged and attempting to scare people away with our rage. 

8. If i give up my anger, then the person will get off Scott-free.

          Another belief learned in childhood is that my suffering makes the other person pay.  Parents who use withdrawal to control their children teach them about abandonment as punishment.  Children experience the pain of abandonment deeply and will often comply with parental demands for an apology in order to stop the pain.  Believing that the adult feels this pain because we are angry is simply not true.  Most often the offender goes on with his life obvious to the anger of the other. 

9. Forgiving or asking for forgiveness is a sign of weakness.  

This is another myth that also results from childhood training and is a sign of someone who was forced to apologize whether or not she felt sincerely sorry.  Forgiveness takes strength and self-knowledge. 

10. People who love each other don’t have to ask for forgiveness.

          “Love means never having to say “I’m sorry” is a much quoted line from the old movie Love Story.  The exact opposite is true.  Closeness between people exposes one to the other’s insensitivity and petty self-indulgences,  It is the trivial that has the power to drive us crazy.   Over time the buildup of trivial slights can lead to a break in the relationship.  Asking for and giving forgiveness means we stop judging the other and communicate with trust and love.

 11. I can’t forgive until i know that the other person is really sorry and won’t ever do it again.

          It is natural to want an acknowledgment of the hurtful person’s awareness of injuring us, but we can’t expect them to be mind readers.  Expecting an apology because you are sure “they know what they did” is to set oneself for an endless round of hurt and recrimination.  Telling the person in a spirit of love and not judgment allows them to say I am sorry.  But you have to be prepared for the fact the other may have different values or may see the situation in a different way and respond with denial.  If your are truly non-judgmental, you will accept the other’s view even though you may find it hurtful and believe it is wrong.

          Expecting a person to change and never hurt you again is to hold him to a higher standard than anyone can achieve.  Remember, God knows we will sin again, but does not withhold forgiveness for our sin.          

 12. My offender is dead.  I don’t need to forgive him.

          If you are still rehearsing the hurts of long ago, then you continue to re-victimize yourself.  Doing the work of forgiveness helps to release you from these obsession and free you to live a fuller and more peaceful life.


 13. I have cut off all contact with my offender and therefore do not need to forgive him. 

          Just as in the case of the offender who has died, if you continue to feel hurt by the events of the past, you are the only one who can free yourself from the pain.  Forgiveness is not reconciliation nor is reconciliation a part of forgiveness.  You need not have an active relationship with the offender in order to forgive.


Anne L. Burton, d.Min.

Sept. 14, 2016