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Who Said Forgiveness Is the Ultimate Answer?

I know this one thing to be true: You do not need to forgive a person who has hurt you in order to free yourself from the pain of negative emotions. You can even reach a place of love and compassion for the wrongdoer without forgiving a particular action or inaction. You are not a less loving or whole person if there are certain things you do not forgive, and certain people whom you choose not to see. Perhaps you are even a stronger or more courageous person if you have leftover anger, whether from one violation or countless little micro-violations, even as you move on.

More importantly, it is no one else’s job — not that of your therapist, mother, teacher, spiritual guide, best friend, or relationship expert — to tell you to forgive — or not to.

Those are some of the eye-opening insights author and therapist Harriet Lerner included in her 2017 book Why Won’t You Apologize? — Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts as she analyzes what makes a real and healthy apology. And her analysis contradicts so many of the pop psychology answers thrown out as wisdom for people today.

The widespread claim that people must focus on forgiving others who’ve hurt them, in fact, can add guilt as well as additional hurt on top of the pain of the original offenses — What’s wrong with me that I can’t forgive? Why am I not ready to forgive? Why don’t I think that they deserve forgiveness? Why do I have to work so hard to forgive them?

And that claim is heavily promoted by the people and institutions that are some of the greatest offenders. No institution needs to repent and ask for forgiveness more than the Church which for centuries (no matter how much good it might also have done) destroyed the lives of others, especially LGBTQ people.

Quoting that line in what’s come to be called “The Lord’s Prayer” — literally “Forgive what we owe (opheilémna) as we also have forgiven what is owed us” — or the verses about forgiveness in Matthew 18 seldom comes with an in-depth look at the psychology and overall problematic tit-for-tat theological thinking that turns these verses into commands to forgive others willy-nilly if someone wants to earn forgiveness from God.

The long history of the atrocities that have been, and are still being, sanctioned and committed against LGBTQ by the Church means it’s an institution, which claims its identity as descendants of those who self-righteously tortured, murdered and more, that should be begging LGBTQ people (and others) to forgive it and working night and day to make amends.

But what about calls to forgive on the part of those who’ve suffered? Before Harriet Lerner’s book appeared, I wrote a 2016 column questioning popular beliefs about forgiveness in the light of the fact that people had voted for a previous administration that proved, as expected, to pander to the Christian right-wing by doing its best to undo the progress of LGBTQ people and to pack U.S courts with appointments that would stifle such progress for generations.

Here is another version of those thoughts about forgiveness (written not as a religious thinker but a historian of religion and social scientist):

(1) Forgiving people who have not asked for your forgiveness is an assertion of a superior moral position over them. It’s passive-aggressive.

(2) Forgiving people for what they’ve done that hurts and continues to hurt others is to assert I am god. It’s one thing to forgive people for what was done to you personally but it’s hubris of a high sort to take the place of those others and forgive their abusers for them.

(3) Forgiveness is not a psychological requirement for personal closure no matter how people say it is. It takes real counseling or the equivalent. It takes feeling one’s feelings, working fully through them (like the stages of grief), though not thinking, acting, or deciding on the basis of those feelings.

In agreement with Harriet Lerner and other therapists, rushing to forgive without doing previous personal work is actually emotionally harmful and an act of denial. It’s why internationally known author and expert on child abuse, Alice Miller, labelled the seventh commandment, “Honor thy father and mother…” the most dangerous of all – it kept adult children from facing their parents’ failures head on.

(4) Telling people they should forgive someone who hurt them is preaching at them and minimizing their pain. At the very least, it’s insensitive.

At the most, it’s abusive and another assertion that one thinks oneself morally superior to those who haven’t forgiven.

(5) People are ready to be forgiven when they say they were wrong (not just that they’re sorry if you were hurt) and are ready to make amends. In old fashioned terms, it’s to repent (the Greek word for “repent” in the New Testament is metánoia, that is literally “turn around”). Their actions show that they are heading on the opposite path than they were and that their actions are intent on correcting past sins.

Are they willing to own up to their part in what has been done? It’s a basic principle of 12-step recovery programs that informs a number of those steps.

(6) Not forgiving until asked by the offender to forgive them does not mean one is to be inhuman, bitter, or not treating the offender as a full human being. Quite the opposite.

It instead accepts that the reason why someone is not so asking for forgiveness is that they’re not doing the work that will help them get beyond their own issues. The coming out of LGBTQ people is a gift to them — the gift of giving them the opportunity to face their own fears, homophobia and transphobia.

They get to choose how to respond to that gift. They’ve been given a chance to grow emotionally. And the LGBTQ person is not responsible for their response.

So, forgiving them before they ask for it is encouraging them to stay stuck in their own mire. It’s enabling, sickness-promoting, and even cruel.

The inability or unwillingness to forgive is not another flaw in LGBTQ people or anyone who doesn’t forgive and forget. It’s not what is holding anyone back.

It’s a recognition that the healthy path forward is to face the truths of history and personal experience, seek the counseling and good advice that ensures self-esteem and places the blame where it belongs, and, when ready and not prematurely, to forgive those who repent.