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April 24, 2007

What is forgiveness?

Vt_memorial headline today from the Associated Press reads, "Forgiveness Emerges in VA Tech Memorial." Of course, the article caught my eye. But as I read on I wondered whether what I was reading was an example of true forgiveness or if it is an example of rationalization or a mixture of both.

A memorial of 33 chunks of gray limestone spelling VT stands on the VA Tech drill-field. There is a stone for each of the 27 students and the 5 faculty that Cho ruthlessly murdered last Monday and one stone for Cho.

The AP piece quotes a VT professor who says, "I'm really impressed with the maturity of Virginia Tech people, they also treat him as a victim."

This didn't sit quite right with me. I'm all for the families and grieving friends coming to forgive Cho. After all, this is at the heart of restoration and peace. Furthermore, Scriptures command Christians to forgive. But this seems different to me. To say that Cho is a victim is to somehow diminish the willful role he played in an act that cannot be considered anything less than evil.

In the best of all worlds, true forgiveness happens when someone who has committed an evil act confesses and repents. That person not only speaks truth about the nature of the act, but also chooses to turn from it in the future. The one offering forgiveness does not forgive because the act itself is deemed inevitable or somehow rationalized. The forgiver calls the act evil along with the perpetrator. For the Christian person who forgives, he or she calls upon God's strength to forgive and live in peace once more with the repentant perpetrator. The forgiver is helped in this act by understanding his or her own forgiveness through Christ.

What do the rest of you think? What is forgiveness?

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Brian Hollar


Thanks for writing this and raising this question. I just posted my response as both a Christian and as a VT alumnus on my blog:


James Willis

I think we need to be very careful not to water down Biblical Forgiveness. As you correctly stated "true forgiveness" is only possible when there is "confession and repentance". There is a false forgiveness being proposed in our culture that I like to call talk show forgiveness. This type of so called forgiveness says that even if someone will not fully admit their wrong (confession) and will not stop hurting you (repentance), you must forgive them for your own mental health. This is not forgiveness at all but simply a way to avoid blaming anyone for their sinful actions.


Hmm...yes, but...
I mostly agree, but I'm getting caught up on the focus on mechanics. For me to truly forgive, is it required that the perpetrator confess and repent? If I have been wronged by someone in the past with whom I no longer maintain contact, perhaps because they've passed away, am I then incapable of forgiving them? I hope you would say, "Of course not."

I would clarify, then, a difference between forgiveness as a position of the spirit and forgiveness as the tangible outcome of that position. It seems to me it should be entirely possible (with God's strength, not without) to find (or be brought to) a position of forgiveness in your spirit toward someone that acknowledges the action committed and the resulting harm done, while purposing not to maintain any bitterness or grudge in regard to that person, whether or not they themselves are in a position (whether of willingness or capability) to acknowledge the same. That said, it should also be possible (with God's guidance, not without) to maintain such a position in the midst of prudence and wisdom concerning ongoing interactions with the person in question, if they have not yet come to the point of confession and repentance. Then again, sometimes it is being confronted with the reality of true unconditional forgiveness that causes someone to stop and examine themselves, and choose to change course and pursue repentance and restoration.

I think really what I'm saying, Christine and James, is that I mostly agree with you regarding the false forgiveness that doesn't hold the perpetrator accountable. Beyond that, though, I would caution you not to get caught up in the mechanics and treat forgiveness as quite so black-and-white.

john umland

i explored the concept a little in a series i did on the Lord's prayer at my blog
in that post some of what i offered, including links to some really great examples of forgiveness, i share now

"as i drove home from a memorial service i got to thinking about defining forgiveness. once again i had read believers claiming that forgiveness should be given only to those who ask for it. some believers with a lot of calfskin (multi-degreed) hold this view. but my observations are that those who withhold forgiveness only burden themselves and tie burdens onto their souls. immediately after the prayer Jesus teaches that our Father won't forgive us if we don't forgive others. but right before this we ask Father to forgive "us." who am i to ask Father to forgive someone i won't forgive.
what is forgiveness?
i made up my own definition without consulting dictionaries or commentaries so this could be totally wrong.
forgiveness is the relinquishing of my claim to justice.
when i relinquish my claim to justice i turn it over to our Father to handle."

God is good


"Forgiveness is the relinquishing of my claim to justice."

Wow, that's powerful. I'm going to have to chew on that one a bit...


I spend some time teaching about forgiveness in my interpersonal conflict management class each semester. Among the issues we explore I spend time talking about some misconceptions that seem to swirl around the concept. Here they are... what do you think?

1. Forgiveness means to excuse or condone the behavior of the wrongdoer.

2. In forgiving we pass over another's offense and free the offender from consequences.

3. Forgiveness condones wrondoing as if it were blind to a moral dimension.

4. Forgiveness can be offerred by someone other than the person who is the victim.

5. In forgiving we must also forget.

6. Forgiveness is a feeling.

jason taylor

Actually one can be a victim and a perpetrator at the same time. The German people were complicit in the Nazi's evil in that they let their own weaknesses carry them away, but they were victims in the sense that their leaders were far more guilty and often paid far less.

jason taylor

One of the hardest parts of forgiveness is if the wrong is not to yourself but to someone you love for then forgiveness can feel like an act of disloyalty.

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