Editor's Picks

16 July 2009


By Ahmad Shawqi

One of the best gifts that we can offer ourselves is forgiveness: forgiving anyone who might have wronged us (according to our perception), and forgiving ourselves for our own shortcomings, and not continually beat up the drums of our "failures" in our mind and simply concentrating our efforts on doing the good.

Personally, I embrace true forgiveness, and I encourage others to embrace it. However, in my teaching, I found that many misconceptions about what true forgiveness is abound. Below are some of my thoughts about true forgiveness.

Does Not Mean Condoning

Forgiving someone for his transgressions against you does not mean you condone the transgressions.

For example, if I steal something from you and you later decide to forgive me, what that means is that you chose forgiveness. It does not mean that stealing is OK. It is still wrong.

Not an Invitation to Repeat

When you forgive someone, you are not giving them a carte-blanche to repeat the same mistake.

For example: if a husband beats his wife and later she decides to forgive him and resume their married life, that does not mean that he can repeat the same mistake and expect that she should forgive him again.

Is Not Forgetting

I found this to be the most common misconception. Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting. Simply advocating forgetting the mistakes of the past is pseudo-forgiveness at best.

People who practice that are typically repressing or avoidinglooking at the reality of the matter. I found such people to be really unforgiving: they get easily upset, and their bodies typically manifest some form of disease.

Similarly, you can know that you have forgiven someone from your past if you can remember the event without any stressful reaction. You remember it because it did happen. ‎

There is no power in denying that what happened did happen. The power is inlovingly remembering it, seeing what happened with different understanding(than the one that caused your hurt) and more compassion for yourself and for the people involved.

There are always many lessons to learn in whatever happens to us in our lives. So we can actually end up rejoicing all our past events. This may be tough for some of us, so if you can't be happy for what happened in your life,you can at least be free of any negative emotions associated with it.

In my experience, people who believe that forgiveness means forgetting are never free from the negative sting of their past.

You Can Still Move On

An example: You were in a business relationship and someone cheated you. The fact that you decide to forgive them does not mean you have to remain in business with them.

You can forgive them and never do business with themagain. That decision does not mean you are still angry with them or
that you have not forgiven them. You have forgiven them and decided not to have a relationship with them.

I deal with this theme over and over especially within the context of family relationships and it is a bit difficult for people. They feel guilty to think that the best way to deal with a family member is to love them from a distance. But sometimes it could be the best thing for you and for them.

A mother was confused about dealing with her brother whom she found mistreating her young girl. "Won't I be cutting the ties of kinship?", "What is my family going to say?", "How can I explain it to people?" were some of her questions.

Obviously, there are many ways to deal with this issue, but the point I want to make here that this mother can forgive her brother and still take measures to protect her daughter (even if one of the measures is to temporarily prevent the brother from visiting her).

Another example that could also explain what I mean by "forgive and still move on": a friend of mine has a father who lies a lot, and what bothered my friend more was that his father would swear by God that what he said was true. He would swear by God to do something and shortly after swear by God that he didn't say he would.

My friend was very frustrated narrating this. What I told my friend was:
(1) The main source of your frustration is your expectation that he would not lie, when — according to you — you had a life-long evidence that him lying is more likely than him keeping his word.
(2) You can forgive your father and choose never to believe or to depend on his words again. And that is not being disrespectful to your father. For me, it is actually a loving acceptance. ‎

In short, my message to my friend was "forgive and move on", which in this case,meant moving on in his mind and stop arguing with reality. He doesn't have to boycott his father or disown him. He just needs to heal himself so that he can keep his peace no matter what his father says or does.True forgiveness does that.

Not for the Other's Sake

"Why do I have to forgive him/her?"
"Because you need to and you would love it when you do! You are forgiving ‎him/her for your own sake."

The main beneficiary of your forgiving another is you, and the one suffering the most from your non-forgiving others is you. You are not forgiving them for their sake; you are doing it for your own sake.

Sometimes you find someone who is angry at people who passed a long time ago. Who is the one suffering from that anger?
One time I met a woman who was angry at her husband because he divorced her.When I asked when the divorce happened, she replied "A little bit over three years ago."

I was shocked. I initially assumed the divorce was very recent (may be 3 days ago!) by the way she was talking. It turned out that her ex-husband had re-married(obviously moving on with his life) and that really triggered her past-anger that she hadn't dealt with.

The main reason for you to forgive should be your own well-being, and then the well-being of those around you (especially children if you have any) if you care about them.

Bearing the Consequences of Transgression

This is a bit tough for some, especially Muslims, so let me explain by an example of the Quran: the story of Prophet Yusuf (or Joseph, peace be upon him), and his brothers.

I find that the most quoted part of the story is verse 92 when he said,

[ (There shallbe) no reproof against you this day; May Allah forgive you, and He is the Most ‎Merciful of those who show mercy.] (Yusuf 12:92)

I also found that many Muslims overlook the following:

- He wasn't (personally) angry at them

- He recognized them the moment he saw them although they didn't recognize him as mentioned in verse 58 of the same chapter:

[And Joseph's brethren came and presented themselves before him, and he knew them but they knew him not.] (Yusuf 12:58).

-It wasn't forgiveness at first sight. Assuming he was angry (which I don't believe he was) and that forgiveness was called for, why he didn't declare his forgiveness when he first saw them?

Another important question is; why did he let his brothers suffer? We learn from the story how he made them return to Palestine and bring his brother Ben-Yemin to Egypt with them, then how he made the plan to keep his brother in Egypt with him, then how he let them return and face their father: Prophet Jacob (peace be upon him).

You can forgive people and still let them bear the consequences of their transgression. Forgiving the transgressor does not automatically mean absolving the transgressor of his responsibilities. Forgiveness is mostly an inside-job.‎ If you can't be happy for what happened in your life, ‎you can at least be free of any negative emotions associated with it.
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