What Forgiveness Is (and What it is Not)

The dictionary defines forgiveness as:

(to) stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake.

But that doesn’t even come close to capturing the strong emotion and indignant protest that the term often evokes.

For forgiveness to even be a concern, it means that you have been hurt. Perhaps badly. Wronged. Perhaps repeatedly and intentionally. And it feels erroneous to forgive. Unfair. As though we were victimized once and are now being asked to do it again as we offer an olive branch of amnesty instead of sticking that branch where the sun don’t shine.

But don’t worry.

I’m not asking you to forgive.

I’m simply asking you to reconsider what it means to forgive.

And what you do with that is up to you.

Forgiveness is … freedom.

When we hold on to anger or resentment, it binds us to the past. It allows what happened to us to define us and limits our future. Forgiveness is freedom; it is the release from the shackles that anchor you. It is a lightness. A sense of peace.

Forgiveness is not … a pardon.

Forgiveness does not mean that you give someone a free pass. The choices that your assailant made are his or her own burden. When you forgive, you do not relieve them of their liability; you release your encumbrance.


Forgiveness is … acceptance.

It’s natural to turn away from pain. It’s normal to try to rationalize and minimize the bad that has happened to us. Forgiveness requires facing the truth. Seeing the truth. And accepting the truth.

Forgiveness is not … approval.

Accepting what happened does not come with a stamp of approval. You can forgive even while you renounce the choices that were made and the actions that were carried out.


Forgiveness is … acknowledgement.

Forgiveness means that you recognize what happened. You face the reality and address the fallout. You don’t deny the impact and you acknowledge the suffering.

Forgiveness is not … allowance.

You do not have to allow the suffering to continue in order to forgive. You can forgive someone and still remove them your life. You do not have to allow the pain to continue.


Forgiveness is … independent.

Forgiveness requires no one other than yourself. You possess everything you need to forgive the one who wronged you.

Forgiveness is not … dependent upon apology.

Your abuser may never offer condolences. Don’t make the mistake of attaching your well-being to something you cannot control. You can forgive even if the desired apology never comes. Here’s how.


Forgiveness is … letting go.

Quitting is out of fear. Letting go is born from acceptance. Forgiveness is choosing to let go of the anger. Of the resentment. Of the need for retribution and revenge.

Forgiveness is not … letting them off the hook.

Letting go of the anger does not mean you relieve them of any consequence. You can forgive and still file a police report. You can forgive and still allow bad decisions to catch up. You can forgive and let karma take care of the rest.


Forgiveness is … taking responsibility.

Forgiveness is taking responsibility for your own happiness. It is refusing to stay a victim and making the effort to regain confidence and control in your own life.

Forgiveness is not … assuming culpability.

There is a difference between taking responsibility for your own actions and taking the blame for someone else’s. When you forgive, you are not assuming the culpability for your assailant’s actions. That’s on them. And how you choose to respond is on you.


Forgiveness is … reached when you are ready.

Forgiveness comes in slowly. It seems impossible until one day, it’s not. It is a process, not a switch.

Forgiveness is not … performed upon demand.

“Will you forgive me?” never works. It comes from a place of assuaging guilt whereas forgiveness comes from within as a means of releasing anguish.


Forgiveness is … quiet agreement.

You can forgive and never tell a soul. Forgiveness is for you. It is an agreement you make with yourself and chose to carry out in your thoughts and actions.

Forgiveness is not … a public announcement.

Forgiveness can exist in silence. It can be found in avoidance. You have no obligation to tell the person who wronged you that you have found peace.


Forgiveness is … a personal choice.

Forgiveness is a option. One choice of many. You may decide to take that route now. Or maybe it waits until later or later never comes. It’s one of the few things you can control about what happened to you.

Forgiveness is not … a requirement.

You do not have to forgive. Many never do and find another way to continue on. Shrug off the “shoulds” and listen to what you want for you.


Forgiveness is … transforming the future.

Forgiveness is not … changing the past.

Forgiveness is a gift to yourself rather than an offering to your assailant.

And it’s a gift you have to procure for yourself.

Want to forgive and not sure how? Read Forgiveness 101. 

Want another perspective? Read When You Shouldn’t Forgive.

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15 thoughts on “What Forgiveness Is (and What it is Not)

  1. I’m sorry but I could not disagree more. Forgiveness is wiping the slate clean and absolving them of the wrong. It disentitles you to ever feel hurt again. It gives a free pass. It puts yet another burden on the victim.

    I agree it is never a requirement because of those things. It is not acceptance, acceptance is enough, forgiveness is an optional extra. Acceptance frees you, forgiveness is a burden.

    Most strongly forgiveness in the absence of remorse is letting them off the hook. It’s a false dichotomy with anger. You can be angry at having to forgive!

    Forgives happens or not, bit by bit, mostly unconsciously and needs an environment of reparation and remorse. All that you need to move on is Acceptance. That’s why I like Janis Spring’s later book “how can I forgive you?” Because she recognises how inadequate a concept forgiveness is, even another stick to beat the victim with.

    1. One of the things I love about this topic is the conversation it stimulates.

      Ultimately, we do what works for us. For me, acceptance didn’t free me of the anger and I wasn’t going to get any remorse, so I had to figure out a way that I could find peace that wasn’t dependent upon him at all.

      And as for the hook, I let go of the need to impale him. If he hasn’t changed, he’ll do just fine with that on his own!:)

      1. My term for dealing with the unremorsedul scoundrel (in my case my father), is “writing off”. It’s not lost on me that in finance this is often called “debt forgiveness” but I think there is a distinction. Writing off means you stop pursuing it, it doesn’t mean they don’t owe it. And a business that has written off debts that are unrecoverable to get them off the ledger will still sue if they find out the debtor won the lottery and is within the statute of limitations. True debt forgiveness is irrevocable and really does let them off the hook, it releases the obligation. So I prefer just writing off bad people. Not forgiving 🙂

  2. Amazing post and so true :-). Forgiveness IS a choice and sometimes it’s a choice you have to make every day until the bitterness that takes hold in your heart is gone. It is so liberating.

  3. Everyone has different views on this topic. Forgiveness requires remorse, true and heartfelt remorse. I do not forgive those people who have done me wrong, whether in personal relationships or through violence. I do not owe them my forgiveness, if they believe in a God, let them seek forgiveness there. I am whole and complete without offering forgiveness, even inside of myself. How I am whole and complete is through acceptance of the world, my world as it is now. Letting go of bitterness, letting go of my pain and seeking new avenues to live fully in the world I have. This does not require I forgive, only that I cut away the dead parts.

  4. People really do have a hard time understanding what it really means to forgive someone.
    My parents are both bullies. I blamed them for years. Finally I was able to seem them as just another flawed hurt human like myself.
    I was able to forgive them…doesn’t mean what he did was right. Doesn’t mean I allow the same abuse to continue in the future.
    It does mean that I no longer have to hold on to the pain it caused me up till that point.

    1. Accepting the flaw to me is huge – it shifts from anger to something more like pity. I choose to see my ex as hurt, damaged, and fearful. Accurate? Who knows, but it if I can see him as flawed and doing the best he can with the tools he had, it brings me peace.

      Must have been so hard to grow up with bullies for parents. Glad you’ve found a way to not let that hold you back:)

  5. I have a really hard time with this forgiveness thing. I do not hold resentment for my ex, I don’t seek revenge or wish him ill will. I don’t care what he is doing or who he is doing it with. I do not consider myself a victim (any more) but i was a victim of his abuse but i am also a survivor of his abuse and the rest of my life is my own responsibility, in fact because of his abuse I have found an inner peace i probably never would have found otherwise, because it forced me to do some major soul searching and it took me in a direction with my career i never would have gone otherwise. i still don’t forgive him.
    He doesn’t want my forgiveness, he is an evil, cruel, vindictive man who i forgave many many times.
    I have accepted what happened and don’t dwell on it, I don’t habor anger, or thoughts of revenge, I moved on. i don’t even know how I could forgive him, I don’t see the need.
    If i were to “forgive” him, what does the mean if he were to contact me? or if I run into him on the street? That i would stop and have a chat with him? not on your life! make small talk? with a man that tried his hardest to destroy me? nope. If he showed up at my door starving and homeless I should take him in? not going to happen. He could die on my step for all I care. That my sound cold hearted, or unforgiving of me but i have taken the man in and he stole from me and used my good nature, he was lying the whole time.
    Forgiveness to me means that there would be some sort of truce or acceptance of him as a person, I do not approve of how he lives his life and I think he is the scum of the earth. i leave it in God’s hands to deal with him.
    But if i feel that strongly about him, how could i forgive him?
    i think i am missing something still.

    1. Interesting question – “if i feel that strongly about him, how could i forgive him?” Definitely more to think about.

      I’ve also wondered about the “show up on my doorstep” idea. I think I would treat him as a stranger (which he is) and respond to his words/actions at the time rather than his past. But who really knows???

      Thanks for giving me more to think about:)

  6. Lisa, I have appreciated finding your blog. Thank you for your humility and for sharing your truth. For me, this journey has been unbearably long. So much longer than I ever could have imaged. I forgave too quickly. (And frankly, that mistake really screwed me over.) I was confused as to what forgiveness actually is–and as you pointed out, it cannot be doled out on demand. In my experience, if forgiveness is bestowed due to pressure of any kind, be it from the offender or an outside influence, it can hinder true forgiveness. In other words, trust the process. Be patient with yourself–even if no one else is.

  7. Lisa, it is refreshing to see other women that do not believe in the concept of forgiveness. I also believe that I am whole and complete even though I have never forgiven my ex for what he did and what he continues to do. In fact I deeply resent the term forgiveness. It doesn’t belong in the divorce community at all. We need to find a better word than forgiveness. And we need to let women remain angry if they choose…in some circumstances anger can mean survival.

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