What Forgiveness Does Not Do?

Author Gary D. Chapman From Things I wish I’d known before we got married 6 years ago 10020

The passing of time will never remove the barriers but they are removed by sincere apologies and genuine forgiveness. What it really means to forgive? Forgiveness is not a feeling but a decision. It is the decision to offer grace instead of demanding justice.Forgiveness removes the barrier and opens the possibility for the relationship to grow. But before learning to use forgiveness to manage your relationship, you'd better be aware that there are some things that forgiveness cannot do. Hereby, four aspects that forgiveness does not do are introduced as below:


First, forgiveness does not destroy our memory. I have sometimes heard people say, “If you have not forgotten, you have not forgiven.” That statement is untrue. The human brain records every experience, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant. Psychologists have explained the human mind as having two compartments. One is called the conscious mind, and the other, the subconscious mind. The conscious mind is composed of those things that you are conscious of in this moment. For example, I am fully aware that at the moment

I am sitting in a chair. If I choose, I could share with you the sights and sounds that are around me. The subconscious mind houses past experiences that are stored in mental files.

Some data flows freely from the subconscious to the conscious mind. At a given time, we may choose to bring data from the subconscious to the conscious. For example, if you ask me “what did you eat for breakfast?”, I could reach into the subconscious mind and tell you “I had Cheerios with blueberries.” Before you asked the question, I was not consciously thinking of breakfast. But at will, I could retrieve that information.

Other experiences are buried deep in the subconscious and may be difficult to retrieve even with effort. On the other hand, sometimes memories leap from the subconscious to the conscious mind without being requested. This is often true of hurtful memories. Even after you have chosen to pardon their behavior and remove the barrier, the memory of the event may leap back into your conscious mind, and with the memory comes the feeling of hurt and perhaps anger. The memory does not mean that you have not forgiven. It means simply that you are human and remembering a painful experience.

How do we handle these painful memories? My suggestion is that you take them to God and say, “Father, You know what I am remembering and You know the feelings that I have. But I thank You that all of that has been forgiven. Now help me to do something today that will enhance our relationship.” In this prayer, you are affirming the decision to forgive and you are seeking to foster growth in the future.


Second, forgiveness does not remove all the consequences of wrongdoing. For example, a mother has saved money for surgery. Her son steals it and spends it on drugs. If he sincerely apologizes, she can forgive him - but the money is still gone. A father abandons his wife and children. Twenty years later, he comes back to apologize. They can forgive him - but it does not restore the twenty lost years. The husband in anger physically abuses his wife, breaking her jaw. He may sincerely apologize and she may forgive him - but her jaw is still broken.

Forgiveness does not remove all the consequences of wrong behavior.

All of our behavior has consequences. Positive behavior has positive consequences. Negative behavior has negative consequences. Forgiveness does not remove all the consequences of wrong behavior.


Third, forgiveness does not rebuild trust. A husband who had been sexually unfaithful to his wife later broke off the affair and apologized to his wife. She said to me in the counseling office, “I think I have forgiven him, but I don't trust him. That makes me wonder if I have really forgiven him.” The fact is, forgiveness does not automatically restore trust. Trust is that gut-level confidence that someone is a person of integrity. Trust in a relationship is destroyed when one partner is unfaithful. When you do not keep your commitments to me, I lose trust in you. I no longer have the confidence that you will treat me fairly and honestly. How then is trust rebuilt? By changing your behavior and by being trustworthy. Over a period of time, if I see you are doing what you say you will do and being open and aboveboard in all of our dealings, I come again to trust you.

When I am counseling a couple in which one of them has been sexually unfaithful and is now seeking to rebuild a marriage, I recommend, after a sincere apology and forgiveness, that the offending party give the spouse permission to examine every area of life. That means that the checkbook, the computer, the iPhone, and all other sources of information are available for the spouse’s examination. With this action you are saying, “I have nothing to hide; I have truly changed my behavior, and I want to be worthy of your trust again.” With this attitude of openness and a consistent pattern of honesty, trust can be restored. Thus, forgiveness does not automatically restore trust, but forgiveness does open the door to the possibility that trust can be regained.


Fourth, forgiveness does not always result in reconciliation. The word reconciliation means “to bring back to harmony." Reconciliation requires working through differences, finding new ways of doing things, solving the conflicts of the past, and learning how to work together as a team. How long does it take to be reconciled? That depends largely on how long the two of you have been out of harmony. For some, it may only take hours; for others, it may take months. For some, it will require the help of a professional counselor because the two of them do not have the skills to rebuild their relationship. What I am saying is that forgiveness does not automatically bring harmony in the relationship. However, it does open the possibility of reconciliation.

I began this chapter by saying that forgiveness is the only healthy response to an apology. If we choose not to forgive, then the barrier remains and the relationship is estranged. Time alone will not heal the relationship. Healing requires the decision to forgive. And forgiveness opens the door to the possibility of growth.


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