Some of the women that Larry Nasser abused forgave him, but that doesn’t mean he should get out of prison. Same for JPII’s would-be assassin. Forgiveness is not pardon. Nor is it condoning, forgetting, reconciliation, and it’s definitely not easy.
On May 13, 1981, Pope John Paul II was nearly assassinated in St. Peter’s square. Mehmet Ali Agca shot the Pope four times at point-blank range, nearly killing him (in fact, he later was shocked the Pope didn’t die, only a miracle could have saved him).
Later, the Pope visited his would-be assassin in prison and forgave him. But one thing the Pope didn’t do was pardon him or ask the Italian government for his release. As Pope, he could’ve done that, and in fact did later in the year 2000, when the Italian government did in fact release him to Turkey instead of making him serve the rest of his life sentence.
Which brings us to our first example of what forgiveness is not: forgiveness is not pardon.
Forgiveness is not pardon
For forgiveness to be real, it includes recognizing that what was done to you was wrong, and that you have a right to retaliation. Justice demands some sort of reparation for the wrong done to you. And in the midst of that, you choose to let go for the debt you’re owed from the person who hurt you. That’s forgiveness.
Their actions towards you also have other consequences. They harm society as a whole, and the offender as a person is also harmed by them. Sin always hurts the one committing it, maybe not visibly or immediately or perceptibly, but it does.
The Pope forgave Agca, holding nothing personally against him. But the Pope also recognized that Agca’s actions had further consequence, and serving time in prison related to those consequences. Pardoning Agca would have meant he wished to eliminate those consequences, to hand-wave them away. But he knew that was a bad idea.
You see, Agca had been a killer before, earlier in the 70’s, and upon his release to Turkey he was imprisoned for that murder. Someone who is a killer doesn’t heal overnight; asking for his pardon and release from prison likely would’ve been dangerous.
Someone might steal your car and you forgive them, but also want them to return your car and possibly serve prison time. Forgiveness is not pardon.
Larry Nasser sexually abused dozens of gymnasts, some of whom have forgiven him, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t serve jail time. Forgiveness is not pardon.
Forgiveness is not condoning
Condoning says that some kind of immoral behavior is actually okay. Forgiveness isn’t condoning either. Condoning would say that Nasser’s actions actually weren’t wrong, or that Agca was justified in trying to kill the Pope. No, those actions were wrong.
Forgiveness includes recognizing the wrong done to you, the fact that you have a right to your anger, and releasing them of that debt. Condoning eliminates the first step entirely, but claiming that the wrong done to you was actually right. But if it was right, then you don’t have a right to your anger, and there’s nothing you can forgive.
That’s a destructive view: you definitely have anger, and you definitely have a right to it, but if you’re told that you don’t, now there’s a conflict. I’m told I don’t have a right to my anger, but I have it so strongly, you might think. That’s a lie that comes from condoning.
Condoning might seem like an easy way out: if I say their action was wrong, I have to face that they did something terrible. But if I condone and say their action wasn’t wrong, I don’t have to face that. But ultimately, forgiveness was satisfy (maybe not immediately, maybe not quickly), but condoning never will.
Forgiveness is not forgetting
“Forgive and forget” is stupid advice. The two things are vastly different. Depending on the severity of the trauma, you might never forget, despite having forgiven them. And that’s okay. (for smaller everyday things, perhaps you will forget about them, perhaps you won’t)
Now, it’s entirely possible that forgiving a deep hurt may eventually lead to that hurt having less and less power over you, and eventually forgetting about it partially or entirely. I have no idea how likely that is. But I don’t think that’s something we should expect.
Forgetting, in a way, is denying that what was done to you was hurtful. Someone saying “just forget about it and move on” says the same thing: ignore the hurt and move on. Which doesn’t work at all: moving on requires acknowledging the hurt, bringing it to God, and allowing Him to heal it. Acknowledging is the opposite of forgetting.
Forgiveness is not reconciliation
Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you’ll be buddy-buddy with them. As I mentioned before, forgiveness starts with recognizing a hurt done to you and your right to have reparations made to you. You have a right to your anger, you have a right to justice being done. They owe a debt to you.
Forgiveness means absolving them of the debt to you. For those of you who are Christian, your motive for that is likely Jesus. “Jesus, I know I’ve been hurt and I have a right to the pain I feel. I desire retaliation and I’m justified in desiring that. Yet for your sake, I release them of that debt to me. I forgive them.” And through that forgiveness, He begins to heal you.
Notice that forgiveness doesn’t require anything of the other person. It only requires your choice (and Jesus). If the other person doesn’t admit their wrong, or ask for forgiveness, you can still forgive them. In fact, if you’re waiting for them to ask for your forgiveness, you might be waiting forever (especially in cases of abuse, very very rarely will the abuser think they’ve done something wrong, instead they think they’ve acted rightly and think you’re making a big deal out of nothing; they’re wrong on that, 100%).
What reconciliation is
Reconciliation, on the other hand, requires both parties. Reconciliation requires your forgiveness, and their admitting of wrong, and both of you to desire to restore the relationship.
So if the other person doesn’t admit they’ve done wrong, reconciliation is impossible.
If they admit they’ve done wrong, but one of you doesn’t want to restore the relationship, then reconciliation won’t happen either. Let’s say it’s a case of domestic violence and the abused party flees, and later the abuser insists that “he’s changed” but she’s doubtful. It’s totally fine for her to insist they don’t come back together right now (or even) until there’s evidence he’s actually changed.
Forgiving someone doesn’t mean the relationship will be restored. It might, but it might not. And you’re not a bad person if you don’t want it restored, especially in cases of abuse. You can do what you can to let go of the hurt by forgiving them, and simultaneously desire to never see them again or see them behind bars where they can never do that to anyone else.
Reconciliation (or lack thereof), Nasser vs JPII
The women that Larry Nasser abused probably will never reconcile with him, and that’s okay. Even if they’ve forgiven him, he’d have to admit wrongdoing, which I doubt will happen. And even then, these women will have to want to restore the relationship, which would be way above and beyond the expectations. Jesus commands us to forgive, but He doesn’t command us to reconcile or to put ourselves in situations where we’ll be hurt again.
JPII forgave Agca but didn’t not pardon him, leaving him in prison, though still staying in contact. Eventually, he pardoned him and even reconciled: Agca made it to JPII’s canonization. Did the Pope have to do this? No. He chose to, and Agca responded well. Agca might have responded poorly and rejected it: JPII didn’t have control of that.
Jesus forgave his crucifiers: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Were they reconciled? If they sought His forgiveness. (which is an interesting answer to the question “if Jesus died to forgive our sins, why doesn’t everyone go to heaven?”, because forgiveness (from Jesus’ side of things) doesn’t automatically mean reconciliation (which requires us to receive that forgiveness)).
Forgiveness is not easy (and doesn’t feel easy either)
Acknowledging that someone wronged you is hard. Acknowledging the hurt they caused you and the right you have to retaliation is hard. Choosing to forgive them of that debt to you is even harder. But ultimately it leads to healing.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean you’ll feel different right away, or ever. Forgiveness isn’t about feelings, it’s about your will. If you choose to forgive but don’t feel like you have, that doesn’t matter: you chose to forgive.
Now, later in life, more hurts may surface. That doesn’t mean your first forgiving of them was bad, it just means that now in life, you’ve gone deeper. Before, you forgive of X hurts you acknowledge. Now, perhaps you see that they hurt you even deeper with Y and Z hurts, that you didn’t see before. Now is the time to forgive for those. Your first forgiveness wasn’t flawed, you just didn’t see everything yet.
Forgiveness can be an everyday thing (I’ve heard marriage defined as two people who get really good at forgiving each other), or a big-deal thing. Both are needed. Think of one instance, big or small, of someone you need to forgive or someone you’d like to forgive. And do something about it today.
P.S. Be a hero today