Forgiveness is a balancing act including both love and courage. This balancing act quickly can get out of balance, confusing the forgiver, stopping the forgiveness process, and leading to unnecessary criticism against the virtue itself. Let me illustrate with four points.
First, when people forgive, they offer goodness of some kind to the one who was not good to them. This can include patience, kindness, respect, and even love. The highest form of forgiving involves love in the sense of having a willingness to help the one who offended, to help the person bring out the best-self. This kind of love serves others.
Second, as people think about this kind of love, they can distort its meaning and purpose, with the result of rejecting forgiveness as an option. Here is one example: A woman who was raped, who expressed an interest in forgiving, reacted in anger when the definition of forgiveness was brought up. “I am not going to love that man!” was her definitive statement. When it was explained that loving another is the highest form of forgiving, but forgivers sometimes cannot or will not go there, she calmed and listened. Expressing kindness or patience is what the forgiver can offer now and this is perfectly legitimate. One need not reach the highest peaks of any virtue to practice it. If one is not perfectly fair with others when tired or frustrated, this does not mean that the person is a degenerate, devoid of fairness. It is the same with forgiving. Yet, one needs to retain a sense of this highest appropriation of forgiving, that is, loving others, because it may prove useful in the future. For example, suppose your 18-year-old son stole valuable property, was arrested, and now there are legal challenges and shame from whispering neighbors. Would you not want to have love in your forgiveness repertoire under this circumstance? Would you not want to offer service love to your child? Love as part of the forgiveness equation needs to be there.
Third, as one forgives, the person needs to resist the tendency to “just let bygones be bygones,” “let’s just let this go,” A forgiver needs to balance the mercy of the forgiveness offer with the tough-mindedness of achieving justice. To forgive is not necessarily the end of the forgiveness journey if one is the object of unfair treatment. Standing up for one’s rights, or justice-seeking, needs to accompany forgiveness. This justice-seeking is not part of forgiveness, but should accompany it. There needs to be a balance of forgiveness and justice and the use of courage can help keep these two in balance so that the “giving in” does not happen. Courage leads the forgiver to know that the unfairness must end. Courage impels one toward action to right the wrong.
Fourth, one needs to be careful not to let courage itself dominate the process. Courage without the gentleness of compassionate forgiveness may lead to a justice-seeking that gets extreme. The anger left over from the offense may lead to trying for that “pound of flesh” made famous in a Shakespearian play. Courage by itself surely can help one to stand, and to stand strongly, in the face of annoyance and even cruelty, but it can become reckless if left to itself. Forgiving helps us stand with wisdom, knowing the measured response to another who behaves badly.
Forgiveness, love, and courage: they are a team in need of one another so that the forgiving can come out right.