Forgiveness: A Three Headed Beast


Forgiveness is touted as a route to healing, but I didn’t think much about it until I had been dealt the emotional equivalent of a gunshot to the chest. The best time to search for a doctor is not when you’re lying on the ground bleeding, but like everyone else, I had to play the hand I was dealt.


Two years ago, we learned that my wife’s father was guilty of molesting his son, and her mother had kept it hidden from us. My wife and I reacted to this onslaught in opposite ways: she made a strategic withdrawal into her faith to regroup, but when I tried to do the same, I found that my faith had fled the scene of the crime. I was forced to come up with another strategy on the spot. So it goes.

When I’m emotionally wounded, my mind produces bitterness, snark, and sarcasm as antibodies, and it rose to the task. Rather than risk having these feelings poison my family, I instead directed it anonymously at the Internet, and the result was this blog. It helped, although I was left with a nagging question:

What is forgiveness? And more specifically, what does it look like for me in this situation?
Well, when we talk about a word as loaded with baggage as forgiveness, we must first turn to the source of all Truth on these matters.

I’m referring, of course, to dictionary.com. After looking at definitions for forgive, pardon, and absolve, I came up with three definitions that I’d like to take a look at.

1. to give up all claim on account of; remit (a debt, obligation, etc.).
2. to cease to feel resentment against
3. to free from guilt or blame or their consequences.

Remitting a Debt

It’s interesting that forgiveness applies to debts, because I’ve viewed it this way before. In the past, when friends have wronged me, I’ve looked at it from a point of view of credit and debt. Over the course of our friendship, how much “credit” has the person earned by being a good friend? How much debt have they incurred by wronging me? I’m not talking about actual numbers, just a rough idea of a ratio. If the person exhausts their credit, it might be time to cut them loose (lest you think me heartless, this has happened precisely once in my entire life. The last straw was when the person in question took advantage of one of my wife’s friends).

Can this be applied to my in-laws? They’ve helped us financially in the past. They’ve helped us move. They let us live with them free of charge once. They rented us a house for only the cost of the mortgage.

On the other hand, they refuse to tell the church my father-in-law pastors about the molestation. They refuse to get professional counseling (they had some brief “biblical counseling” with a pastor a couple of years ago when all this came to light, but that’s it). And my mother-in-law insists that she prayed about whether she should tell us what happened and God totally gave her a thumbs up.

Let’s look back further: my wife grew up in an abusive home. She witnessed her parents inflict physical violence on each other. Her and her siblings experienced physical and verbal abuse. And since she grew up as a pastor’s kid, she had the additional trauma of knowing her father would always pick his ministry before his family.

Hmm... so a pretty generous amount of credit, but a truckload of toxic debt. But, of course, the situation is complicated by the fact that these are my wife’s parents, and my children’s grandparents. They’re not some deadbeat friend who can be cut from our lives with few consequences.

To No Longer Feel Resentment

I haven’t ceased to feel resentment against my in-laws. Why should I? They blame my brother-in-law for the sexual abuse. They’ve said they’re sorry, of course, but with no substantive change in their lives, this rings hollow. It’s lip service to repentance without any real intention of change.

It could be argued that I should cease to feel resentment for my own good. This is a fair point, but we’re not talking about some simple binary switch that can be flipped. It’s a process, and to be honest, it’s not a process that I would have much interest in, except that I know that my feelings of resentment hurt my wife.

If I think about it rationally, I know that my father-in-law was molested when he was younger. I know that talking about such things, let alone getting counseling about it, wasn’t encouraged in those days. I know that he’s been in a legalistic, toxic church environment most of his life, and can’t get it out of it because he’s so dependent on it for his identity, and probably because of the sense of forgiveness and redemption it gives him. I know that he’s a broken, messed up person, just like I am.

The thing is, I don’t really feel resentment for what he did to his son any more. I resent the fact that he doesn’t see the need for change. I resent his pride and arrogance. I resent that he thinks a few half hearted apologies should mean that everything should just go back to normal, and that my wife is the one with the problem because she’s making a big deal out of this. I resent how he and his wife use the Bible to defend his actions. I resent that they see no value in professional counseling.

And I won’t apologize for that. But for the sake of my family, I’ll try to work through it.

To Free From Guilt

Here’s the problem I’m facing (and I suspect it’s the problem in many situations involving forgiveness). The wronged party (us) is looking for the kind of forgiveness I already mentioned: ceasing to feel resentment. The party in the wrong (my in-laws) wants that too, but is more interested in being released from guilt.

That’s the kind of forgiveness that is easy to give in less traumatic situations: we forgive people for being late, for forgetting things, for losing their temper, for any number of things.

But I can’t  release them from any guilt that they feel, and wouldn’t even if I could, because they should feel guilty.

And I won’t apologize for that either.

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