This is the fourth in a series about forgiveness. Click here to read the first post in the series.
I want to take a moment to discuss various types of offenses. One thing that has been very difficult for me as I struggled to forgive, was the many well-meaning people who advised me to be more loving and more forgiving. We do have to be loving and forgiving, of course, so they advice wasn’t wrong in and of itself. However, I would try to explain that I have forgiven my family. I understand their wounds and dysfunctions, I don’t hate them, I love them, I have compassion toward them, I grieve over the loss of relationship, I do not hold their wrongs against them, and I pray for them often. Yet, there is a block in our relationship because while there are offenses I have let go, there are also things I remain firm on and will not surrender. I never could explain what the block was, why I felt that some things must be released, while other things must not. So I think it appeared that I hadn’t forgiven.
I think now I can put it into words. Maybe.
I think that most people assume that every sin/offense is equal, and they all must be surrendered and forgiven. I do not believe this is so. I believe there are real and imagined wrongs, and there are offences vs. expectations.
What is the difference?
A real offense is an actual wrong that is actually committed. It’s actually saying or doing something that wrongs another person. It can be deliberate or accidental, but it is still a wrong. When we commit a real offense we need to repent of it, confess it, and seek to change.
An imagined offense is something a person believes is a real offense, but it’s based on misunderstanding, incomplete facts, dysfunctional belief, or even a deliberate lie. Some examples are: a person might feel hurt because she wasn’t invited to a friend’s party when, in fact, she was accidentally overlooked or the invitation got lost in the mail. Or a person raised in a family where silence was used as an emotional weapon might believe that a friend’s silence means “punishment” when in reality the friend just doesn’t have anything to say. Or a person might accuse another of prejudice when actually the person is just shy and quiet.
Like imagined offenses, expectations are not true offenses but can be seen as an offense. People often feel upset for others for not living up to their expectations. Usually the expectations are unrealistic, and not within a person’s power to control or affect. An expectation usually involves a person not making the choices we wanted them to make. It can range from being upset because a person married someone we didn’t want them to marry, they didn’t choose the career we thought they should, they didn’t visit today, or they didn’t take our advice. In reality, people don’t have to meet our expectations, but we unrealistically get upset because they didn’t. While we can be sensitive toward others, and we must not selfishly use our freedom to please only ourselves, we cannot meet all the expectations others place on us. Besides the fact that it’s physically impossible–we cannot please everyone all the time no matter how hard we try–to attempt to try is unhealthy and enslaving. Only a slave must obey every command given to him or be punished. A healthy mature adult has the freedom to make decisions for himself.
When we commit a real offense, we need to be repentant, to confess it, to ask for forgiveness, to make necessary amends, and to change our behavior. We can apologize for the pain caused by imaginary offenses but we don’t have to change behaviors because the offense was not real. It was based on a wrong perspective, not the truth. We also do not need to change behaviors because of others’ expectations.
In my life, I have forgiven my Mom and family for real and imagined offenses. I’m truly sorry for any pain I’ve caused my family, and I absolutely forgive them for any pain they have caused me. I understand that at one time or another, we all do or say hurtful things, we all don’t do things we should have done, or do things we we ought NOT to have done. We all need to forgive and be forgiven.
However, one of the major problems in our relationship is that the unrealistic expectations continue, and this is a line that I cannot allow to be crossed. It doesn’t matter if my family dislikes my husband, the way I decorate my home, the number of pets I have, the fact that I homeschool my son, the ways I spend my time, our purchase of an RV, or whatever other expectation I don’t fulfill. The truth of the matter is that those are not their choices to make, and if I give them control of these decisions, I am not an adult, I am a child still expected to obey Mommy or I a slave with no right to make decisions. I will not divorce my much-loved husband because they don’t like him, I will not let them decorate my home to their tastes, I won’t get rid of my pets, I will not stop homeschooling, I won’t allow them to schedule my time or pre-approve my purchases. While I will be sensitive to their needs, I will not let them tell me what to say or write, or who I talk to or friend on Facebook.
There is a sense in which we must forgive people for not living up to our expectations. Our forgiveness of them does not mean that they must repent of making their own decisions and then try to fulfill our every expectation. Instead, it requires that we let go of expecting them to. We set them free of our unrealistic expectations. We allow them to make their choices without our prior approval. We stop getting upset because they did things differently. That’s what healthy, mature relationships are all about. We let people be who they are without trying to force them to be what we want them to be.