In all the reading that I have been doing on the issue of forgiveness, I have found that there is a lot of confusion and confounding of terms. For instance, though forgiveness and reconciliation are related, they are not the same thing. Forgiveness is primarily an attitude of the heart, and as such it can and often is done unilaterally. If someone has hurt or offended you, you can forgive that person even if you are stranded on a desert island with no means of communicating with anyone. Furthermore, you can forgive that person even if that person has neither repented of the hurtful behavior or in any way acknowledges that they have done anything wrong. Admittedly, forgiveness is easier when a person apologizes and repents, but neither is necessary for forgiveness to occur. Forgiveness is necessary for reconciliation to occur, but it is not the same thing. Reconciliation requires all parties to be involved, and it is hard work. True reconciliation requires that all parties deal with the behaviors and attitudes that caused a relationship rift, and that is a hard thing to do. A certain level of relationship is possible by ignoring the situation, acting like it never occurred, looking past it, etc., but a relationship on those terms is never quite the same as before. Trust erodes, and the even is never really forgotten. At some point, when something similar occurs again, the old feelings and repressed attitudes come up. With true reconciliation, the event is admitted, the hurts are confessed, sorrow is expressed, and repentance occurs. The relationship is never the same, but in a good way. Growth occurs in the individuals involved, and a new level of understanding and trust is established. A better relationship result. This kind of reconciliation does not always occur, but forgiveness can occur in all situations.
Another confounding of terms that I have seen is when forgiveness is confused with absolution. Absolution is a freeing from blame or guilt, a release from the consequences, obligations, or penalties of a wrong inflicted. But forgiving a person for an action does not necessarily mean that that person bears no responsibility for reparations to the injured person. If I loan you my car and you run a red light while texting a friend and get in an accident, I’ll forgive you, but I’ll also expect you to fix my car. Now, there may be a situation in which I may also absolve you of the consequences. Maybe I know that you have you have limited financial resources and that fixing my car will mean that you can’t provide for your family, and so I’ll choose to cover the repairs myself. In this instance both forgiveness and absolution occur together, but they aren’t the same thing. And here’s an important point—if in absolving you of the consequences of the accident and paying for the repairs myself I allow myself to become bitter toward you; in other words, I give you absolution but not forgiveness, I hurt myself and damage the relationship.
I remember a cover of Time magazine many years ago that illustrate the difference between forgiveness and absolution. The picture is of Pope John Paul II visiting Mehmet Ali Agca in prison. Two years prior Ali Agca had shot the pope in an assassination attempt, and now the pope was sitting in a private room with Agca, knee-to-knee and face-to-face, holding his hand—and telling him that he was forgiven. But when the visit was over, the pope went back to the Vatican, and Ali Agca remained in prison. John Paul II had the power to forgive, but absolution was not his to give.
The headline of that January 9, 1984 cover of Time magazine asked, “Why Forgive?” Well, for the next twenty years the pope not only befriended Ali Agca but also his entire family as well. Ali Agca served out his prison sentence; that provided his absolution. And when he was released from prison in 2006, he held a copy of that Time magazine, and he called the pope his friend. Forgiveness had occurred, which helped bring about reconciliation—true friendship. There was a cost to all of it—a cost for forgiveness, a cost for reconciliation, and a cost for absolution, but it resulted in an entire family touched with the good news of the Gospel—and a wonderful witness for all the world to see.