It’s been called the “Blame Game”. It’s a favorite pass time of politicians everywhere. You know it is coming when a public official (or anyone else, for that matter) starts a faux apology with “I’m sorry if you…” The subtle shifting of the blame from to the recipient of the apology has been elevated to an art form in some political circles. In the real world, however, blame and forgiveness cannot walk hand in hand.
We’ve all heard the expression “I can forgive, but I won’t forget“. What that really translates to is “I’m forgiving you for now, but I reserve the right to un-forgive at some point in the future.” Forgiving without forgetting is not truly forgiving. You cannot sincerely and completely forgive someone if you continue to blame the person for the offense.
To truly forgive a thing, you need to let go of the offense as if it never happened. Obviously, we cannot force ourselves to literally forget a hurtful incident, at least not without a rock and a sharp blow to the head, which is not an advisable strategy. But we can “forget” the offense in that we act and think as if it had never occurred.
There are many different kinds of situations that can lead to a conflict necessitating forgiveness. Oft times, a story has two sides. You are hurt, he is hurt. Out of an incident arose anger and resentment. Each of you is convinced that you are right, but you know deep down that there is enough blame to go around.
In those cases, we still tend to want to affix the blame to the other person. But we cannot completely forgive if we are still clinging to the idea that it was all his fault. Or even mostly his fault. All blame must be released before we can move past a superficial forgiveness to a true and genuine forgiveness.
A good litmus test to check whether or not you are ready and able to forgive without blame is to apologize to the other person. If you can’t bring yourself to apologize for your role, even if you think it was small, you aren’t ready to forgive. A heartfelt apology for your part, coupled with a genuine offer of forgiveness for his part is generally an outward sign of true forgiveness without blame. When that happens, the healing can begin.
There are other times when the actions of the other party are simply indefensible. Sometimes the issue is black and white: you are all right and she is all wrong. In those times it becomes all the more difficult, but even more important, to resist the temptation to fix the blame on the other party.
That is when the “forgive but don’t forget” doctrine seems the most appealing. But that refusal to forget equates to a reservoir of bitterness and distrust. We find ourselves giving lip service to forgiveness, but lying in wait for the offender to slip up again and justify our suspicions.
This point was driven home in the real life situation of Jon and Sheila (not their real life names). 5 years into their marriage, Jon had an affair. It wasn’t a one time thing; it was an on going affair with a woman in his office that went on for months. Eventually Jon got caught. It was devastating to Sheila, who thought that all was well in their marriage. The affair nearly destroyed their marriage then and there. But, with significant assurances from Jon and the support of her friends and family, Sheila made a difficult choice. Despite the damage that his actions had caused to their relationship, Sheila chose to forgive Jon.
Jon repented, truly repented in a way that you seldom see. He never saw the woman again. He quit his job and took another closer to home. They went to counseling. He accepted full blame and did everything he could to make amends. At the time, it looked like they were going to be one of the truly rare couples who overcomes a marital infidelity.
Sheila blamed Jon for the strain on their marriage. How could she not? He was the contemptible adulterer; she was the dutiful wife. As part of Jon’s commitment to fix what he had broken, he changed jobs. With the new job came a significant cut in pay. Money quickly got tight, and Sheila then blamed him for their financial distress. After all, he had been making good money until he screwed it all up by having an affair. She blamed him when their daughter had trouble in school. Surely that, too, was the result of the affair he had carried on three years prior.
Within a few years, everything that went wrong with their family, their home, and their careers was Jon’s fault. Sheila, although she made the right choice in forgiving Jon, held onto the right to blame him for the incident and for everything that followed. Ultimately, it was her bitterness and distrust that doomed the marriage, not the actual affair.
That story is just one of many similar tales that illustrate just how poisonous blame can be to a relationship. Whether you recognize it or not, holding on to blame obstructs your ability to completely forgive. The full extent of the problem may not become evident right away but it will remain, seething beneath the surface, until circumstances create a window to bring it back out again. It will come back around unless you release the blame and move on.
It is a daunting goal to forgive an offense to such a degree that we can let go all blame and allow the incident to lie in the past. If we are able to forgive completely, we need to five the other person tabula raza, a clean slate with no baggage of past indiscretions to cloud our future interactions. Forgiveness means that you look upon the offender as if that person had done no wrong. True forgiveness casts aside blame, recrimination, and guilt until only love remains.
End the blame game: The Choice of Forgiveness Mini-Course