Guilt and Forgiveness

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We began the group discussion looking at how sensitive we are to feeling guilt by exploring a couple of scenarios;

If you received too much change in a shop and kept it without saying anything, how uncomfortable would you feel about this?…

This led to a discussion about guilt in relation to values, moral relativism and context. Levels of guilt depended on whether it was a big store or a local shop and whether the individual cashier was considered.


You shared a friend’s secret, and even though they never found out, do you now take extra extra care when keeping secrets? There was a common consensus with this scenario that people would feel terrible guilt about breaching confidence.

Forgiveness is a helpful relative of guilt and so we spent some time looking at ideas shared about this topic from writers including; C.S Lewis, R.T Kendall, Lewis B. Smedes, Pema Chodron, Corrie ten Boom and a podcast from P’s and G’s church Edinburgh.

Sometimes the news takes an interest when we hear of atrocities and where victims or families of victims say things like:

“The aggressor could be my son and I forgive him.  He was not in his senses.  I am a great believer, I forgive what he did.” (Man whose daughter and son-in-law were shot in a supermarket orphaning their children).

The above man chose to forgive. Forgiveness is not an easy choice. It is tough, challenging, demanding, and is not an easy option because we have to face what happened and be in the painful feelings.

We might hope we would be forgiving in the face of a great offence, or even a small one, but we don’t know how we react or what we would feel inside until something actually happens.

C.S Lewis said “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a good idea-until there is someone we need to forgive.”

Revenge can seem like an attractive option for dealing with the pain. Indeed when we watch TV, films and read books we may be routing for people to get their ‘just desserts’. There is a big difference however between revenge and justice. It is cautioned “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

Lewis B. Smedes says: “Vengeance is a passion to get even. It is a hot desire to give back as much pain as someone gives you. The problem with revenge is that it never gets what it wants; it never evens the score. Fairness never comes. The chain reaction set off by every act of vengeance always takes its unhindered course. It ties both the injured and the injurer to an escalator of pain. Both are stuck on the escalator as long as parity is demanded, and the escalator never stops, never lets anyone off”.

Group members talked about their own experiences of forgiving and the weight it took off them. Some had also reconciled stating however that this can only occur when someone has taken responsibility for the wrong they have done; reconciliation must go hand in hand with truth.

We might be familiar with some very powerful stories of forgiveness, the power seems to be in the release experienced when we forgive. Although when we have been deeply hurt we feel angry and bitter, this can eventually become destructive, the person who suffers most from unforgiveness is us.

It is important to understand what forgiveness is and what it isn’t.

R.T Kendall suggests that forgiveness isn’t approving of what the person has done, or just pretending like it didn’t happen.  It does not mean excusing or justifying what they did and it doesn’t mean reconciling. The other person may be dead so we can’t always reconcile, or they may not be a safe person to be in contact with. But we can forgive.

Forgiveness affects us, not the other person.  Forgiveness is not denying what the other did, or denying the hurt and angry emotions we feel or denying the consequences. Forgiveness is not about forgetting-we may need to remember in order to forgive.  It’s not about ignoring the pain, the wrong or the hurt or taking it less seriously.

Forgiveness is being fully aware of what someone has done and yet still choosing to forgive them. Corrie ten Boom said: “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.”

Forgiveness is a conscious choice to keep no record of wrongs, a desire to keep it quiet. To stop telling the story to everyone. It is often tempting to talk about how outrageous they were and how deeply we feel hurt, forgiveness is a decision to stop doing this.  We recognised that when we hurt it is important to process it and to talk it through. But, resentment, where we literally re sense it, over and over again, feeling the pain with whoever will listen is generally not productive.  Forgiveness desires the idea that the other may forgive themselves. Those being forgiven often struggle to forgive themselves, it can be very difficult to believe someone else can forgive them.

We considered the unforgiveness we hold towards ourselves. When weighed with self-compassion and an understanding that all humans are flawed and have shortcomings this can start to make forgiveness easier than holding standards of perfection with expectations that no one should ever get it wrong. Recognising the common humanity that every one of us messes up sometimes can help us to be more compassionate and forgiving to self and others.

Group members talked about Brene Brown who we have spoken about in the group previously. Guilt, was discussed as a sometimes helpful emotion as it indicates we are doing something wrong, other people may refer to this sense as ‘conviction’ or conscience. Shame takes it all to a personal level, believing that we are wrong in our entirety as a person. Shame is not always helpful.

Forgiveness is a deliberate choice each and every day. It is also a process that can take time to process what happened and how we feel before we are ready and able to forgive.

Pema Chodron said: “My experience with forgiveness is that it sort of comes spontaneously at a certain point and to try to force it it’s not really forgiveness”.

Like boltcutters, forgiveness sets us free from being tied to what someone else did, the first person to feel delight at forgivness is you! You feel release when you choose to release them.

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