Sunday, June 30, 2013

Forgiveness versus Acceptance: What is the Difference?

I find forgiveness to be fascinating, as it is a two-sided principle: we are required to forgive, as well as seek forgiveness. However, in contemplating this idea, I wonder if we tend to oversimplify the notion of how Christ defined forgiveness. That leads to my question: what is the difference between forgiveness and acceptance? Or is it the same thing? I am inclined to think that Christianity has expanded the definition of forgiveness to an even greater principle: acceptance. Let me explain.

Merriam-Webster defines forgiveness as "to give up resentment of or claim to requital for" or "to grant relief from payment." However, Christ seems to have taught that forgiveness is more than an action of ceasing to resent another. Rather, I think that Christ is teaching a pattern of behavior. When he teaches Peter to forgive someone "seventy times seven," Jesus seems to be teaching not to merely forgive someone a myriad of times, but to continually accept that person for who he or she is, despite their inherent flaws. This point seems to be reiterated when Christ says that when a man asks you to walk a mile with him, "to go with him twain." Indeed, Christ pleads for us to work toward acceptance, understanding that other person to the best of our abilities.

The notion of acceptance seems to be even more apparent when Christ teaches about the Prodigal Son. The father does not merely forgive his son for his actions, but rather, "he had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him." The father accepts his wayward son for who he is, showing an outpouring of love and mercy.

Finally, Christ asks us not to merely forgive our enemies, but to love them: "bless them that curse you, pray for them which despitefully use you." Indeed, Christ asks that we not merely cease resentment, as forgiveness is traditionally defined, but rather we replace that grudge with an outpouring of love and compassion.

 So when we speak of forgiveness, I wonder if simply ceasing resentment (forgiveness's traditional definition) is adequate. Rather, I think that the act of forgiveness is simply a gateway for us to develop a behavior of accepting others' flaws, leading to a better understanding of Christ's love for us. Of course in accepting others, we do not have to put ourselves in harm's way. Nor do we have to agree or condone the behavior itself. And I recognize that acquiring this pattern of thinking is much easier said than done. But I think that in developing a genuine attitude of acceptance toward others, not merely forgiveness, we acquire a heightened vision of how God views his children.  

Photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffoto.

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