I’ve noticed in recent discussions both online and offline that there seems to be some fuzziness about the difference between these two concepts. I think that perhaps our human tendency is to either excuse or condemn.
By “excusing” I mean either minimizing a transgression or perhaps even claiming it’s not a transgression at all. When we fail to find an excuse, then we condemn. It’s hard to both regard an action as truly wrong and damaging, and yet to forgive. It’s hard to forgive when someone does not regard their actions as truly wrong.
I would argue, however, that there is a part of forgiveness that we should embrace even when the perpetrator of the action is not repentant. We need to give up our own resentment and rage that make us do irrational things in response to wrongs. That doesn’t mean we need to excuse the person or let them by with the action; merely that we need to bring ourselves to the point where we can respond rationally.
Politicians tend to give non-apologies, or, in the terms I’m using in this post, they try to excuse their actions. Their hope is not that we will think they did something terribly wrong, are sorry for it, and that we should forgive. Their hope is that we will decide they weren’t so very wrong after all.
Many of us actually like it to work that way, because it is easier to condemn or minimize than it is to forgive. A pastor who fails us, yet acknowledges guilt and asks for forgiveness, has still hurt us. But there can and should be an opportunity for forgiveness and redemption. Forgiveness doesn’t eliminate consequences. Often there is a rush to restoration, especially with very famous people. But for many others, who may have as much potential even though they lack the fame, there is no rush. There may, in fact, be no plan for redemption at all.
I would suggest that we need to be very careful to hold people accountable, to acknowledge the true nature of transgressions, yet where there is repentance, we need to be ready to forgive and restore under appropriate circumstances. It’s much harder than either condemning or excusing, but it’s the way of grace.