We Don’t Say “I Forgive You” Enough

“It’s OK” just doesn’t quite cut it

When is the last time you heard someone in your life say the words, “I forgive you?” My guess is that it has been a while. You may have heard plenty of people respond to an apology with “It’s OK,” or “You’re fine,” but to actually string together the phrase “I forgive you” has become so unused that it almost sounds awkward to say. It almost sounds too formal, too stilted. Maybe it even sounds plain weird to hear, or it feels weird to say.

I encourage you to push past the awkwardness and re-introduce the phrase into your vocabulary.

I usually don’t like to argue over idioms in everyday conversation. I once saw an article that claimed that younger people are entitled because their response to “Thank you” is “no problem” instead of “you’re welcome.” The article claimed that saying “No problem” indicates that person is burdened by the thank-er and is choosing not to acknowledge it, whereas the expression “You’re welcome” indicates that the speaker owes the thank-er whatever favor was asked. In other words, saying “no problem” implies that helping others should normally be a problem, while “you’re welcome” implies that by helping you just did what was expected of you.

The only problem with this entire thing is that saying “no problem” or “you’re welcome” doesn’t make even the slightest difference in what is being conveyed pragmatically. Both phrases are simply a response to thanks, and nothing more. Both phrases are meant to satisfy a gap in the conversation and bring the thank-er/thank-ee relationship to a close. This gap can also be closed with “No worries,” or “Forget it,” or “My pleasure” for the Chick-Fil-A fans. (Besides, “young people” are not the only ones who say “No problem”–in Spanish, the default way of responding to thanks regardless of age is “de nada,” which word-for-word means “it’s nothing.” Many Spanish textbooks, however, will list “de nada” as meaning…you guessed it…”you’re welcome.”)

For as much as that article bugged me, you’d think I wouldn’t care if someone says “I forgive you” vs. “It’s OK.” Isn’t the same thing being conveyed pragmatically? Aren’t both of those phrases just a way for the offended party to satisfy an apology? Isn’t there forgiveness in both cases? I think the answer is yes, on its surface. “It’s OK” has become the default way of forgiving someone. When someone says “It’s OK,” they truly do mean to forgive. But I have an issue with the phrase we’ve come to make the default, and here it is:

Whether or not something is OK isn’t the deciding factor in forgiveness.

In fact, the most impactful instances of forgiveness are those times when it’s decidedly not OK.

If I punch you in the face as hard as I can and do it on purpose, that is absolutely not an OK thing to do. And even if I sincerely apologize, you telling me “It’s OK” will not actually make punching you in the face an OK thing to have done. You’re intending to forgive me by saying “It’s OK,” but in a sense, what you just did was validate my action of punching you in the face. That’s not an OK thing to do. So why tell me that it is?

Now imagine the same scenario, but with “I forgive you” instead. You can still be upset and in physical pain in that moment, in the aftermath of that absolutely-not-OK thing, and have the courage and strength to actually give forgiveness to the person who punched you. That’s different. That means more. You’re not erasing what that person did; you’re willingly choosing to look past it.

Another reason to re-introduce “I forgive you” into parlance is because it’s a whole lot harder to be sarcastic with it. I have to fight my sarcastic tendencies often (and I unfortunately lose that battle with frequency), and I know that sometimes the words “It’s OK” or “It’s fine” can be said or typed with absolute insincerity. You know the tone: “It’s fiiiiine.” Maybe accompanied by an “ugh” or a sigh. But try saying “I forgive you” with a sarcastic tone. It’s…a lot harder. You have to deliberately spit each of those words out, and it’s all meaningful.

I–the one whom you hurt, the one who received an apology, the one who doesn’t owe my offender anything, the one who was affected by my offender’s words or actions…

Forgive–absolve, excuse, acquit, overlook, remit, grant pardon of an offense…

You–the one who hurt me, the one who offended me, the one who insulted me, the one who damaged me and my reputation, the one who doesn’t deserve forgiveness.

I forgive you.

This isn’t intended to make you feel bad for saying “It’s OK,” by the way. I do it all the time. But I’ve made a deliberate effort to bring back “I forgive you” lately, and I think there’s merit to it.

Because we don’t only forgive when something is OK. In Ephesians 4:32, Paul says. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Think about what that means. Think about what God’s forgiveness entails. In fact, why don’t we let Paul tell us with the words of Romans 5: You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Jesus didn’t forgive us because it was OK. Jesus didn’t forgive us because he owed us anything. Jesus didn’t forgive us because we earned it. Jesus came to earth, lived perfectly, and died innocently precisely because things were not OK. And he came to make things OK. Better than OK, in fact–he came to re-establish true peace between the eternal, holy God, and all of humanity of all time. God died for the ungodly, and that’s what it took to forgive us. Jesus is the only one who truly has the power to make our offenses OK. But he said more than “It’s OK.” He said “It is finished.”

Next time someone hurts you, harms you, or damages your reputation, keep this in mind. Next time someone apologizes and makes themselves vulnerable to you, putting their pride and past decisions on the line for you to absolve or condemn, remember the state you were in when Jesus laid his life on the line for you. Things weren’t OK, but Jesus forgave you. Is what your offender did OK? Probably not. But it doesn’t have to be for you to forgive.

I forgive you.

It’s hard to say.

That’s why we need to start saying it more.

JWN

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