About forgiveness

Let’s talk about forgiveness, what it is and what it isn’t.

The Confession, by Pietro Longhi, ca. 1750


The Commandment to Forgive

It is important to define our terms. “Forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Collasians 3:13). “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” Not only are we commanded to forgive others, but when we say the Lord’s Prayer we put a condition on ourselves, asking God to give us in the same way we forgive others. In this prayer we call ourselves to unconditional, 70×7 style forgiveness.

What forgiveness isn’t

According to the Enright Process Model of Psychological Forgiveness forgiveness is not

  • Forgetting what took place.
  • Condoning or excusing the offense.
  • Giving up on efforts to obtain legal justice
  • No longer feeling anger about what happened
  • Forgiveness does not require the wrongdoer to admit his or her offense, ask for forgiveness or be willing to change.

I refer to a psychological model because since Christ revealed himself, the Truth to us, we can look to good science for explanations that we can understand in our times. My field is not theology, though I know that explanations of forgiveness abound there, much more so than in the field of psychology. Yet I like that we can look at psychology and with its research, see a confirmation that forgiveness leads us to that which is good, that which will make us happy.

The Psychological Toll of Unforgiveness

This article by Real Simple sums up some of the research of the toll not forgiving takes on us:

Today scientists tend to agree that holding a serious grudge can cause stress, which has a toxic effect on your body. Unforgiveness—which researchers define as repeatedly thinking about an injustice you’ve suffered through a lens of vengeance, hostility, bitterness, resentment, anger, sadness, or all of the above—can raise your blood pressure and your risk of stroke and heart attack. It can impair the functioning of your immune system by disrupting the cytokines (protein molecules that carry messages between cells) that govern inflammation. And when people “have a lot of unforgiveness, they generate all kinds of stress hormones,” says Everett L. Worthington, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, and the author and editor of a number of books on forgiveness science, including Handbook of Forgiveness ($120, amazon.com).

Of course this doesn’t even touch on the spiritual effects of holding on to resentment.

What Forgiveness is

We’ve the spiritual importance of forgiveness, defined what forgiveness is not, looked at the effects of not forgiving, then what is forgiveness? According to Enright, forgiveness is “choosing to let go of resentment or revenge when the wrongdoer’s actions deserve it, and instead, giving him or her gifts of mercy, generosity and love or beneficence even though the wrongdoer doesn’t deserve them. Other important considerations include:

  1. Someone has done something wrong to you and they deserve your anger.
  2. In this case love means, willing good for the other person/wanting good things for him or her.
  3. May be a long and difficult process.
    1. Depending on the seriousness of offense and length of time you have lived with the hurt caused.
    2. If we misunderstand what forgiveness is.

The Phases of Forgiveness

Everyone has experienced some injustice. Some among us have experienced such terrible injustices that it may take decades before experiencing a sense that they have forgiven and are able to let go of what has been done to them. Some will have psychological and spiritual wounds due to the injustice that will take years to uncover. If wronged as a child, although the child may seek to forgive, events will occur in life (coming to maturity, starting a family) that may open the wound fresh again, revealing ways the injustice has created lasting effects. Thus it may feel the process must start again. Although forgive begins with an act of the will, “I choose to forgive him” to think of myself as in a state of forgiving or not forgiving the wrongdoer does little to reveal the nuances of the process. Enright has identified four phases of forgiveness that give greater justice to this important and beautiful process.

In the first phase, The Uncovering Phase, I must “learn how the wrongdoing has compromised my life, confront and clarify the nature of the offense and uncover the consequences that have followed.”

In the second phase, The Decision Phase, I “gain an accurate understanding of the nature of forgiveness and makes a decision to commit to forgiving on the basis of this understanding.”

In the third phase, The Work Phase,I work to reframe how I view the wrongdoer, see his side of the story, so to speak. As a spiritual person, I may work to pray for this person and ask for guidance to see him as God sees him. These steps will, in time, change my feelings towards the wrong doer.

In the final phase, The Deepening Phase, I experience a decrease in negative feelings, am able to find meaning in the suffering I have experienced, identify some good that has come out of it and possibly use my experience to connect or help others. Here we see what Freud called “Sublimation.” I transcend the suffering and can do some good with it.

For more information

If any of this piqued your interest, please consider reading more on this topic. Along with the information above, Philip M. Sutton, Ph.D., provides reflection questions to help you move through the process of forgiveness, here.