Category Archives: Definitions of Forgiveness

For those who have been wounded deeply, forgiveness is rarely if ever a quick and easy fix

cropped-woman_207969-B+W-Hair-in-Face1.jpgIn my work with survivors, I have known many persons who have experienced an overwhelming sense of failure and self recrimination as they have compared the testimonies of those who were able to quickly forgive and move on – to their own experience of working through memories of abuse. However, upon closer examination, they realized that they were not comparing “apples to apples”.

In their book for mental health professionals on helping clients with forgiveness issues, Enright and Fitzgibbons (2000) devote an entire chapter to the process of forgiving. “If a client sees forgiveness as the effortless answer to all of life’s problems, then he or she is starting with false expectations” they argue. “Certainly, it is not the case that all instances of forgiveness are like being locked in the gym with only the 200-pound weights to work with” they went on to say. “Sometimes it is quick, almost effortless, and painless, but when people are deeply hurt they rarely find a quick, pain-free solution” (p. 50).

Even for persons who have suffered similar forms of abuse, there are many factors that can dramatically increase the level of harm experienced, factors that are oftentimes overlooked by both the one sharing “the testimony” and the one who is tempted to judge themselves harshly in the light of such a testimony. Furthermore, some who may sincerely perceive themselves to have successfully and completely resolved their trauma history with a minimum investment of time and effort – may continue to unconsciously or symbolically reenact their abuse whether as victim or as a victimizer, oftentimes in less obvious relational contexts. They simply do not know what they do not know. However, the result is that their hurts are transferred rather than transformed.

Enright, R. D., & Fitzgibbons, R. P. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.

Forgiveness is a process whereby one abandons one’s resentments and increases one’s mercy, which takes time

cropped-shutterstock_109647038-Black-Man-Smiliing-PRCHS.jpgSome teach that forgiveness is merely a decision that one makes once and for all, rather than a process into which one chooses to enter. However, Enright and Fitzgibbons (2000) argue that the decision to forgive, though a necessary step in the process of forgiving, is only the beginning of the process and must be worked out in practical terms before it can be considered a true or complete forgiveness:

“…the acts of abandoning resentment and increasing mercy need time to develop and cannot be forced, merely willed into existence, or ordered about by one’s thought processes. In our view, the definition of forgiveness necessitates that we in the helping professions consider forgiveness to be an unfolding process, one that does not run smoothly, filled with starts and stops, only eventually culminating in reduced anger and more compassion. A decision to forgive is only a part of this process” (p. 49).

Enright, R. D., & Fitzgibbons, R. P. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.

When forgiving, it is the sincerity of our words that matters

cropped-mairani_cuevas_208847.jpgIn working through forgiveness issues, saying the words, “I forgive you” may be not be enough, warns Enright and Fitzgibbons (2000):

“Although language can symbolize forgiveness, it cannot be a substitute for it. Even if a person uses the seemingly correct words, he or she might be masking resentment. The sincerity of the words matters” (p. 48).

Enright, R. D., & Fitzgibbons, R. P. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.

Forgiveness is the choice to avoid any desire for revenge or any temptation to nurse a wounded ego, according to Andrew Murray

cropped-cry_208356-Shutterstock-Free.jpgAndrew Murray was a pastor, author, and one of the founders of the South African General Mission. During his lifetime, he published over 240 books on Christian spirituality. For Murray (1981) forgiveness is defined as avoiding any desire to punish the offender, to nurse a wounded ego, or to maintain one’s rights [to retaliate or seek revenge], and is made possible by the power of Christ’s forgiving love dwelling in the forgiver. It is Christ Himself forgiving in and through the forgiver.

Murray, A. (1981). With Christ in the school of prayer. Springdale, PA: Whitaker House.

Forgive and forget? That may not be such a good idea

cropped-i_am_watching_you_197788.jpgMany people have the mistaken idea that if they have sincerely and successfully forgiven someone, there should be no memory of the past wrongdoing. Not so, insists Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

“Forgiveness does not mean amnesia. Amnesia is a most dangerous thing, especially on a community, national, or international level. We must forgive, but almost always we should not forget that there were atrocities, because if we do, we are then likely to repeat those atrocities. Those who forgive and those who accept forgiveness must not forget in their reconciling” (Tutu, 1998, p. xiv).

Tutu, D. (1998). Without forgiveness there is no future. In R. D. Enright & J. North (Eds.), Exploring forgiveness. (pp. xiii-xiv). Madison, WI US: University of Wisconsin Press.

Forgiveness is taking seriously the awfulness of what has happened

cropped-woman_praying_1974461.jpgSome have the mistaken belief that forgiveness is the minimizing of what has happened, or pretending that things were different than they were. On the contrary, argues Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

“Forgiveness is taking seriously the awfulness of what has happened when you are treated unfairly….Forgiveness is not pretending that things are other than they are….It is facing the ghastliness of what has happened and giving the other person the opportunity of coming out of the ghastly situation” (Tutu, 1998, p. xiii)

Tutu, D. (1998). Without forgiveness there is no future. In R. D. Enright & J. North (Eds.), Exploring forgiveness. (pp. xiii-xiv). Madison, WI US: University of Wisconsin Press.

Reconciliation is not always possible or advisable

cropped-shutterstock_130323026-White-Male-with-Somber-Expression-PRCHS.jpgReconciliation is not always possible or advisable.  A faceless rapist may disappear into the night, never to be seen or heard from again.  The person who may have molested you as a child may have died long ago.  The friend with whom you had a falling out, may refuse to have any contact with you.  The person you hurt so deeply may be deceased. The drunk driver who was responsible for the maiming of your loved one may refuse to admit responsibility for his poor choices.  It may be unhealthy and unadvisable to ever have contact with the young man who may have raped you on your date with him.  However, no one can stop you from forgiving that person from your heart.


When others refuse to forgive us

cropped-woman_face_portrait_201808.jpgThe fact of the matter is that some people do choose to harbor resentments against their offenders, even when their offenders have taken appropriate responsibility for their wrongdoing, offered to make amends where possible and reasonable,  repented of the patterns of behavior that may have contributed to the hurt inflicted, are taking necessary steps to change their ways,  and have requested forgiveness. The Bible is replete with such examples (see Matthew 18:21-35).

So, what if someone you have hurt refuses to forgive you?  Will you now choose to believe that you are doomed to a miserable existence because they have chosen such a road?  If you choose to believe such a lie, then you may inadvertently hand over the deed to your future contentment to the very one who is refusing to obey God (Luke 6:36).  You thus become their victim, by choice.  More, without realizing it, you may end up buying into a more heinous lie: that their refusal to forgive you has greater bearing on whether you can experience forgiveness than God’s declaration that in Christ, you are free from all condemning charges against you because God in Christ has justified you (Romans 8:1-2).

Stuart A. Coleman, host

The choice to forgive does not guarantee reconciliation with our abuser

cropped-depressed_man.jpgSome mistakenly believe that when we forgive someone, we are guaranteeing them that we will reconcile with them and thus open the gate for them to reenter our lives as they please, while unrepentant.  However, this is inconsistent with the forgiveness that Jesus extended to those who were crucifying him, as well as the forgiveness he extends to us.

Allender, D. B., & Longman III, T. (1992) discuss this distinction:  “An important question must be asked: When the Lord forgave those who crucified Him, did He grant to each of them, at that moment, a place of eternal intimacy with His Father? I don’t think so. I believe He was freeing them from the immediate consequences of touching God for the purpose of destroying Him. They deserved the kind of immediate judgment that occurred when the Ark of the Covenant was touched in the Old Testament. Jesus was only forestalling their judgment in asking for them to be forgiven. The only redemptive forgiveness offered in that scene was to the thief who was crucified beside Jesus. The thief’s response of repentance and faith granted him reconciliation and intimacy with the Father.”  (p. 162)

Allender, D. B., & Longman III, T. (1992).Bold love  Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

For further reflection

Yes.  Forgiveness can be extended to our offenders as the withholding of resentment or retaliation.  However, in order for reconciliation to be possible, there must be an admission of guilt and evidences of repentance on the part of the offender.

“So watch yourselves”, Jesus warned. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him”.  (Luke 17:3)

What does repentance look like?  Beyond empty promises “never to do it again”, authentic repentance may include attending a discipleship or therapy group, receiving individual counseling from a pastor or therapist…availing oneself to whatever resources are available until the fruits of repentance begin to flow from and consistently be displayed by our offender.  This may take time.