healing power of forgiveness
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
The sentiment of hurt and anger flows forever
through the veins of planet earth, seething like hot lava, ready
to erupt with a vengeance, spitting fire and deadly ashes. Revenge
knows no boundary, no time limits. Not even death can cancel the
blood debt, which often passes on from one generation to another.
There is enough accumulated anger and hatred to blow up the whole
world, enough grievance and desperation to destroy millions of lives.
How can we avert such a catastrophe?
Military might? Rule of law? Democracy? Maybe
all of the above. But ultimately, it is the powerful, invisible
force of forgiveness that keeps humanity together, in spite of all
the pains and injuries we inflict on each other. Just like the first
rainbow after the Flood, forgiveness is our only hope to bridge
the widening chasms that threaten to destroy us all.
Conflicts in so many parts of the world are
escalating and threat of global terrorism is intensifying. Against
this grim backdrop, the message of peace on earth and good will
to all humanity sounds hollow without considering the meaning of
the cruel Cross. It is Jesus crucified that teaches us the threefold
meaning of forgiveness - from God, for us, and for each other. The
Passion of Christ teaches us that forgiving love is costly. It takes
humility, compassion, determination, and suffering to forgive those
who have transgressed against us.
I can't think of a better Christmas gift than
the grace of forgiveness. In the midst of suicide bombings, terrorist
attacks, ethnic cleansing, and rampant violence, the world is crying
out for peace and reconciliation. There is hope for the international
arena and our personal lives, but only if we can grasp the wonder
of forgiveness and are willing to extend to each other this precious
gift of healing.
Definition of forgiveness
World Dictionary defines it as (1) to give up resentment against
or the desire to punish; stop being angry with and (2) to give up
all claim to punish or exact penalty for (an offence). WordNet Dictionary
defines it as (1) the act of excusing a mistake or offense and (2)
compassionate feelings that support a willingness to forgive. In
biblical terms, the Greek word of forgiveness aphiemi means "letting
go", "to release from an obligation or punishment" or "voluntary
cancellation of a debt". Another Greek word agape also has the connotation
of forgiving love. Enright and Zell (1989) believe that forgiveness
should include both love and letting go of anger in spite of unjust
Misunderstanding still abounds regarding the
true meaning of forgiveness. Often, people say: "Forgive and forget."
But how can we forget the horrible things we have endured? How can
we forget the wounds and scars we wear each day? How can we forget
the Holocaust? We need to forgive and remember, so that the evil
will not be repeated.
Others say, "Forgiveness means that we need
to excuse, condone or pardon the wrongs done to us." But wrong is
still wrong, regardless of whether we forgive the offender. Freedman
and Enright (1996) wrote: "When one forgives one does not open a
jail cell door but has an affective, cognitive, and possibly behavioral
transformation toward the injurer; one can forgive and see justice
Some equate forgiveness with reconciliation,
but how can we invite the perpetrators back into our lives, when
there is no apology and no willingness to change their destructive
ways? Forgiveness is never intended to turn us into willing victims!
Ideally, the forgiveness process may lead to reconciliation, but
it has to be a reciprocal relationship, and involves acknowledging
wrong-doing and making amends. Unilateral forgiveness does not necessarily
lead to reconciliation. We need to know the differences between
forgiveness and reconciliation (Freedman, 1998).
It is also important to differentiate between
pseudo forgiveness and genuine forgiveness. When we say we have
forgiven someone, but still harbor grudges and resentments or maintain
an attitude of indifference and neutrality, we have only achieved
pseudo forgiveness. Complete forgiveness involves complete transformation
toward the offender. To some, it seems reasonable to maintain a
psychological or physical difference to avoid getting hurt again,
until there is some indication that the perpetrator has changed
his or her ways, but others would argue that such psychological
barriers should disappear when one has completed the forgiveness
process (Enright, 2001).
All faith traditions emphasize the virtue of
forgiveness. But Dr. Paul Coleman, author of the "The
30 Secrets of Happily Married Couples" reminds us: "Forgiveness
is more than a moral imperative, more than a theological dictum.
It is the only means, given our humanness and imperfections, to
overcome hate and condemnation and proceed with the business of
growing and loving"
Forgiveness is also more than a sentiment of
kindness. Kent Nerburn in Calm
Surrender is quite blunt about the challenging task of forgiveness:
"Forgiveness cannot be a disengaged, pastel emotion. It is demanded
in the bloodiest of human circumstances, and it must stand against
the strongest winds of human rage and hate. To be a real virtue,
engaged with the world around us, it must be muscular, alive, and
able to withstand the outrages and inequities of inhuman and inhumane
acts. It must be able to face the dark side of the human condition."
Robert Enright, nicknamed "Father Forgiveness"
for initiating forgiveness research in the early 80s, is unhappy
with definitions that only focus on the giving up of resentment.
Ideally, genuine forgiveness is paradoxical, because it demands
the wronged person to replace feelings of resentment with love and
compassion even when the injured person has the right to feel angry
Enright and the Human Development Study Group
(1991) defined forgiveness as "a willingness to abandon one's right
to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward
one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the underserved quality
of compassion, generosity, and love toward him or her" (p.126).
Thus, it involves not only voluntarily giving up of negative emotions,
thoughts and behaviors, but also replacing them with compassion,
positive thoughts, and reaching out to the offender.
Considering the above, here is a comprehensive
definition of forgiveness: At the heart of forgiveness is a change
of our attitude and feelings from anger, resentment, and condemnation
to a new willingness to put aside all negative feelings, thoughts,
and all rightful claims. It is a unilateral decision to abandon
grudges and let go the desire to get even. It is the sincere effort
by the injured party to see the transgressor in a new and more positive
light. Forgiveness also involves a compassionate embrace of our
enemies in spite of our natural feelings of bitterness, animosity,
and fear (Volf, 1996). It is a voluntary and deliberate act to overlook
their flaws and wrong doings, cancel all their "debts" and start
a new chapter. In short, it is a very demanding task!
Forgiveness inevitably involves the process
of inner struggle to let go of all the resentments and painful memories.
Often, it is a long and difficult process, because the old wound
can remain sore for many, many years. Forgiveness is essential to
healing. Alan Paton, author of "Cry,
the Beloved Country" reminds us: "When a deep injury is done
to us, we never recover until we forgive." But forgiveness takes
time and a lot of hard work.
The power of healing
"Do I have to forgive?" you may ask. "Why does
the injured party have to do the hard work of forgiving, while the
perpetrator is free to continue his evil deeds?"
No, you don't have to forgive, unless you want
to be free from the bondage of anger and the control of a painful
past. People often ask Dalai Lama: "How do you feel about the Chinese
government? Aren't you angry with them?" Dalai Lama simply smiles
and replies: "No, I am not angry. They have taken over my land.
I won't let them take over my life and take away my peace of mind."
Forgiveness is preferable to hate, because it
sets our spirit free, heals our emotional wounds, and enables us
to regain control of our future. Robert Enright and other researchers
have demonstrated empirically that forgiveness is powerful in emotional
and relational healing. More specifically, forgiveness decreases
anger, anxiety, depression, and grief while increases hope, self-esteem,
and mental and physical health (Enright & North, 1998; Freedman
& Enright, 1996; McCullough, Pargament, & Thoresen, 2000; McCullough
& Worthington, 1994; Worthington, 1998). Today, there are more than
400 researchers active in forgiveness research, which has been bolstered
by a 10-million dollar grant from the Templeton
Foundation's "A Campaign for Forgiveness Research".
Apart from self-interest, there is an even more
compelling reason to forgive - it will contribute to the redemption
of the perpetrators, restoration of relationships, and the healing
of the land. We cannot overcome evil with evil, but we can embrace
evil and transform it through the power of forgiveness and love.
We may not live to see the results, but we can die happy, knowing
that we have sown seeds of forgiveness in a hostile land.
Desmond Tutu, Archbishop of South Africa, won
the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his fight against apartheid. He was
asked by Nelson Mandel to serve as chairman of South Africa's Truth
and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). To facilitate the healing of
the nation during its transition from apartheid to democracy, TRC
emphasized reconciliation and restorative justice rather than retribution.
Reflecting on his reconciliation efforts, Tutu wrote a memoir aptly
Future without Forgiveness". He believes that there can be no
future without forgiveness for any country torn by ethnic conflict
and poisoned by age-old hatred. One of my Christmas wishes is that
a similar TRC can be set up in Iraq!
The practice of forgiveness
The willingness to let bygones be bygones is
a good start, but it does not mean that the bitterness will automatically
go away. You don't just forgive someone who has brutally murdered
your entire family simply by willing it away. You can't forgive
someone who has betrayed you, destroyed your career, ruined your
life simply by pronouncing, "I forgive him." It takes more than
will power; it requires grace and practice; in some cases, it can
benefit from professional help.
Frederic Luskin, author of "Forgive
for Good", offers a six-week forgiveness workshop designed to
help participants to move from being "victims" to "survivors." The
workshop involves relaxation training, anger management, and practices
of some basic lessons of forgiveness, such as changing your view
about the offenders and take responsibility for your own emotions.
Enright (2001) has produced a self-help book
that provides a step-by-step process towards gaining freedom from
anger, depression, and resentment, and regaining a life of hope
and compassion. It discourages setting premature goals, which only
result in pseudo forgiveness. One needs to go through the entire
process and phases of forgiveness with patience, commitment, and
There are also more spiritually oriented practices
of forgiveness, such as meditation, prayer, confession, humility,
keeping a short account of wrongs, loving the enemy, extending grace,
and showing kindness to the offender. To be effective, these practices
need to be part of our daily spiritual disciplines.
A couple of years ago, a client of mine was
terrified about going home for Christmas, because every family union
had been traumatic for her. It not only brought back painful unresolved
issues, but also made her vulnerable to new injuries from family
members. To make the long story short, it took several counselling
sessions and many hours of practice before she was able to reach
the point of forgiving her parents and sisters for the way they
had mistreated and abused her. For the first time in her life, she
was able to embrace them without fear and anger at the Christmas
The practice of forgiveness is never easy, because
it is always a courageous, defiant act against our instincts of
hatred and revenge and against the odds of getting hurt again. If
to err is human, to forgive is super-human. It takes Herculean efforts
and divine help to be able to embrace an enemy who may yet stick
another knife into our hearts. But that is the risk we have to take
if we want to experience the healing power of forgiveness and halt
the danger of escalating revenge and terror.
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is a choice: A step-by-step process for resolving anger and restoring
hope. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Enright, R. D., & Zell, R. L. (1989). Problems
encountered when we forgive one another. Journal
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forgiveness. Madison, WI: University Of Wisconsin
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for good: A proven prescription for health and happiness.
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research and practice. New York, NY: The Guildford Press.
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Calm surrender: Walking the path of forgiveness. Novato,
CA: First paperback printing by Publishers Group West.
Paton, A. (2003). Cry,
the beloved country. New York, NY: First Scribner Trade Paperback
Tutu, D. (1999). No
future without forgiveness. New York, NY: Doubleday, a division
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Volf, M. (1996). Exclusion
& embrace: A theological exploration of identity, otherness, and
reconciliation. Nashville, TX: Abingdon Press.
Worthington Jr., E.L. (Ed.) (1998). Dimensions
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