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
Webster’s New 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 injury.
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 realized” (p.984).
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 and revengeful.
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 entitled “No 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 flexibility.
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 family reunion.
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.
Coleman, P. (1992). The 30 secrets of happily married couples. Holbrook, MA: Adams Media Corporation.
Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness 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 of Psychology and Christianity, 8(10), 52-60.
Enright, R. D., & North, J. (Eds.) (1998). Exploring forgiveness. Madison, WI: University Of Wisconsin Press.
Enright, R. E., & The Human Development Study Group (1991). The moral development of forgiveness. In W. M. Kurtines & J. L. Gerwitx (Eds.) Handbook of moral behavior and development. Pp. 123-152. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Edition
Freedman, S. R, & Enright, R. D. (1996). Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(5), 983-992.
Freedman, S. R. (1998). Forgiveness and reconciliation: The importance of understanding of how they differ. Counseling and Values, 42, 200-216.
Luskin, F. (2002). Forgive for good: A proven prescription for health and happiness. New York, NY: HaperCollins Publishers Inc.
McCullough, M. E., & Worthington Jr., E. L. (1994). Encouraging clients to forgive people who have hurt them: Review, critique, and research prospectus. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 22, 3-20.
McCullough, M. E., Pargament, K. I., & Thoresen, C. E. (2000). Forgiveness: theory, research and practice. New York, NY: The Guildford Press.
Nerburn, K. (2002). 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 Edition.
Tutu, D. (1999). No future without forgiveness. New York, NY: Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc.
Volf, M. (1996). Exclusion & embrace: A theological exploration of identity, otherness, and reconciliation. Nashville, TX: Abingdon Press.
Worthington Jr., E.L. (Ed.) (1998). Dimensions of forgiveness: Psychological research and theological perspectives. Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.