In this week’s post on character strengths, or the good fruit our lives can bear, we turn to forgiveness. This is a — if not the — foundational Christian teaching and practice, but it has become very controversial in popular culture in recent years. As society has shifted its consciousness more and more towards the experience of victims of abuse and other traumas, there is a prevailing belief that forgiving someone means that you’re saying “It’s okay” or that what happened isn’t important. But is this accurate?
Forgiveness is a subject that could fill — and has filled — hundreds of books, so this discussion will only be the most cursory examination of the topic.
According to the VIA Institute on Character Strengths, “Forgiveness means to extend understanding towards those who have wronged or hurt us. It means to let go … of some or all of the frustration, disappointment, resentment, or other painful feelings associated with an offense.” In an attempt to address some of the contemporary objections, they make a helpful distinction right off the bat between forgiveness and three other phenomena, which can often be muddled in with it: 1) condoning, which removes the offense from the act; 2) forgetting, which removes the awareness of the act; and 3) reconciliation, which is a restoration of the relationship. Traditional Christianity would also a fourth distinction: absolution, the formal pronouncement of God’s forgiveness.
Now if forgiveness isn’t these things, what is it? Dr. Rubin Khoddam, an addictions researcher at the University of Southern California, notes that forgiveness generally involves three components: 1) gaining a more balanced view of the offender; 2) decreasing negative feelings toward the offender; and 3) giving up the demand to punish the offender (emotionally, not legally). This is to say that when we forgive, we accept that what happened in the past happened, we accept the humanity and weakness of others, and choose mercy over vengeance. Far from being evidence of weakness, forgiveness is an act of incredible power and strength of character in which we choose to have mercy on those who did not have mercy on us, and humanize those who have left us feeling dehumanized.
Forgiveness has many benefits to our wellbeing. It contributes to better and more sustainable relationships, teamwork, and job performance and satisfaction. Because it is often grounded in awareness of human limitations, forgiveness can also help us get better perspective on why those around us do what they do, rooted in empathy and understanding. It also works for our wellbeing by reducing long-term anger, resentment and desire for revenge. These feelings, while natural, have negative impacts on our physical and emotional health. Research has suggested that people who are able to forgive report lower levels of anxiety and depression. Clinical evidence further demonstrates that they also have higher immune system functioning and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
This opens a difficult question about who forgiveness is for: Do we forgive for the sake of the offender? Or do we forgive for ourselves?
Christianity offers a third option to this awkward question. Rather than seeing forgiveness as something we do for our own gain or to benefit the offender, it roots forgiveness in our relationship with God. We pray: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” (Mt 6). While this makes it sound as though God forgives us to the extent that we forgive others, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt 18) suggests that the flip side is also just as true, that God’s forgiveness of our sins should inspire us to forgive others of theirs. Either way, our relationship with God provides the context for forgiveness.
Perhaps a helpful way of looking at forgiveness and its benefits for ourselves is to think of it as a kind of freedom. In forgiving we say we’re not going to let the past determine our future; we’re not going to let someone else’s sins determine how we feel. And so, by forgiving we can truly put Ephesians 4.31f into action, “get[ting] rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” in order to “be kind and compassionate to one another.” After all, who wants to describe themselves as “bitter, raging and angry”? We don’t need to reconcile with someone who has harmed us in order to free our hearts from the impact of their actions. This doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt; it doesn’t mean we don’t live with the consequences of that action; it simply means we choose to free our heart from it.
While forgiveness does not demand reconciliation, reconciliation — with God and each other — is at the heart of Christian teaching on forgiveness. Reconciliation is a far more difficult achievement than forgiveness. Reconciliation demands not only repentance on behalf of the offender and forgiveness on behalf of the victim, but also the active presence of justice in the relationship moving forward. This is important because so often in our political discourse we throw the word reconciliation around far too simply, as though it were a return to an unjust status quo instead of a radical shift in values. As former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams puts it in his wonderful book The Truce of God:
“Reconciliation, then, cannot be identified with conciliation and — in spite of frequent distortion — is not, for a Christian, a fundamentally conservative idea. If we pray for reconciliation in politics or industry we are … praying for change and newness of life; not only changes of heart, but changes in the structure, the dramatic script, the concrete possibilities in relations” (58).
And if this is true on a social scale, it’s true in our lives too. We may be called as Christians to forgive someone who comes to us in repentance no matter how many times they have sinned against us, but reconciliation demands more than just an ‘I’m sorry.’ It requires a fundamental change in attitudes and dynamics in the relationship. It’s helpful once again to remind ourselves that repentance is more than just saying “I’m sorry,” but is a renewing of the heart and mind.
Ultimately what this means is that forgiveness and repentance are two sides of the same coin. Christianity is a way of freedom. And forgiveness and repentance are both ways we can in the present be freed from the past in the hopes of creating the new, transfigured future that reconciliation represents.
What are some ways forgiveness as a character strength can go awry? We might call its absence mercilessness. Most of us have experienced this, where we’ve done something to hurt someone and no matter what we do to try to make amends they refuse to hear us out. A lack of forgiveness can easily morph into the opposite of forgiveness, vengefulness. In this situation, rather than letting go of the past, the victim of a hurt becomes the aggressor and seeks to harm the perpetrator. This does nothing to undo the original hurt and only creates a cycle of violence. Bad fruit indeed. The shadow side, or ‘excess’ of forgiveness can be seen in some of the misunderstandings of it, refusing to acknowledge the hurt someone’s action caused us or pretending it didn’t happen. This can be psychologically damaging, silencing our feelings and legitimate experience of pain and opening ourselves up to be hurt again and again. We may indeed be called to forgive someone “seven times seventy” times but the true reconciliation to which we are called is a two way street, and demands the active participation and desire for reconciliation by both parties.
I think this post, limited as it is, has at least demonstrated that forgiveness is messy, complicated, and hard. But, acknowledging all this, it is nonetheless something we are called to do. So how might we increase this trait in our lives? Here are a few ideas of where to start:
- To reflect on some aspects of forgiveness take the Forgiveness quiz from the Greater Good (University of California, Berkeley)
- Think of a time when you’ve done something that hurt someone and write down all the factors that contributed to that action. (Where you hungry? Overtired? Did something happen to trigger your fight/flight instincts? etc.) Use these factors that you experienced as a resource for developing compassion and empathy for those who hurt you.
- Forgiveness is a process, so start small. If you can’t forgive someone right now, try wanting to forgive them. And if this is too much, try to want to want to forgive them.
- Participate in a forgiveness meditation; there are many available online (quality and results may vary!), including this one by Buddhist American writer Jack Kornfield.
- Do some journaling exercises to help get you on your way. For example, these exercises from the Greater Good.