What Forgiveness is Not
by Thomas Jay Oord
August 1, 2015
A series of painful events in my life have me pondering anew the meaning of forgiveness. Family and friends have also asked for help as they struggle to forgive those who hurt them. I want to share some ideas I’ve found helpful in my own efforts to forgive in the midst of pain.
An impressive scholarly literature is available on forgiveness. The field of positive psychology, for instance, offers some impressive research. And various religious and moral traditions offer wisdom on the matter.
As a Christian theologian, I’m especially interested in what the Christian tradition says about forgiveness. I like to contemplate, for instance, what it means to say God forgives. I also wonder why horrible things happen if God loves everyone and can control anything, a question usually called “the problem of evil.”
In this blog, I’ll set aside the question of why God doesn’t prevent evil. I’ve addressed it elsewhere, and I have a book coming out in November that tackles the subject.
For this essay, I mostly want to ponder what it means for humans to forgive.
Forgive and Forget?
I sometimes hear that those who have been harmed ought to “forgive and forget.” Most people interpret this phrase to mean that forgiving requires ignoring or overlooking the harm others have done. We must disremember, they say.
I reject the idea that forgiveness requires forgetting the harm done. I reject the idea, in part, because such forgetting may be impossible for some people. If forgiving requires forgetting, those who cannot forget will never be able to forgive.
Forgiveness does not mean burying the pain deep inside. It does not demand we ignore the damage done. Victims must acknowledge harm was done.
In fact, forgetting the harm can be extremely unhelpful to the victim and to others. Forgetting may allow perpetrators of evil to continue their dastardly deeds. Forgetting may lead to failing to change structures that permit evil. As Nazi holocaust survivors know, for instance, we must remember as a way to resist repeating past sins.
Sometimes we must remember past evil to inspire us to prevent evil in the future.
Forgiving as Warm Fuzzy Feelings?
Some people assume that those who forgive no long feel repulsed by those who have hurt them. True forgiveness, they say, means having warm fuzzy feelings toward perpetrators of evil. Positive feelings must completely replace the victim’s pain, outrage, and other negative feelings.
I disagree with this view too. Those who have been hurt may wish to feel positive feelings. But such feelings often take time or never come at all. Negative emotional histories rarely transform overnight!
If forgiveness means that victims must have warm and positive emotions toward those who harm them, forgiveness is not possible for many people — at least not possible in the short term. Fortunately, forgiveness doesn’t require that we always feel warmth toward those who have injured us.
I’ll address later how we replace negative feelings with positive ones. But for now, I simply want to deny that forgiveness requires our feeling warmth and positivity toward those who have hurt us.
Forgiveness as Gladness?
Related to the misconception that forgiveness requires warm feelings is the misconception that those who forgive completely should thereafter feel bright and breezy. Those with a particular view of God’s blueprint for life sometimes even say God wanted the harm and pain we endure. I strongly disagree!
In reality, anger toward evil is an important part of being a morally mature person. Because evil undermines wellness, we are right to oppose it. Feeling angry is appropriate when evil is done, and we can be angry while simultaneously acting for good.
These words of Scripture seem wise to me: “Be angry, but do not sin” (Eph. 4:26). I take this to mean that we are sometimes justified in being mad about what has happened to us or to others. Injustice sucks! But we must not allow our anger to become revenge, spite, resentment, or retaliation. Besides, “eye for an eye” and “tooth for a tooth” leaves us blind and edentulous!
What we ought to do when we’re “good and mad” brings me to…
Forgiveness as Complacency?
A widespread misconception says forgiveness requires the forgiver to accept passively what has happened, with no active response. Those who promote this misconception usually pair it with the correct notion that forgiveness does not retaliate. But they explicitly or implicitly add that in the face of harm, forgivers should be quiet, inactive, or compliant.
In my view, forgivers are activists. They have experienced injustice first hand and they are choosing to do something about that injustice. Instead of striking back, however, they mobilize to change some part of the world for good. Positive world changing involves numerous types of action. But it does not involve apathy.
Because forgiveness is not complacency, harmful institutions and individuals ought to brace themselves when forgivers respond to injustice. Forgivers don’t run away and hide. They act for the common good, often passionately and persistently, in response to the harm done. When victims forgive rightly, their righteous activism often pushes harmful institutions or individuals to make reforms and offer apologies.
The particular acts that accompany forgiveness depend on what well-being requires in each case. It may mean acting to prevent perpetrators from doing more harm. It may mean raising awareness of injustice. It may mean acting to transform institutional practices or social customs. It may mean seeking counseling for oneself and others. The ways of forgiving love are almost endless!
Activist forgivers pursue various activities to bring health and wholeness in the face of evil.
Forgiveness as Reconciliation?
Many use “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” interchangeably. But I think we would be wise to separate these two words.
Forgiveness is something one person or a group can do in response to an evil act or hurtful relationship. Forgivers act irrespective of what perpetrators may do. Those harmed need not wait for confession from those who harm them. Instead, they act to forgive despite what others may do.
Reconciliation, by contrast, requires all the estranged parties to act positively toward one another. Reconciliation requires all involved to choose positive unity and healed relationship. Reconciliation takes a least two.
Let’s be honest: Sometimes those who harm seek forgiveness and reconciliation mainly to avoid public scorn. They say they want reconciliation, but they really want something else. Their motives are not primarily to restore or help those they have injured. They mostly want to avoid some negative consequences without actually doing the work of repentance (being transformed).
Because it can be difficult to judge rightly the motives of those who harm us, bringing in third parties (e.g., counselors) is often necessary for genuine reconciliation.
Forgiving Waits for Others to Ask to be Forgiven?
The final issue I want to address here is the idea that forgiveness requires that those who harm first admit their wrong and ask forgiveness. Fortunately, victims need not wait before they can act to forgive.
If forgiveness requires waiting until evil doers confess and repent, perpetrators of injustice would maintain a kind of control over their victims. But a major reason forgiveness is so powerfully good is that it can set victims free from such control. Forgiveness does not require that those who have hurt admit their guilt.
We who have been harmed can forgive even if those who harmed us don’t care that they have injured. We can forgive even if those who harmed us are unaware of their injuring. We can forgive even when those who harm feel justified in their harmful acts!
I can’t help but insert my own situation as an example. As far as I know, no individual, group, board, or team has apologized for harming my colleagues, my family, or me. Perhaps none feels responsible and therefore thinks an apology would be inappropriate. Perhaps some worry about the legal implications if they were to admit guilt. Perhaps some feel their actions were justified, because they think NNU would be better without me. Perhaps some rationalize what they have done by saying, “Tom will end up just fine,” meaning I will find another job. I honestly don’t know all the reasons.
Whatever their reasons for not apologizing, I don’t need to wait for them to ask for forgiveness. After all, an apology may never come. But I can choose to forgive them now.
What is forgiveness, then?
I’ve spent most of this essay talking about what forgiveness is not. I thought I’d clear away some of the misconceptions before offering what I think are helpful conceptions.
I’ll explain what forgiveness is and a little about how we can forgive in my next essay, which I will soon post.
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What Forgiveness Is
by Thomas Jay Oord
August 4th, 2015
In my previous essay, I talked about what forgiveness is not. Now let me talk about what it is.
As I write this, I’m aware that I can’t cover all topics related to forgiveness. And I’m aware that I speak primarily from my own experience, aided by my interpretation of the wisdom found in Scripture, religious and moral traditions, and scientific research, especially in psychology. I definitely have much to learn. But I want to share what I have found helpful.
What Forgiveness Is Not
Let me begin by recapping some ideas from my previous essay, “What Forgiveness is Not.”
In that essay, I said that forgiveness does not require that we forget the harm done. I reject the idea that we must forgive and forget.
Forgiveness does not mean that we must feel warm fuzzy feelings toward those who have hurt us. Forgiveness does not mean excusing the wrongdoing. We who have been hurt also do not need to believe our pain is part of God’s plan.
I also said that forgiveness does not mean complacency or passivity. Instead, forgivers are activists. They repay evil with good. We can be angry at the harm done and yet still forgive the harm doers.
Forgiveness is not reconciliation either, because reconciliation requires that all estranged parties be united. We can forgive even when those who have harmed us think their actions were justified.
Finally, I said that forgivers don’t need to wait for those who have harmed them to express regret. If such waiting were required, those harmed would remain at the mercy of the harm doers.
Love is the Heart of Forgiveness
There is no common definition of forgiveness in the scholarly literature. But there are a number of characteristic aspects of how definition is discussed, and those can help us understand what it means to forgive.
As I see it, forgiveness is a form of love. At its core, love involves promoting well-being. It encourages flourishing, positivity, and abundant life. Love advances the efforts of healing, health, and wholeness. Simply put: Love does good.
While love takes many forms, forgiveness is a form of love that means intentionally acting to do good to those who have harmed us. Forgiveness usually involves a pardoning statement of some kind and subsequent actions that treat well or wish wellness to those who have treated us poorly. It also typically involves a change from negative attitudes or emotions to positive ones.
Jesus said love does not repay evil with evil. Instead, those who love repay evil with good. That’s what forgiveness does: it expresses goodness in response to evil or harm.
Incidentally, I define agape as a kind of love that promotes well-being in response to actions that promote ill-being. Agape love chooses not to retaliate against those who have done injury. In other words, agape repays evil with good.
As I see it, agape and forgiveness are closely related.
The Ability to Forgive Comes from God
I believe the power to forgive comes from God, whether we believe in deity or not. God not only calls us all to forgive, I believe God empowers us all to forgive. Just as we love because God first loved us, I think we can forgive because God first forgives us. I think some people love and forgive without consciously being aware that their ability to do so comes from God.
In recent days, I have repeatedly asked God to empower me to forgive those who have harmed my family, my colleagues, my friends, and me. Many have asked me for advice on forgiveness. My wife and I have talked much about what forgiveness requires. “Forgiveness” is a frequent topic of discussion in my house right now!
I believe that God calls me to forgive in the manner God has forgiven others and me. God is in the goodness business. And forgiveness brings the goodness of healing, wholeness, and health – in a variety of ways – to a world of hurt, pain, and suffering.
Give gives us the ability to forgive. And forgiving as God forgives allows us to live life to the fullest.
How Do We Forgive?
So… what does it take forgive those who harm us?
Often the first step in forgiving is simply deciding to forgive. Deciding to forgive means acting for the good of those who have been bad to us. It means wishing them well in our thoughts and actions.
Forgiveness does not seek revenge. It does not harbor bitterness or resentment, but it deals with those negative feelings when they arise. Forgiveness is not vindictive. It consciously chooses to do right to those who have done us wrong.
Saying, “I forgive,” just once is seldom sufficient. Our thoughts and emotions often bring us back to the hurt. We must frequently say, “I forgive,” to deal with painful thoughts and emotions.
I repeatedly decide to forgive. I often say to myself and to others than I forgive those who harm me. Like an athlete who practices her sport so that the sport becomes second nature, I practice forgiveness in the hope that it becomes second nature to me.
Fortunately, the more times we decide to forgive, the more we talk about forgiveness, and when we participate in communities that promote forgiveness, the likelier we will be to choose to forgive when we are hurt. Strong habits of forgiveness make us the kind of people who find forgiveness normal.
The Emotions of Forgiveness
Deciding to forgive, in a moment or in a long series of instances, is usually also accompanied by a second step. This second step is sometimes more difficult and often not entirely within our ability to control. The second step involves transforming our emotions.
Transforming our emotions rarely occurs overnight. Transformation takes time. But forgiveness research and various religious and moral traditions tell us how to replace the negative emotions we experience when hurt with positive emotions of health and healing.
Interestingly, those who forgive typically reap greater benefits – e.g., improved physical health, improved psychological health, and improved social/relational health – than the perpetrators of harm they forgive. Bitterness, cynicism, and hatred plague those who choose unforgiveness. Unforgiving people live wearisome and anemic lives. Forgiving people can live life fully.
We can deal with negative emotions and thereby have a change of heart when we empathize with the perpetrator of our pain. To empathize is to feel the feelings of others. Empathizing involves identifying with the other person’s basic humanity.
Empathizing often involves placing ourselves in that person’s shoes, thinking about that person’s own history and motivations. When we empathize, we see those who have hurt us as broken, insecure, and injured persons themselves. We also try to see the world from their perspective. This helps us understand their motivations a little, without requiring us to justify or condone when they have done.
This point is so important I want to emphasize it: When we empathize with perpetrators of evil, we need not approve or endorse the evils done. We can feel repelled, repulsed, and angry at the pain they have caused. But in empathy, our “hearts go out” to those who have been hurtful. We seek to understand them and their lives in some redemptive way.
The process of empathizing with those who perpetrate evil often involves admitting that we too have harmed others. We have also sinned. We should humbly admit that at times in our lives we have caused harm to others.
Perhaps our sins have not been as awful as the sins of others. Perhaps our victims are less hurt than we have been. But we also need to be forgiven. We all sometimes hurt others.
Helping Others Who Hurt
Finally, countless examples suggest that those who forgive well often work to help others who are hurting. Turning inward and becoming entirely self-focused often leads to depression. But reaching out to others is a powerful act that helps us and those we want to help.
I’ve been moved in powerful ways by the stories found in the book/film, Half the Sky. In fact, I have often shown the DVD in my NNU classes on love.
Half the Sky addresses the evils done to women around the world. One episode features Somaly Mam, a woman sold as a sex slave at a very young age. Mam escaped her hell on earth, however, and now rescues other young girls from the sex trade. She speaks about the pain she endured, her work, and forgiveness:
“This pain never leaves me,” says Mam, “I have lived my life day by day, with love and forgiveness, and the belief that helping others could give them voice and choice and create change.”
The old saying “It is better to give than to receive” has a portion of truth in it. We can and should work toward our self-help and self-healing. But often the best way to find help and healing for ourselves is to seek help and healing for others.
Forgiveness most often occurs in community. This community can come in the form of a wise friend or professional counselor. It can come in the form of a small accountability group or caring friendship. Books and other literature can channel this community that encourages forgiveness.
Some of the most powerful communities seek not just to help their own people deal with evil and pain. They help those outside their communities. They seek to cooperate with God to heal themselves and the world.
At its best, the Church are a people who forgive. They foster an environment that promotes forgiveness. At its best, the Church helps those outside it to discover the benefit of living lives of forgiveness.
In my own situation, I am choosing to forgive. I choose to forgive various people who have hurt me in the past weeks, months, and years.
My choice to forgive is one I repeat often. I repeat in my mind or aloud my commitment to forgive. I repeat my commitment to forgive when additional harm is done. I repeat my commitment when hurtful memories invade my mind or negative emotions press upon me.
I also try to empathize with those who have hurt others and me. I accept their humanity, complete with its ignorance and limitations. I remember the harm I have done to others. This helps dissipate some of the negative emotions I feel toward those who hurt me.
In my forgiving, I also seek to be active in helpful ways. I try to help others who have also been hurt. Forgiveness combats injustice and tries to change structures that do harm. It repays evil with good.
To forgive is to love. Among other reasons, I forgive because I want to imitate a forgiving God by my living a life of love that resembles the loving life Jesus lived. (Eph. 5:1).
I chose to forgive. And I am continuing to choose forgiveness as I seek to live a life of love.
 Love is defined in various ways. In this blog, I will not take the time to defend my understanding of love. I offer my defense and definition of love in many books, but I especially recommend my book, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2010).
 I explore in depth the meaning of agape in Defining Love and in The Nature of Love: A Theology (St. Louis, Mo.: Chalice, 2010).
 See my book, The Nature of Love, for more on this issue.
 I am grateful to my NNU colleague, Joseph Bankard, for teaching me about the relative lack of control we have over our emotions when forgiving. See his current work titled, “Forgiveness as Process and Virtue: How to Overcome Feelings of Anger and Resentment.”
 For a very helpful book on forgiveness research and on how to forgive and seek reconciliation, see Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope, by Everett L. Worthington, Jr. This is a revised edition of his previous book, Five Steps to Forgiveness.
 Simon Marks, “Somaly Mam: The Holy Saint (and Sinner) of Sex Trafficking,” Newsweek 5/21/2014. http://www.newsweek.com/2014/05/30/somaly-mam-holy-saint-and-sinner-sex-trafficking-251642.html