Our Forgiveness Blog
For decades, our group has been monitoring and trying to correct false definitions of what it means to forgive those who acted unjustly. For example, in defining what forgiving is, some authors have erroneously equated forgiveness with excusing the wrong done, automatically reconciling, and abandoning a quest for justice.
I have come to realize that even the process of forgiveness (how people go about forgiving) can be prone to misinterpretations, to errors in what actually occurs when a person engages in the process of forgiving. To correct these errors, let us consider four responses to these misconceptions.
- As a person walks the path of forgiveness, there is a tendency to say, “I have not done enough; I have not reached perfect forgiveness.” This kind of thinking expects too much of the forgiveness process. As Lewis Smedes said in his book, Forgive and Forget, forgiveness is for imperfect people. We rarely reach a perfect state of forgiving. We must be careful not to disparage ourselves if we still have some work to do on the forgiveness process once we exert time and effort on it. Often in our research, when people are gravely hurt by others and are very low in forgiving, they tend to go to the middle part of our forgiveness scale, not to the higher end. Yet, this progression makes all the difference as people shed excessive anger, anxiety, and depression, and can increase in self-esteem. The message here is this: Try to be temperate. On the one hand, do not expect perfect forgiveness. On the other, do not give it a half-hearted effort, concluding that, since you are not perfect, there is no need to keep trying. Strike the balance between too little effort and too high an expectation for you as a forgiver. You will know you are making progress as your anger lessens and as you wish the offending person well (as Smedes reminded us in his book).
- Here is another worry about the forgiveness process: “My process of forgiveness may create an expectation in the other that he now deserves to be back in my life.” Your engaging in the process of forgiveness may lead to a variety of different reactions in other people. Some may now demand reconciliation. This is not your fault. It is a misunderstanding on the part of the one who acted badly. Other people’s misinterpretation of your forgiving, of your goals in doing so, is not your error. It is the other’s error and so please do not hold yourself responsible (or the process of
forgiveness responsible) for the other’s misinterpretation. You may have to clarify that your forgiving does not necessarily mean that you are ready to reconcile. The forgiveness process, as goodness toward others, remains good even if others misunderstand.
- Here is another: “My process of forgiveness may be so time consuming as to imbalance my full life.” This is another issue of intemperance. We can over-do (or under-do) just about anything. Be careful not to place forgiving so high on the priority list that you spend far too little time with loved ones, or neglect your job, or fail to get adequate exercise or rest. The process of forgiveness is part of a complete life.
- And here is our fourth worry about the forgiveness process: “Even as I engage in the process of forgiveness, I may not end all anger.” This kind of fear is common. People want to be done with anger and discontent which are effects of the unjust treatment against them. Even if all anger does not subside, in all likelihood, as you practice forgiving, and then try again…..and then again…..the anger lessens. You, then, are in control of the anger rather than the anger controlling you.
The definition of forgiveness can be distorted. Understanding the process of forgiving can be distorted. Do not let these distortions deter you from the life-giving practice of forgiving.
I have heard quite often that the essence of forgiving others is a decision. As the one who was offended makes this internal commitment to be good to the one who offended, then this allegedly is forgiveness. Is this correct and if not, then what are some of the problems with this approach?
As a follower of the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, I have come to realize that forgiveness is a moral virtue because it has the characteristics of all of the other moral virtues such as justice, patience, kindness, love, and all the others. One common characteristic is that all of these concern goodness, starting within the person so exercising the virtue and then flowing out to other people for their good. For example, one aspect of justice involves the goodness of an equal exchange between persons. If you contract with a carpenter to build a table for you at the cost of $300, you are being good (just) by handing over the $300 once the table is complete.
All moral virtues have a certain wholeness to them, according to Aristotle, in that the one exercising any of these moral virtues: a) knows it is good; b) is motivated to do good; c) behaves in such a way as to exercise the good (as in the payment for the table); and d) becomes more competent in the virtue with continual practice of it.
Given that forgiveness is a moral virtue, it possesses the essential characteristics of all other moral virtues. Therefore, as people forgive, they: a) think about forgiving, knowing what it is and is not; b) become motivated to forgive, which can include a decision to move forward, and an inner conviction or feeling that this should be done; c) behaviorally exercise forgiving, which can be done in a wide variety of ways such as a smile toward the one who acted unjustly, a returned phone call, or other acts of goodwill.
When we look at forgiveness as a moral virtue, we see this wholeness that goes well beyond a decision. Yes, deciding to forgive is part of what constitutes forgiveness, but to claim that such a decision is forgiveness reduces this heroic moral virtue to only one of its component parts. This is a form of splitting, so common in modern philosophy and psychology. For the sake of novelty, some scholars emphasize the importance of feelings when describing humanity; others reduce humanity to behaviors only. None of this splitting captures who we are as persons. In a similar way, reducing forgiveness to one of its component parts, whether it is a decision to forgive or a motivation to do good, is to distort the forgiveness process. If we listen too long to those who split forgiveness into its component parts and chose their favorite part, then we may be hampering people’s full embrace and expression of what forgiveness actually is. This, in turn, may block deep healing from resentment and prohibit genuine reconciliation because the “forgiver” is only partly appropriating this virtue.
I will try to be brief.
Speed. You can see it in the driving as the very rare few people actually adhere to the posted speed limit these days.
Speed. You can see it as you watch people walking on the street, phone in hand, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling. I wonder how long the average person stays on one topic within that phone.
Speed. Have you seen those commercials on the Internet, promising you weight loss at night as you sleep if you take a certain kind of pill? At night? With no exercise? And immediate results?
Speed. I have seen such statements as, “Forgive in 6 easy steps.”
Speed. It is in contradiction to what it means to grow as a person. To grow as a person is to slowly improve in the virtues, first identified by Plato as justice, or giving your best with your gifted qualities so that the community is better off and in harmony with others. This takes time to develop your gifted qualities. Forgiveness, as a moral virtue, is crafted with three things: practice, practice, practice. It takes effort and time and struggle to be good to those who are not good to you. It even takes time to deeply understand what forgiveness is and what it is not so that you do not confuse it with excusing wrongdoing or automatically reconciling or throwing justice under the bus. There is no such thing as the forgiveness pill that will reduce resentment as you sleep.
Speed and forgiveness. I have come to realize that they are not compatible and so I am concerned about the new norms of speed, shifting focus quickly, and a lack of required attention. The new norms may be getting in the way of our forgiving well and therefore of living well with others.
I say in my classes at the university: Whenever you try to improve something, you always create a new problem. Do not see only the improvement but also scrutinize the new problem to see if the new improvement is worth embracing. We have quickened our world as we get to destinations faster by car, as we see what presents our friend in a distant land got in the birthday party today, as we are entertained with a 10-second video……..but what is the problem created? We are in danger of becoming way too superficial, way too unfocused, way too unchallenged, and miss perseverance, miss growing in the moral virtue of forgiveness, and miss the golden opportunity of growing in our humanity and in assisting others in such growth.
A Reflection on the International Educational Conference on Agape Love and Forgiveness, Madison, Wisconsin, July 19-20, 2022
Main Point 1: Despite cross-cultural differences, forgiveness has a common meaning across historical time and across cultures.
Main Point 2: To my knowledge, there never has been a conference on agape and forgiveness before this one.
Main Point 3: It is time for modern culture to reawaken the ancient moral virtues of agape and forgiveness for the good of individuals, families, and communities.
After over a year of detailed preparation by Jacqueline Song and the dedicated team, the agape love and forgiveness conference is now history. That history is preserved in the videos which have captured each talk presented at the conference (the videos are available here: Agape Love and Forgiveness Conference Videos).
I have at least three take-away points as I reflect on this conference:
- The cultural diversity was strong, with presentations by people from Israel, Northern Ireland, the Philippines, Taiwan, and the United States. Despite the wide cultural differences, one thing was clear: The meaning of both agape and forgiveness do not change as we get on an airplane and visit cultures that are far away from one another. Instead, the core meaning of agape remains in that as a person loves in this way, it is for the other person(s) and the expression of this love can be challenging for the one who willingly offers it. The core meaning of forgiveness remains as a person, unjustly treated by others, a) makes the free will decision to be good to those who acted unfairly, b) sees the inherent worth in those others, c) feels some compassion for them, d) willingly bears the pain on those others’ behalf, and e) offers goodness of some kind toward them. Yes, those who forgive may not reach all five of these characteristics, but they remain the goal, that to which we want to strive if excellence in forgiveness is our end point. Yes, there are important cultural nuances as one Islamic educator introduced forgiveness to the students with quotations from the Qu’ran and as an educator from a Christian school opened the New Testament to the students. The rich diversity had a glue that bound all together—-the objective reality of what these two moral virtues mean across historical time and across cultures. Objective meaning met cultural nuance at the conference.
- Unless I missed something in my travels with forgiveness over the past 37 years, I do not think there ever was an international conference that focused specifically on the moral virtues of agape and forgiveness. If this is true, why is it the case? What has happened within humanity so that these two key moral virtues, so prominent for example in Medieval times, would be characteristically ignored in educational contexts with children and academic contexts in university settings? I think the transition from accepting objective truth about moral virtues (for example, justice is what it is no matter where we are in the world even when there are cultural nuances) has given way to an assumption that relativism is the new truth and so we all can choose the virtues we like and define them as we wish. Do you see the contradiction in such a statement? In the abandonment of objective reality that there is a truth, the new thinking is that relativism (in which there is no truth) is the new objective truth. It is time to reintroduce communities to the moral virtues, which we all share as part of our humanity. We need to know what these virtues are by definition and how we can give them away to others for their good, for our good, and for the good of communities.
- When I look across the globe at communities that have experienced conflict, that now carry the weight of the effects of decades and even centuries of conflict, I have come to the conclusion that a reawakening of the moral virtues of agape and forgiveness is vital if we are to heal from the effects of war and continued conflict with all of its mistrust and stereotyping of the human condition. Agape and forgiveness challenge us to see the personhood in everyone with whom we interact, even those who are cruel to us. This does not mean that we cave in to injustices because the moral virtue of justice requires fairness from all. The healing of hearts, families, communities, and nations will be better accomplished if people now can shake off the dust from agape and forgiveness, that have been so ignored in modernism, and find a new way with the old virtues. It seems to me that agape and forgiveness, as a team, is a powerful combination for the healing of trauma for individuals and relationships. I fear a continuation of the same old conflicts in hearts and in interactions if we do not go back and rediscover the life-giving virtues of agape love and forgiveness and bring them forward now in schools, families, houses of worship, and workplaces.
I re-read one of our posts here at the International Forgiveness Institute. It was dated February 29, 2012. What surprised me is this: It was as if I were reading a contemporary news item from 2022.
As you read the 10-year-old essay below, consider asking yourself this: Has anything changed for forgiveness within societies in that timespan? What must we do so that in 2032 the news is not a repetition of the past 20 years?
Here is that essay from 2012:
Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker Movement is alleged to have said that a good society is one in which it is easy to be good. I write this blog post today as I reflect on some recent news stories (posted in our Forgiveness News section of this website). We have the shooting of innocent teenagers in Ohio and we have the murder of a 4-year-old. Anger can sometimes be deadly for the other person who just happens to be in the angry one’s way.
I wonder what those outcomes would have been had those with the weapons been bathed in forgiveness education from age 5 though 18. I wonder what those outcomes would have been had the weapon-carriers, as they grew up, practiced forgiveness in the home. I wonder.
The wounds in the world are deep and everlasting, it seems. What we do here at the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc. (helping people if they so choose to learn to forgive and then practice forgiveness) will never be out of date. Yet, my big worry (yes, it is a big worry) is this: Will there be sufficient laborers in the forgiveness vineyard to bring the virtue of forgiveness to children so that they can become fortified against the grave injustices that come to too many too often as adults?
I worry about those 6-year-olds, sitting now in classrooms, learning their mandated ABCs, without also learning the ABCs of how to deal with injustice. You see, society is not emphasizing forgiveness. We are not being taught forgiveness on a regular basis. We are in a society where it is not easy to be a good forgiver. And so too many of those who are bullied in school do not even think to forgive those who perpetrate the bullying. In Ohio this week, one bullied student’s response was a gun and then murder.
So much pain in the world and yet too many societies do not have the vision and the resources to bring forgiveness education far and wide. Question for those who are listening: The next time a city wishes to build a $250 million complex for athletics or entertainment or whatever, who has the persuasive skills and accompanying wisdom and courage to ask that one half of one percent of that be siphoned off to forgiveness education? If we could go back and ask the deceased students in Ohio or the innocent 4-year-old what is the higher priority….what do you think they would say to us?
Society, what do you think?