Ask Dr. Forgiveness

I am doing research on forgiveness as an idea in the heart of humanity.  In your own studies, what do you see as the earliest, ancient work that describes person-to-person forgiveness?

The oldest account of person-to-person forgiving that I have found is in the Hebrew Scriptures, in Genesis 37-45 in which Joseph forgives his 10 half-brothers for attempted murder and then selling him into slavery in Egypt.  Joseph ends up unconditionally forgiving them and providing provisions for the Hebrew nation that was suffering from famine.

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What if I think that a person does not deserve to be forgiven?  Should I then not go ahead with forgiveness?

There is a difference between your belief that a person does not deserve forgiveness and your willingness to go ahead or not with forgiving.  I would say that all people are worthy of being forgiven because all people possess inherent worth. All people are special, unique, and irreplaceable.  Yet, forgiveness can take time and so if you are not ready to forgive, this is your choice.  I would say that your not going ahead with forgiving has more to do with your own inner world (your willingness to forgive) than it has to do with who this other person is as a person, worthy of forgiveness.

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Which of your books, Forgiveness Is a Choice, The Forgiving Life, or 8 Keys to Forgiveness, present the deepest view of forgiveness in your opinion?

I would say that The Forgiving Life is the deepest in a philosophical sense.  It is a Socratic dialogue between two women, one of whom is just discovering the importance of forgiveness and an older, wiser person who has much experience with forgiveness.  In this book, I make the case for forgiveness as unconditional love given to the one who offends.

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Can a person forgive too soon?

It depends on what you mean by “too soon.”  Do you mean that the offended person is still angry and not ready to offer forgiveness, but uses the words, “I forgive you”?  If the words are sincere, then this is a kind of promise of more forgiveness to come, such as a change of heart that is more compassionate.  If the words, in contrast, are insincere and therefore are meant to deceive the other for some kind of advantage (such as to butter-up the boss), then, yes, the words are being spoken too soon.  When deeply hurt by others, most of us need time to work through the process of forgiveness.

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I once heard an academic say that forgiveness hurts relationships because it is good to sometimes vent and express anger.  What do you think?

I think we need to make important distinctions in answering this question.  To express anger is not incompatible with forgiving.  We have to distinguish short-term anger, in which the offended person shows self-respect, and long-term and deep anger in which the person harbors a grudge and keeps the offense in front of the one who behaved badly.  The short-term anger is meant to alter the injustice and correct the other person’s injustice.  A person can show such anger, correct the other person, and then forgive.  The long-term variety of anger, in contrast, can be a tool for punishing the other, with no end in sight.  The important message here is to avoid sweeping generalities about anger and about forgiveness.  To presume that one cannot be angry and forgive is reductionism which then distorts what forgiveness is and how it can be used productively in a relationship.

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The Missing Piece to the Peace Puzzle

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