Ask Dr. Forgiveness

I’ve been trying to forgive someone who just keeps hurting me over and over again. How can I forgive this person, when the anger is renewed with each new offense?

This is a question that I receive on a regular basis. You are not alone in this. Please keep in mind that the 100th time a person hurts you may be more painful than the first because of the accumulation of resentment in you. This possible build-up of resentment makes forgiveness all the more necessary. So, I recommend three approaches for you:

1) Persevere in forgiving so that the resentment does not overwhelm you. Forgive the person each time he or she hurts you because of unfair treatment.

2) As you forgive over and over, you will get better at forgiving. Be aware of your growing confidence to forgive and your growing ability, which might mean that you forgive more quickly and with better results each time.

3) Please do not forget that you do not practice forgiveness in isolation of the other virtues. As you forgive, ask for justice, and do so after you have forgiven again so that you approach the person with less anger.

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If a person begins to forgive and then decides that he is no longer ready, is it OK to slow down or even stop the process? If I did that, I feel that it would be unfair to the person who is asking to be forgiven.

There are two issues here. The first is the offended person’s forgiveness process and the other is the feelings and needs of the one who wants to be forgiven. The first issue is basically care of the self, which we have to do. As long as the one forgiving is slowing down or stopping for a good reason, then it is fine to back off, rest, and try to gain strength before pressing on to forgive. Forgiveness is hard work. A reason that is not good is this: slowing down the process to frustrate the other person. This, of course, would be revenge, which is not even close to the process of forgiveness. So, slowing down or stopping for now can simply show the forgiver how hard it is to sustain this virtue.

The second issue concerns the needs of the one who wants forgiveness. Again, we are presuming a good reason for the forgiver’s slowing down. Under this circumstance, it is part of the offending person’s bearing the pain in waiting. There are no guarantees once a person asks for forgiveness and so part of that process is to have patience and to give the forgiver a chance to grow into a forgiving response. The waiting can be painful, but if endured for the sake of the forgiver, it can lead to forgiving, receiving the forgiveness, and reconciling.

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What is “false forgiveness.” I have seen that expression a few times, but I am not sure what it is.

This is the second time the issue of “false forgiveness” has emerged. We have given an answer on February 8, 2012, but we will expand on that answer here.

All virtues such as courage, justice, and forgiveness have what Thomas Aquinas called corresponding vices into which we can slip if we have too little or too much of this virtue, without it being in balance with the other virtues. Take courage as an example. In its proper place, alongside moderation or temperance, it is a way to stand against fear and to move forward for good even when fear is present. Yet, if there is too little courage (the vice of cowardice) when one should act, then the person might hide under the bed rather than act courageously. If there is too much courage (reckless bravado), without it being balanced with moderation, a “courageous” non-swimmer might jump in the ocean to save a drowning dog, and the non-swimmer ends up losing his life. Too much or too little of any virtue constitutes a “false” expression of the virtue.

In the case of forgiveness, what might “too little” of this virtue be? It seems to me that the person would have a distorted view of justice and conclude, “What the person did to me was not so bad. I think I will go back into this situation for more of the same.” The vice is acquiescence. The person, in other words, excuses the wrong itself and then too hastily reconciles without asking anything of the other person.

What might “too much” of forgiveness be? There really is no such thing as “too much” of the actual virtue of forgiveness because it is centered in agape love and one cannot have too much of that. The false variety (dominance) enters, again, as a distortion of justice, but this time, rather than caving in to the other person’s demands or requests, the “forgiver” uses the situation to dominate the other person. In other words, the “forgiver” does not see the other and the self as equal in their personhood and in their rights and obligations. The “forgiver” now takes every opportunity to remind the “forgiven” about how fortunate he is to be forgiven. It is a power play in which the “forgiver” uses forgiveness for self-interest rather than gives love away to the other person.

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I would like to teach forgiveness to some people, but I find that they are not receptive to the idea that forgiveness is worthwhile. How do I proceed, given their resistance?

I have three points for you to consider.

First, because forgiveness is ultimately their choice, if they are not ready to proceed, you should honor that.

Second, a person’s rejection of forgiveness today is not necessarily his or her final word on the matter. So, be aware of changes in attitude.

Third, there is nothing wrong with occasionally discussing forgiveness, bringing it up in conversation, as long as you do not push an agenda. Conversation concerns at least two people and their worlds. If your world includes forgiveness, then sharing that world with others is legitimate, again as long as you are sharing who you are and not using this in a manipulative way. Who you are may play a part in whom the other will become as you share this aspect of yourself.

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When I think about it, I have a long list of people to forgive, starting from childhood and moving up to the present in my adult life. It all seems so overwhelming, With whom should I start and why? How can I get organized as I forgive in this way?

This is a common and important question. It is important because to organize all of this information is not simple. In my new book, the Forgiving Life (particularly Chapters 8 and 9), I systematically walk you through this process of getting organized in the way you request.

Here is the gist of those chapters. First make a list of people, from the family in which you grew up, who have hurt you. As many times as they were seriously unjust to you, list those incidents as best you can. Then move to peers and school experiences, then to adolescence, and into adulthood with work and relationship experiences. List each incident of considerable injustice as best you can.

Then start in the family of origin (where you grew up) because it is there where you may have established your own pattern of behavior. I recommend that you do not begin forgiving the one person for the one event that was most challenging for you. Start smaller and learn to forgive before moving up the scale of hurt to the one person and one event that caused you the most hurt. From there, move to schooling or peers, whichever needs your forgiveness work the most and again follow the same pattern. Start with the smaller issues and work up to the larger. Eventually you will come to the present day where you may have to forgive a partner or someone else close to you. You already will be strengthened by all of the prior work and so this new task will not be the huge challenge it might have been, had you not built up your forgiveness muscles first by forgiving people from your past.

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