Ask Dr. Forgiveness

I know that to forgive, I must confront my anger toward the person who hurt me, but to be honest with you, I fear my anger. I fear that I could get out of control because the person who hurt me was very cruel, over and over again. I do not like fearing myself. Please help me to overcome this.

First you should realize something very positive: You are aware that you are very angry. Some people deny the extent of their anger, which does not help in cleansing oneself of it. After all, how can you reduce the anger if you are minimizing it? If you have a deep cut on your arm and you are afraid of infection, what do you do? If your fear freezes you to such an extent that you cannot clean the wound and apply an anti-biotic, then that fear is preventing healing. It is similar with injustices and anger. Fear of the anger is the problem more so than the anger is the problem.

Please keep in mind that you do have available to you a kind of cleansing agent, a kind of anti-biotic against toxic anger, and it is forgiveness. As you practice forgiveness, you will see that the anger diminishes. Even if it returns, you have forgiveness to help you once again. As you become better at forgiving, you will fear your negative emotions less because you now have at your disposal a powerful antidote to them. Enjoy the cleansing power of forgiveness.

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I find that whenever I forgive someone, it is never really over. What I mean is I can wake up weeks later and I am angry all over again. This is getting discouraging. What can I do to be rid of the anger so it does not return?

Because we are all imperfect people, we forgive imperfectly. When we have been deeply hurt, the anger can subside, but at times we are reminded of the person and the incident of injustice which makes us angry again. Please realize that this is typical. As encouragement for you, please note that people tell me that as they practice forgiveness, the anger, when it returns, does so at a milder level than before. As you continually practice forgiveness toward new people and new injustices, you may find that as you re-visit forgiveness toward someone whom you already have forgiven, the process is accomplished more quickly and with more thorough results than before. So, welcome to the club of imperfect people. When anger returns, return to forgiveness. In this way, you will be in control of your anger rather than the anger being in control of you.

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How do I stay motivated to forgive? It is hard work. I sometimes feel like giving up. What can you offer to me to keep me going when I want to stop?

You are in good company when you say that forgiveness is hard work. Aristotle said the same thing about growing in any virtue….and that was about 3,500 years ago. It has not become any easier to persevere in the virtues, especially forgiveness. As I point out in a recent blog (What Is a Good Society?), it becomes even more difficult to persevere when our own local communities and our larger society de-emphasize the practice of forgiveness.

With all of that said, I recommend three things:

1) Be aware that you have a strong will. Put this into practice. If you were engaged in a workout regimen, you would need this kind of will. If you were studying for an exam in school or finishing an important project at work, you would need this kind of will.

2) Find a “workout buddy,” someone with whom you can openly discuss your striving to persevere in the virtue of forgiveness. Mutual support can be very beneficial to enhancing the strong will.

3) Finally, consider establishing a Forgiving Community, a small group that gets together regularly on our??Forum??to discuss the perplexing and challenging questions of forgiveness. Such support can lead to deeper insights and strengthen the will. You can meet together virtually and/or physically to discuss the issues most important to your group.

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What satisfaction can you really get from forgiving other than people patting you on the back and saying, ???Nice job???? This seems like such a game to me.

I agree that there can be satisfaction when you forgive. I agree that it is not very satisfying if our primary motivation in forgiving is the reinforcement from others. I disagree that the only satisfaction one gets from forgiving is others’ reinforcement. The primary satisfaction in forgiving is exercising love toward others, those in particular who have hurt us. I think it is profoundly satisfying to practice this love and then to realize that our love is stronger than any injustice that can be thrown our way.

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My father died of cancer and I cannot help but think that this is unfair. God is all powerful and could have prevented this. Can I forgive God for not allowing my dad to live?

I am presuming that the question-asker is a monotheistic believer. In other words, the question is coming from one of the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. The late Lewis Smedes in his popular book, Forgive and Forget, said that God is big enough to take your forgiveness and so if you are angry, then go ahead and forgive. While I am a great admirer of Dr. Smedes, I disagree with him on this one point. A holy and perfect God is a just God, incapable of injustice (not in God???s nature, in other words). If this is so, then our forgiving is actually a distortion because it looks as if God did something wrong. We should avoid this idea if we are to retain the historical and theological wisdom of God???s perfection. Rather than forgiving, we should strive for accepting—accepting what has happened, accepting God???s will. Acceptance does not necessarily imply an injustice, as a person accepts the fact, for example, that a hurricane has destroyed his home. A hurricane cannot act unjustly for the obvious reason that it has no sense of right and wrong and so cannot commit wrong. God and hurricanes are not similar and my examples are not meant to imply otherwise. I bring up both cases to show that acceptance need not imply an injustice which is being accepted. Accept what happens rather than forgive God for what happens and you will be on firmer theological ground.

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