Ask Dr. Forgiveness

What if I keep offering the goodness of forgiveness to someone and they just do not accept it? It seems to me that this is an occasion for the other to take advantage of me. It also is an occasion to wear myself out by being good with no return of this from the other. What do you think?

Yours is an important questions because, unless we make some important distinctions, you could wear yourself out, but it would not be because of forgiveness. First, let us discuss the issue of your offering forgiveness and the other rejecting it. Suppose, instead of the virtue of forgiveness, you were exercising the virtue of justice and every time you are fair to someone, he or she is not fair to you. Would this stop you from being fair? Woud you, for example, start to be unjust? No, you would persist. Why? Because it is good in and of itself to be just even when others are not. It is the same with forgiveness. It is good in and of itself to offer mercy even if everyone around us is unmerciful.

Now to the second point of wearing oneself out. You can practice forgiveness from a distance without necessarily reconciling with someone who continually takes advantage of you. In other words, forgive but then carefully consider what is fair and reasonable to effect a reconciliation with the person who could wear you out.

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I have a friend who thinks I have offended her. I disagree. She is now demanding an apology. If I refuse, she is threatening to walk out of my life forever. I would prefer that does not happen, despite this conflict. What should I do? Should I apologize even though I do not mean it?

This is an important dilemma, whether to choose truth or friendship. I recommend that you choose both. If it were me, I would tell the truth this way, “I am sorry that I hurt your feelings for [then state what the issue is].”

I am presuming that you wish she was not hurt by whatever she thinks you did. You would be acknowledging this. You are not apologizing for a supposed injustice that you say you did not commit.

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Should I wait for the other person’s apology (repentance) before I forgive? Some philosophers such as Haber and Griswold argue that forgiveness is only legitimate if there first is an apology. And isn’t there a Bible verse saying that if your brother repents then you forgive him?

Because of the length and importance of the answer to this question, we decided to provide that answer in our Blog. Please see: “Must the Other Apologize Prior to My Forgiving?”

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It seems challenging to have an agreement on what forgiveness is. Although your teaching is very clear about what forgiveness is and is not and although I understand that people’s general understanding of forgiveness is not the best representation of what it is at its core, it still remains to be a challenge for me to tell people that their understanding is somewhat limited and less accurate than what it actually is. Recently, I was reading about Forgive for Good by Dr. Fred Luskin at Stanford, and I think, in my humble opinion, his definition of forgiveness is more about controlling one’s thought and emotions for the purpose of personal healing. Even my dictionary states that to forgive is “to stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake.” What would you say to those who who tell you that they don’t agree with your definition of forgiveness which encompasses both positive and negative aspects in emotions, cognition, and behaviors toward those who have treated you unjustly? Thank you for your pioneering work in the study of forgiveness.

Either forgiveness is subjective, meaning something different to each person, or it is objective, with a coherent, non-contradictory definition of what it is in its essence. If forgiveness is subjective, then there is no need for me to answer this question because it is “different strokes for different folks.” Yet, your question suggests that you see that an objective answer exists. There are over 800 books now in print about this topic and I have to presume that each author struggles to bring forth a true definition of forgiveness, otherwise why write the book?

So, it seems intuitively obvious that forgiveness is objective with an essence to it, which means that it has a meaning apart from other similar constructs such as tolerance, legal pardon, neutrality, indifference, mild annoyance, and “moving on from an offense.”

Given the objectivity of forgiveness, what does the term “to forgive” mean? It cannot be both a moral virtue and only thought control to aid oneself. Why? Because no other moral virtue is exclusively about oneself. Virtues flow out of one person to others for their good. If we insist that forgiveness is not a moral virtue, then it is imperative that those so insisting tell us what it is (and break with about 3,500 years of thinking on this matter).

For now, we are safe in assuming that forgiveness is a moral virtue. Thus, if it is, then it cannot—absolutely cannot—be defined as the cessation of resentment for an offense. Why? Because I can demonstrate tolerance and cease to resent. I can demonstrate indifference, and mild annoyance (without the emotional depth of resentment), and even “moving on” from an offense and cease to resent.

So, how can we distinguish forgiveness from all of these other ideas? We do so by defining it in such a way as to honor the “moral virtue” aspect of forgiveness. All moral virtues involve goodness toward others. What is the goodness that forgiveness offers? When a person forgives, he or she deliberately offers the goodness of understanding, kindness, respect, generosity, and even love toward the offender.

Of course, people need not completely fulfill this definition to be forgiving. We all fall short of perfection in expressing any virtue. Our human imperfections do not invalidate what forgiveness is.

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How has your experience been to introduce your forgiveness process to healthcare professionals? Is there a medical group or hospital that effectively integrates forgiveness into any healing process?

Health care professionals are very positive about incorporating forgiveness into their practices. We have given numerous workshops and lectures at the University of Wisconsin Hospital, Meriter Hospital, and the Dean Clinic here in Madison, as just some examples. We have information and links here on our website about: 1) how Cancer Treatment Centers of America has incorporated forgiveness therapy into their treatment plans; and, 2) references to WebMD, both on our “Why Forgive?” page.

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