Ask Dr. Forgiveness

What is involved if I start to forgive? I am new at this and it scares me.

When you forgive, you will not be excusing the person for wrongdoing. Instead, when you are ready you will be offering a cessation of resentment and, as best as you are able at present, to offer goodness of some kind to him or her. You may or may not reconcile, depending on the circumstances. You do not reconcile with someone who could physically hurt you, for example, until you have trust that the person has changed for the better. The gist is this: You will be trying to offer mercy to the one who hurt you. You can take your time and move at your pace so that the forgiveness journey is not overly burdensome for you.

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I believe in accountability. Even God does not forgive without repentance.

Our question for you is this: Must you choose between accountability and forgiveness? Do you see them as mutually exclusive? We should recall Aristotle’s counsel to us. We should not practice any of the virtues in isolation. Accountability is a form of justice. Justice and forgiveness exist side-by-side. Regarding God’s forgiveness, we must recall that God forgives sins. People do not forgive sins. If you base you understanding of forgiveness on the Bible, then please recall that the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers (in Genesis) was a story of unconditional forgiveness. The brothers did not repent to Joseph before he forgave them. It is similar in the New Testament, in the story of the Prodigal Son, whose father forgave him unconditionally, prior to the son’s repentance.

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I recently read that we should forgive those who not only wounded us but also wronged us at the same time. In my understanding, “wronging someone” suggests that we offer forgiveness to those who not just hurt us but treated us “unjustly”. However, I was wondering about cases where someone hurts the other person by mistake or without any ill intention. For example, think about car accidents. In most cases, a driver wouldn’t intentionally try to get involved in an accident, but it happens and the damage/ injury can be quite serious. Do we forgive or have the right to forgive those who we think that made mistakes but wounded us badly? Thank you very much!

If we are wounded by someone’s mistake, this can still be viewed as an injustice. Let us take your car accident example. Yes, the driver who hits another may have the best of intentions, but he/she might have paid much better attention, given the grave consequences of a lapse in concentration. There are injustices of commission and omission. An injustice of commission occurs when the other intends wrong. An injustice of omission occurs when the person does not intend wrong but at the same time fails in some way, fails to act as he or she should. Not paying attention on the road is an injustice of omission and can be forgiven.

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I’m 16 years old and lately I’ve been feeling guilty because when I was about 8 or 9 years old I lied on my teacher that she choked me. She was really mean and she ran up into my face and yelled at me but she didn’t choke me. I don’t know why I said she choked me. Now I want to ask for forgiveness and I’m trying to find out what her address is so I can send a letter. What should I do?

It is courageous of you to want to ask forgiveness from your teacher. When we seek forgiveness, please remember the “3 R’s” of remorse, repentance, and recompense. Remorse is the inner sorrow for what you did. Repentance is knowing you did wrong and wanting to make it right. Recompense is what you do now in a behavioral sense to make it as right as you can. When you write the letter, please keep the 3R’s in mind. They may help you craft a focused and sincere letter. By the way, the letter itself is probably the recompense in this case.

Regarding finding the teacher, is she still working? If so, send your letter to her at the school. Is she retired? If so, send the letter sealed in an envelope addressed to the principal. Ask the principal (in a separate letter addressed to him or her) to forward your letter to the teacher. Please be sure the letter to the teacher is in its own sealed envelope for the sake of privacy. You can always follow up with the principal to be sure your letter was forwarded to the teacher.

Finally, the teacher’s strong reaction may have been an injustice to you. If you think that is the case, then please work on forgiving her for the strong reaction. Feeling like you were going to be choked may be sufficient grounds for your forgiving her.

Thank you for having the courage to do all of this.

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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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