Ask Dr. Forgiveness

Can there be such a thing as too much forgiveness?

Forgiveness is a moral virtue as is justice, kindness, and love. So, let us ask the question in a different way: Can we ever have too much justice? The answer is no. How can someone be fair to an excessive degree? Can we have too much courage? Again, the answer is no. We can distort courage, or any other virtue, by engaging in one of the vices associated with a given virtue. One vice associated with courage is reckless bravado. In the name of courage, a person who is a non-swimmer, for example, might jump in a stormy sea to save a drowning dog. This is not courage, but instead is reckless bravado, an unwise exaggeration of courage.

So, as we cannot have too much of a genuine virtue, as we explained with our example of justice, it seems that we cannot have too much forgiveness, either. A lot of goodness is not a bad thing.

As we saw in the example of courage, what we have to guard against is one of the vices associated with a given virtue. One such vice connected to forgiveness is excessive submissiveness, as we let others take advantage of us. Yet, as we can see, this is not a problem of forgiveness itself, but of the distortion of forgiveness.

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Almost a year ago, my girlfriend of two years began telling me that she loved me and wanted to be together, however she wanted the freedom to be with other people. We did not talk for nearly two months, but in that time she had admittedly done a lot of reckless things. When she reached out to me to reengage our relationship, she was extremely apologetic and sincerely remorseful. So I agreed to try to forgive her and mend our relationship. Since then she has put great effort into telling me how sorry she is. Sometimes it hurts to be together and sometimes it hurts to even see her interact with other people, knowing that she so easily betrayed our relationship for the attention of others. Please help me with some ideas about what I might need to do in order to feel ok again.

You say you have tried to forgive your girlfriend and perhaps you have. A key issue now is trust. You can forgive someone and still have trouble trusting in certain, specific areas. In your case, it may be fidelity in the relationship. Forgiveness is an unconditional response of goodness toward those who have hurt us. I say it is “unconditional” because every moral virtue we can name (justice, courage, kindness, and so forth) never requires that someone else does something before we choose to be just or courageous or kind. And, if forgiveness were conditional on an apology, you would be trapped in unforgiveness until the other said those two little words: “I apologize.”

Trust, in contrast, is part of reconciliation, which is always conditional—conditional on the other person’s remorse (an inner response), repentance (“I apologize”), and recompense of some kind. In this case, the recompense seems to be trustworthiness, which is earned one small step at a time. You seem to lack trust because of your statement about your feelings when your girlfriend interacts with others.

I recommend first going through the forgiveness process at least once more to be sure that you have forgiven. If you are still feeling resentful or uneasy, then from your position of having already forgiven her, consider whether or not you should discuss the theme of trust with your girlfriend. This needs to be done in love and in truth so that she does not feel condemned. The point is to talk about ways to build trust so that you can solidify the relationship.

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I am the adult child of an alcoholic father and so I have my scars, both emotional and physical. When I went to my minister for help, he said I should work on forgiving my father. When I went to a counselor who calls herself a “spiritual healer” she said that I have nothing to forgive. She said it will take some time for me to develop sufficiently to really understand and accept this as true. She said that my minister is not developed enough to see this truth. I am confused by the two very different messages. Can you help me understand and move forward?

Your minister and the “spiritual healer” have conflicting views of how the world works. They cannot both be correct. Let us start with your minister. He will tell you that there is such a thing as sin, or offense against God. God has standards of right and wrong and when the standards are broken, not only is there offense against God but also against our fellow men and women. The offenses against people are injustices, not sins against other people. Moral virtues have been created by God (your minister will tell you) as ways of dealing with offenses against other people. Two primary virtues are justice and forgiveness. When a person sins against God, he or she usually commits an injustice against persons, and we try to right the wrong by engaging in the moral virtue of justice. We try to deal with the consequences of injustice through forgiveness. Thus, justice (righting a wrong) and forgiveness (responding to the consequences of injustice) exist side by side.

The “spiritual healer” seems to espouse New Age beliefs. The gist is that love is at the center of the universe and it so dominates that there is no sin because there is no God-as-a-person (or as a trinity of Persons). If there is no personified God, then there is no sin (because there is no divine Person to go against). If there is no sin, then there is no injustice. If there is no injustice then there is no need of forgiveness. What, then, of all of our disappointments with how others act? Those misbehaviors are actually mistakes (according to New Age beliefs) coupled with our mistaken notion that the person has sinned and been unjust. One is to see mistakes where your minister sees sins and injustices.

Here now is your dilemma: Do you think it is a good idea to say that all of your father’s behaviors toward you, which scarred you both physically and emotionally, are mistakes on his part? Do you think it is a good idea to say that your seeing injustice in your father is a mistaken thought on your part? If so, then the burden is on you to change your thought. If the “spiritual healer” is incorrect, then you will be fighting against your natural inclination to label as unjust what your father did to you. You will not have recourse to forgiveness.

You cannot choose both world views without living a contradiction. You now have a fork in the road of your life’s journey.

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In the “Your Forgiveness Stories” section of this website, a person recently told her story and then asked IFI this: Recently, I began listening to a CD that contains a forgiveness prayer. Like I said, I believe I have forgiven. I just want to make sure that the forgiveness is total. I want to be set free. I want complete peace. Is there anything else I should do? What do you think about this situation and what do you suggest?

If you are concerned about whether or not you have forgiven, please consider filling out the Personal Forgiveness Scale, which you can find in Appendix C and Chapter 11 of the book, The Forgiving Life. The chapter gives you directions in scoring the scale and instructs you on your degree of forgiveness. If you are not satisfied with the score, then please turn to Chapter 10 of the book and do the exercises there that should help you to forgive more deeply. We wish you the very best in this important journey.

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I am having a difficult time with forgiving. Here are some of my life’s stories. Perhaps you can help me see the usefulness of forgiveness or perhaps I can help you see the futility of it. 1. At work, a poor-performance report stays with a person forever. There is no mercy. Forgiveness seems futile in the workplace. 2. Politicians use forgiveness to dupe the public into accepting immoral or illegal behavior. Forgiveness is an excuse. 3. On a more personal level, I was repeatedly bullied in school, as a child. I was urged to “forgive” my aggressors, so they would not get punished, and I did. Later that day, they would ambush me after school and beat the living daylights out of me, and ridicule me for having “forgiven” them. Their take was that they had “gotten away” with it. 4. My mother refused to forgive me for the duration of my entire life. When I was in my mid-30s, she would scream at me at the top of her lungs with white-hot fury about misdeeds I had committed at age four. She never forgave me for anything. 5. I have had other life experiences in which people have been brutal. The result is that I feel that forgiving people for the sadistic acts they have inflicted on me is ridiculous…It merely gives them license to do it again and expose my weaknesses and insecurities to them, so they can hammer me even harder. Forgiveness is a fake.

Thank you for the challenge about forgiveness. First, I am sorry that people have treated you so poorly throughout your life. No one should have to endure that. Now, let us turn to each of your five points. I will show you that in each case, forgiveness is not the bad guy here.

1. A permanent record of poor-performance is not an indication that forgiveness itself is bad. People who do not show mercy are not giving forgiveness a chance.

2. Yes, politicians and others sometimes try to hide behind forgiveness for personal gain. That is not the problem of forgiveness itself. This is false forgiveness, playing pretend with it so that one can stay in power. This is not the fault of forgiveness.

3. At school, your teachers needed to help you to see that when you forgive you can and should seek justice at the same time. To “forgive” and then be seen as weak is a failure of the teachers, not a failure of forgiveness. If they encouraged you to forgive, they needed to encourage you to seek justice at the same time. They needed to help you stand up for yourself as you forgave. They were giving a wrong message about forgiveness and that is not the fault of forgiveness itself.

4. Your mother’s behavior showed a lack of forgiveness. This is not the fault of forgiveness, but it is your mother’s choice. She seems to have had a lot of built-up anger inside of her. Had she forgiven those responsible for this anger, she probably would not have taken her anger out on you. Forgiveness is not the bad guy here because your mother did not try forgiveness.

5. Forgiving people for acts of brutality and sadism should not cancel out your right to a fair solution. You need to realize, and this is very important in your case given what you have suffered, that you should place forgiveness and justice side-by-side. As you have mercy on people, expect fairness from them.

In none of these cases do I see forgiveness as ridiculous or fake. It is the failure of people in your life to forgive and to help you balance forgiveness with justice that are the problems. In the future please remember these issues. I challenge you this way so that you do not toss out forgiveness without a very good reason for doing so.

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