Ask Dr. Forgiveness

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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When someone treats me unkindly, I just strive for justice by forthrightly asking for fairness. I try to get the person to change. This is sufficient, without even bringing in forgiveness, isn’t it?

Why not do both? Why not forgive first, which probably will lower your anger, and then ask for fairness? The asking may turn out to be more civil if you ask when not angry. In other words, think in “both-and” ways rather than “either-or” ways.

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My anger is what motivates me to solve problems and to uphold justice. Forgiveness is the ???opiate of the people,??? reducing anger and thus reducing our motivation to seek and to find fair solutions. Can you convince me otherwise?

This is a good challenge and so I thank you for the question. There are different kinds of anger. One kind,which I call healthy anger, is expressed within reasonable, appropriate limits and can energize us to seek fair solutions. You are talking about healthy anger.

We also have the kind of anger that sits inside of us and chips away at our energy, our well-being, our very happiness. This kind of anger we could call resentment or unhealthy anger. Forgiveness targets this kind of anger and helps to reduce it so it does not destroy the forgiver. As a person forgives, he or she sees more clearly, not less clearly, that what happened was unfair. Thus, someone who forgives is not likely to fall into an unnatural state of lethargy regarding the injustice.

So, keep your healthy anger and fight for justice. Forgiveness is not a foe of justice, keeping it at a distance. Instead, justice and forgiveness can work side by side for a better world. If you think about it, don’t you think that you will be better able to fight for justice if your energy is not brought low by unhealthy anger? Forgiveness can be of considerable help here in aiding the person to control the kind of anger that can thwart the quest for justice.

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