Ask Dr. Forgiveness

The forgiveness path is just one more obstacle to overcome along life’s tough road. A family member of mine was murdered. I cannot see forgiving this person. Even if I did, that process seems just as outrageously hard as sitting here with no recourse toward the murderer. Am I stuck either way, as a forgiver or as someone who cries out for justice but finds none (the murderer has not been caught)?

First of all, my sincere sympathy for the pain you are being asked to endure. No one should have to go through this. The fact that you are even asking about forgiveness is showing a heroism that I want you, yourself, to see. An important insight that you have is this: No matter what you choose, you will have pain. I would like to gently challenge one of your words: “stuck.” I can understand how you might feel stuck as someone who cries out for justice which is not forthcoming. You are not stuck, however, if you decide to forgive. I think you might be “stuck” right now because of indecision—Should you forgive or not? If you decide to go ahead, then you are no longer “stuck.” Yes, you will have pain because growth in forgiveness is painful. Yet, the pain of working through forgiveness is temporary. The pain of crying out for justice and not finding it may go on indefinitely. When you are ready to get un-stuck, please consider reading the book, The Forgiving Life. It helps you to grow in forgiving and to grow as a person of virtue—strong and even thriving in the face of great pain. I wish you the very best in your journey toward healing.

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I’ve been trying to forgive someone who just keeps hurting me over and over again. How can I forgive this person, when the anger is renewed with each new offense?

This is a question that I receive on a regular basis. You are not alone in this. Please keep in mind that the 100th time a person hurts you may be more painful than the first because of the accumulation of resentment in you. This possible build-up of resentment makes forgiveness all the more necessary. So, I recommend three approaches for you:

1) Persevere in forgiving so that the resentment does not overwhelm you. Forgive the person each time he or she hurts you because of unfair treatment.

2) As you forgive over and over, you will get better at forgiving. Be aware of your growing confidence to forgive and your growing ability, which might mean that you forgive more quickly and with better results each time.

3) Please do not forget that you do not practice forgiveness in isolation of the other virtues. As you forgive, ask for justice, and do so after you have forgiven again so that you approach the person with less anger.

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If a person begins to forgive and then decides that he is no longer ready, is it OK to slow down or even stop the process? If I did that, I feel that it would be unfair to the person who is asking to be forgiven.

There are two issues here. The first is the offended person’s forgiveness process and the other is the feelings and needs of the one who wants to be forgiven. The first issue is basically care of the self, which we have to do. As long as the one forgiving is slowing down or stopping for a good reason, then it is fine to back off, rest, and try to gain strength before pressing on to forgive. Forgiveness is hard work. A reason that is not good is this: slowing down the process to frustrate the other person. This, of course, would be revenge, which is not even close to the process of forgiveness. So, slowing down or stopping for now can simply show the forgiver how hard it is to sustain this virtue.

The second issue concerns the needs of the one who wants forgiveness. Again, we are presuming a good reason for the forgiver’s slowing down. Under this circumstance, it is part of the offending person’s bearing the pain in waiting. There are no guarantees once a person asks for forgiveness and so part of that process is to have patience and to give the forgiver a chance to grow into a forgiving response. The waiting can be painful, but if endured for the sake of the forgiver, it can lead to forgiving, receiving the forgiveness, and reconciling.

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What is “false forgiveness.” I have seen that expression a few times, but I am not sure what it is.

This is the second time the issue of “false forgiveness” has emerged. We have given an answer on February 8, 2012, but we will expand on that answer here.

All virtues such as courage, justice, and forgiveness have what Thomas Aquinas called corresponding vices into which we can slip if we have too little or too much of this virtue, without it being in balance with the other virtues. Take courage as an example. In its proper place, alongside moderation or temperance, it is a way to stand against fear and to move forward for good even when fear is present. Yet, if there is too little courage (the vice of cowardice) when one should act, then the person might hide under the bed rather than act courageously. If there is too much courage (reckless bravado), without it being balanced with moderation, a “courageous” non-swimmer might jump in the ocean to save a drowning dog, and the non-swimmer ends up losing his life. Too much or too little of any virtue constitutes a “false” expression of the virtue.

In the case of forgiveness, what might “too little” of this virtue be? It seems to me that the person would have a distorted view of justice and conclude, “What the person did to me was not so bad. I think I will go back into this situation for more of the same.” The vice is acquiescence. The person, in other words, excuses the wrong itself and then too hastily reconciles without asking anything of the other person.

What might “too much” of forgiveness be? There really is no such thing as “too much” of the actual virtue of forgiveness because it is centered in agape love and one cannot have too much of that. The false variety (dominance) enters, again, as a distortion of justice, but this time, rather than caving in to the other person’s demands or requests, the “forgiver” uses the situation to dominate the other person. In other words, the “forgiver” does not see the other and the self as equal in their personhood and in their rights and obligations. The “forgiver” now takes every opportunity to remind the “forgiven” about how fortunate he is to be forgiven. It is a power play in which the “forgiver” uses forgiveness for self-interest rather than gives love away to the other person.

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I would like to teach forgiveness to some people, but I find that they are not receptive to the idea that forgiveness is worthwhile. How do I proceed, given their resistance?

I have three points for you to consider.

First, because forgiveness is ultimately their choice, if they are not ready to proceed, you should honor that.

Second, a person’s rejection of forgiveness today is not necessarily his or her final word on the matter. So, be aware of changes in attitude.

Third, there is nothing wrong with occasionally discussing forgiveness, bringing it up in conversation, as long as you do not push an agenda. Conversation concerns at least two people and their worlds. If your world includes forgiveness, then sharing that world with others is legitimate, again as long as you are sharing who you are and not using this in a manipulative way. Who you are may play a part in whom the other will become as you share this aspect of yourself.

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