What Forgiveness is
What Does Forgiveness Look Like Without Humility?
The philosopher and theologian, Augustine of Hippo, once said that humility is so important that it shapes all other virtues. Without humility, he reasoned, all other virtues only look like virtues, but are not.
If this is correct, then what might forgiveness look like without humility?
Four answers come to mind:
1) Without humility one could become afraid, fearing rejection from the other as one tries to offer the olive branch of forgiveness. Forgiveness then is silent.
2) Without humility one could become arrogant, thinking of oneself as better than others because, “Oh, what a good and virtuous person am I.” Forgiveness then is loud.
3) Without humility one could become condemning of the other. After all, he or she hurt you and you will not stand for that. Forgiveness then is dismissing.
4) Without humility one could become entitled. If I go to the trouble of forgiving, then the other had better pay me back in some way, with remorse, an apology, and affection. Forgiveness then is demanding.
Forgiveness with humility levels the moral playing field and so we can move ahead despite possible rejection, in a quiet way to honor the other, in a loving way as we see the other as possessing inherent worth, and with gratitude knowing that it is a privilege to offer such a gift to another.
The International Forgiveness Institute, Inc. exists for the purpose of helping you to understanding forgiveness and, once it is understood, to practice it if you wish and then to give it away to others. We want you to know that there is a movement that has been building some steam in getting its message out and that message is ultimately irrational and dangerous for those who accept it without deep scrutiny.
The gist of the message is this:
Forgiveness as you think you know it is an illusion because when you try to deal with offenses against you, you will come to see that there are no such things as offenses. What is “out there” is subject to your inner subjective judgement and when you look deeply enough into these offenses outside of you, then you come to realize that there are no offenses, only illusions of offense. There are no sins. There are no offenses. There are no injustices. The Abrahamic religions had it wrong all along. The laws of any land have had it wrong all along. Law Schools are living an illusion that there are offenses to be tried. There are no criminals in the final analysis, only perceptions that what a mass murderer has done is “wrong.” The woman who was brutally raped, beaten, and left for dead in Central Park did not have an offense committed against her. The trial lawyer who sits by her side in court is being duped. The lawyer’s job should be to convince her to cultivate inner peace, to see the rabid attackers as mistaken, as uninformed, but not as sinners or offenders or perpetrators of injustice.
We at the IFI consider these ideas to be the illusion because, based on this view, there is no reality apart from one’s inner world to make sense out of that world. As the late Mortimer Adler challenged all of us, think of the cultures which think this way. What major advances in science have they made? You will see that the advancements in cultures which do not accommodate to the fact that there is a reality suffer the consequence of falling far behind in the sciences, which are based in the fact that there is a reality to be studied, measured, and understood with a common knowledge.
If forgiveness is the ultimate conclusion that there are no offenses to forgive and so the “usual” way of approaching forgiveness is wrong, then let us take this to its logical conclusion. Forgiveness as traditionally understood is a moral virtue. If forgiveness does not exist, then neither does justice or patience or kindness or any other moral virtue. Morality exists only “in here” and not as a commonly held reaction to what is real in the world. Do you wish upon the world this level of moral chaos because you and others have decided that forgiveness in its traditional sense is an illusion?
Be on the lookout for this challenge to the traditional view of forgiveness as grounded in the reality that there are objective wrongs done against us. And if a rape and torture victim ever comes to you and says, “Is it all in my head that there has been a grave offense against me?” what will you say? Rationality, moral order, and a psychologically healthy response to injustice are at stake here. Which path will you choose to help the one who asks the question?
“I hope you are beginning to see that forgiveness is not only something you do, nor is it just a feeling or a thought inside you. It pervades your very being. Forgiveness, in other words, might become a part of your identity, a part of who you are as a person. Try this thought on for size to see if it fits: I am a forgiving person. Did that hurt or feel strange? Try it again. Of course, to say something like this and then to live your life this way will take plenty of practice. Part of that practice is to get to know the entire process of forgiveness.”
Excerpt from the book, The Forgiving Life, page 79.
One major goal of the process of forgiveness is to be reconciled with those who have hurt us by their unjust acts. If the ones who were unjust refuse to change, refuse to reconcile, is the process of forgiveness then incomplete? After all, if the goal is not accomplished, how complete can it be?
If a person wishes to serve the poor and gets caught in traffic, which prevents him from going to the soup kitchen, one can hardly say that the service to the poor was accomplished. Yet, I think this analogy is not a strong one for this reason: Forgiving as a moral virtue is complete in itself when the person exercises that virtue. The exercise of that virtue is independent of others’ reactions to it. Not only did the forgiver intend to perform a forgiving act but also he did so when he offers a cessation of resentment and some form of goodness to the other. In our soup kitchen example, the well-meaning person had full intent to work in the soup kitchen, but did not do so.
All virtues are complete as virtues when exercised appropriately and do not require a specific response from another. As another analogy, if a police officer exercises justice by restraining a burglar, the police officer has exercised the virtue of justice (presuming he had a deliberate intent to exercise justice). Even if the burglar now escapes and burglarizes three different stores, the police officer’s act of justice is complete as a virtue. The intended purpose was not brought to completion and so we must distinguish between a completion of the virtue itself and a completion of an intended purpose for the virtue. The intended purpose at least in part of the process of forgiveness is reconciliation. So, one can forgive and complete this as a moral virtue. At the same time, the other can spurn the forgiveness, in which case, the intended purpose of the process of forgiveness is not fulfilled.
Excerpt from page 27 of the book, The Forgiving Life by Dr. Robert Enright:
“When you forgive, you do not say, ‘Because I forgive you, I now trust you.’ No. You can forgive and still not trust. If the person is showing you that he or she is a danger to you, then mistrust of his or her behavior is warranted. At the same time, and this is stated specifically to those who have experienced trauma, be careful not to confuse a general mistrust and particular mistrust toward a particular person. In other words, many traumatized people have a pervasive mistrust that needs work. Sometimes the traumatized person meets someone who truly is a good person, reliable, and safe to be with, yet the mistrust from past relationships is so great that he or she just cannot give of oneself in the new relationship. Knowing this and working deliberately on the previous issues of mistrust will help. Forgiveness will help. Time will help. Trust is such a delicate thing and needs work if it will improve.”