Frequently Asked Questions
Here we explore answers to questions that are often asked about forgiveness. Perhaps you have asked yourself some of these same questions. We hope this discussion will be helpful to you for the courageous task of applying forgiveness in your own life.
As you read and ponder these issues for yourself, we invite you to post your own question on our Ask Dr. Forgiveness page.
Note: More detailed answers to these and other questions can be found in “The World of Forgiveness” Vol. 3, No. 4 available in the IFI Store.
- Why are some people afraid to forgive?
An unclear or mistaken understanding of forgiveness may contribute to this fear. For example, forgiveness may mistakenly be seen as a relatively superficial choice that denies or ignores the pain caused by the wrongdoing. Or forgiveness may be seen as an act that must happen quickly and that does not allow for the time one might need to process the hurtful event.
By contrast, forgiveness may be resisted in order to maintain anger that is “protecting” the person from looking directly at deep pain caused by the wrongdoing. Some people may fear that forgiveness will be seen as condoning the wrong action or letting the wrongdoer “off the hook.” And, in some cases, choosing forgiveness may be confused with undue pressure for full reconciliation with a wrongdoer who may continue to act in an unfair or unsafe manner.
- Why is forgiveness better than a neutral attitude toward the wrongdoer?
A neutral stance toward the wrongdoer may, in some cases, indicate a denial of the pain that the injured person is experiencing. “Dick always acts like that; I’ll just let it roll off my back.” By contrast, the process of forgiveness leads to more clearly identifying the wrongdoing, accurately attributing the responsibility to the wrongdoer, and acknowledging the pain of the injury.
A neutral stance may also deny the value of the wrongdoer. “Dick always acts like that. It’s best just to discount him as a person.” The process of forgiving, however, while acknowledging the responsibility of the wrongdoer for the injury also acknowledges the complexity and value of the wrongdoer as a fellow human being.
- If I forgive, I am concerned that I may forget. Will forgiveness make me forget?
Those who have experienced great trauma over another person’s actions do have the legitimate fear that the injustice will continue if forgiveness is offered. As an example, the physically abused spouse feels that she or he might so dismiss the blows upon forgiving that those blows will surely come again. People who have experienced severe social injustice may be concerned that forgiving will lead to a sort of “forgetting” that allows the continuation (or even exacerbation) of that social injustice.
This is among the most important questions ever asked about forgiveness because the answer has consequences for people’s well-being and safety–perhaps in some cases their very survival. Our response is that we must first realize that forgiving is a choice, one freely entered into by the one who was hurt. Only after careful examination of forgiving, in which a person’s confusions, doubts, and reservations are addressed, should he or she embark on forgiving. If forgiving is entered with clarity and conviction, then the forgiver is likely to avoid the issues of “forgetting” raised in the question above.
We are assuming that by using the word “forgetting” the person is really saying this: “If I forgive, I am opening the door for continued abuse. As I accept the person (or people) into my life, I become vulnerable if the one who hurt me is still acting immorally.” In other words, the one who is questioning forgiving actually is confusing it with reconciling. If one reconciles (comes together again with one who insists on acting unjustly, then, yes, the “forgiver” is risking further injury.
Yet, forgiving and reconciling are not always linked. One can forgive, but not reconcile. One who has taken the time to understand the subtleties of forgiving should realize this distinction and keep it in mind. It is possible to forgive and not reconcile.
Finally, we do not think anyone develops a moral amnesia from forgiving. We all tend to remember significant, painful events in our lives. Depending on the circumstance, we often do not feel the pain again, but the memory lingers. Why should it be any different when the pain involves another’s cruelty toward us? In situations of considerable injustice, we remember the injustice, lest it happen again. Forgiveness is not a drug to blot out memory.
- If I forgive, I am concerned that I won’t forget. Will forgiving help me forget?
This question is substantially different than the previous one. Above we have a situation in which the questioner does not want to forget. In the one here, the questioner wants to forget. We are presuming that this question is centered on putting the painful past behind the person. A person asking this question usually is not menaced by an unjust person (or group) who may continue to threaten his or her safety. Instead, the questioner usually has a certain distance from the difficulty and wishes to accept what happened and move forward in his or her life.
Over time, a person in this situation probably will not remember in the exact same way as when the offense occurred. That person will probably remember some of the good times more and will probably de-emphasize the bad. Will forgiving help that person forget? Yes, but only as the person remembers in new ways.
- If I forgive, might I repress my angry feelings?
Some people are afraid that their forgiveness will result in an unhealthy repression of the anger they should be feeling toward the one who was unfair. In reality, if a person has a clear definition of forgiveness and avoids equating it with “overlooking,” reconciliation, and the abandonment of justice, then the fear should vanish. It is imperative, however, that anyone starting to forgive first understand precisely what forgiveness is and is not.
- Is it selfish of me to forgive for my own benefit?
Your motivations for forgiving may change as you gain more insight and experience. If a person is so hurting because of another’s cruelty, is it not reasonable to seek a cure? If you have a severe blister on your foot that hampers your ability to walk, wouldn’t you focus on fixing the hurt?
The emotional pain from another’s injustice is little different than the foot pain. The emotional pain is a signal that you are now to attend to that pain, not in any obsessive, all-consuming way, but in a reasonable, mature way. Your acknowledging that you must confront the pain is not dishonorable. As you deal with the pain of forgiving, you probably will find that your motivations change from a focus on your own pain exclusively to the person who hurt you. If you do see yourself as selfish, be more patient and gentle with yourself as you courageously acknowledge that you are hurting.
- How do I know when I have genuinely forgiven?
Many people seek some concrete sign that forgiveness is complete. There can be an uneasiness until there is a guarantee of sorts that the journey is ended. Yet, if we see forgiveness as a process, one that can take time, then perhaps the quest for an end–a complete termination of resentment and a complete embrace of forgiving–is not so vital. Being open to further developments in forgiving might become the goal.
Forgiveness takes time in many cases and so there are various markets along the path to show you that forgiving is, in fact, taking place. One of the first markers is the decision to enter into forgiving. If you make a commitment to avoiding resentment and revenge against the person, you are forgiving and should give yourself credit for this.
If you begin to see the offender in a different light, seeing him or her as a member of the human community, with a round, thorough, harsh condemnation entering in, then you can have confidence that forgiving is occurring. Over time, as the negative thoughts and feelings wane, you may find yourself with a glimmer of positive thoughts and feelings toward the one who hurt you. That is another positive step in the forgiveness process.
There are deeper test for deeper levels of forgiving, such as the expression of kindness, generosity, and moral love toward the one who hurt you, but these are more analogous to final exams, sometimes not reached by the forgiver. You need not wait until you’ve reached such distant markers along the path to credit yourself with the act of forgiving.
As you continue to progress in your commitment to forgive, you are likely to experience more and more relief from recurring thoughts about the wrongdoing. You may experience a decrease not only in periods of anger, but also in feelings of anxiety or depression. You may also experience a confirmation of your value for forgiveness itself and a sense of renewed purposefulness in life. Indeed, you may discover that forgiving has helped you grow as a person who expresses love and concern both for the wrongdoer and for many other people in your daily life.
- Should I forgive immediately after being hurt by someone or should I take some time first?
This question is quite difficult because circumstances are an important ingredient in the answer. Some offenses are so dreadful that they take much time, while others require only a bit of work with much reward. To set a prescribed timeline for commencing forgiving is to ignore our dictum that forgiving is a choice. To suggest that someone must begin forgiving immediately upon suffering a moral injury is to ignore the necessary period of anger that precedes the forgiveness work. Yet, if we realize that anger, appropriately expressed, is a part of the forgiveness process, then it seems quite reasonable for someone to begin forgiving soon after the injury if the person so chooses. In reality, there is no right or wrong answer to when a person may decide to alter one’s angry course in favor of mercy and kindness.
- Can forgiveness and justice occur together?
Justice and forgiveness are distinct concepts but both are based on the notion of wrongdoing by one person(s) and harm to another person(s). Forgiveness is a commitment that can be made by an injured person separately from the pursuit of justice. However, seeking justice is also commendable so long as the pursuit of punishment or recompense is not done with the “hidden motive” of seeking revenge.
Forgiveness is based on a personal moral commitment. By contrast, justice is best based on a community standard. Forgiveness provides a personal response to the wrongdoer as a mistaken but valuable human being and will likely provide relief from the pain of the wrongdoing. The pursuit of justice can validate the wrongdoing and can address (in part) the outcome of the wrongdoing itself.
- How do I forgive an institution, such as a place of employment?
People commonly ask this question when they believe an institution was unfair to them. A person who is fired, or must accept a low wage, or tolerate what is seen as unjust laws within an organization all struggle with forgiveness issues.
Our opinion is that the person wishing to forgive should try to identify those people who are at the center of the discontent. Finding a specific person or group may make the forgiveness task easier and philosophically more accurate. After all, an institution without the human workers is only a set of lifeless buildings, documents, and perhaps machines. Is it not people who breathe life and morals into institutions? Try to find those who could be doing better and forgive them.
- How long must I wait before I experience some emotional relief from the injustice I am enduring?
Many people try forgiveness when they are emotionally uncomfortable. In the beginning, the bottom line for many is emotional relief. We cannot say definitively when anyone will feel less anxious and more settled inside. We do have some indication that it can be a matter of weeks, not months or years, as we saw in some of our studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While a specific answer cannot be given, we can say that our research results are encouraging. At the same time, the more entrenched the emotional turmoil, the more time may be necessary.
- How often should I do the work of forgiving?
It is our opinion that forgiving is hard but rewarding work. One must put effort into understanding what forgiveness is and is not and distinguish forgiveness from its many false forms. You must strive to know how to forgive and practice the various steps of forgiving and distinguish grieving from forgiving to be faithful to either path. Grieving and forgiving go hand in hand. You must be committed to stay the course of forgiving.
Should a prospective forgiver, then, expect to devote most waking hours to the process? Of course not, because this is not meant to be an exhausting exercise, but a refreshing on. Forgiving is a part of an overall life, not life itself. Just as physical exercise is beneficial, it can lead to knee surgery if one pushes beyond one’s capacity. Please do not be in a hurry to run through the forgiveness processes. If you do not grant yourself this patience, you may push too hard with ineffective results.
Note: More detailed answers to these and other questions can be found in “The World of Forgiveness” Vol. 3, No. 4 available in the IFI Store .