Once I forgive, can the feeling of anger return? If it does, do I have to start forgiving this same person for this same injustice all over again?
Not only might anger return after you forgive, it is likely and so please do not be thrown by this when it happens. We are imperfect and so we forgive imperfectly. When Suzanne Freedman and I studied incest survivors who forgave their perpetrators, one important observation that we eventually made was that the courageous incest survivors, once they had forgiven, did not have high scores on the forgiveness inventory which we gave to them. Instead, they tended to get average (not outstanding) scores on forgiveness. Yet, this was sufficient for them to become emotionally healed (depression and anxiety were significantly reduced and self-esteem and hope for the future significantly rose). They still had some anger, but it was not unhealthy anger, the kind that can poison a person’s psychological insides.
Do you have to start over again if the anger returns? It depends on whether or not the anger is now the unhealthy kind (causing you to lose energy and sleep and making you irritable in your relationships) or whether it is healthy anger (motivating you to do good in the world). If it seems to be unhealthy anger, then, yes, start the process of forgiveness again with this same person and same injustice. In all likelihood, your second time forgiving may be easier and quicker than the first; the third time easier and quicker than the second.
To have to persevere in forgiving is not dishonorable nor is it a sign of failure. Instead it is a sign of courage and perseverance in the face of difficulty.
Learn more at What is Forgiveness?
What happens when someone is repressing the memory of a grave injustice? For example, if a woman was molested as a child, and she cannot remember the incident. How can she ever forgive and be emotionally freed from this?
The unconscious mind is a difficult aspect of human psychology and it is the quality of our unconscious mind, inaccessible as it is to us, that has prompted this question. There indeed are aspects of the self that some people do not remember, especially if there has been trauma. We can repress the memory. Repression is like shutting off the light so that you no longer can read a journal entry, forgetting its contents. Repression is a form of psychological defense against anxiety and is not necessarily a bad thing in the short-run if we need to re-group in order to move ahead in life. Yet, if there is unresolved trauma and we do not deal with it, this can be like the pebble in the shoe—a constant low-grade annoyance that will not let us rest. Sometimes it can cause great distress and we have no clue why we are feeling distress.
My best advice on this fascinating question is this: Deal directly with the deep hurts that are accessible to you. Forgive as best you can. Then be vigilant in asking the question, when you are ready, “But what else is in my past that has hurt me?” As you gain both strength through forgiving and proficiency in the forgiveness process, this can engender in you a confidence that you will not be overcome by traumatic injustices. This further aids you in lowering—slowly and across time—the psychological defenses such as a rigid repression that block the memory.
As a person, for example, forgives her father for Injustice A, B, and C, eventually she may be ready to tackle the issue of sexual abuse. Having confronted injustice that may have surrounded the sexual abuse and having grown in confidence that she will not be crushed by her own anger, that which is unconscious may become subconscious (just below the level of consciousness). It is here that fleeting aspects of that repressed memory may enter into consciousness, allowing the person to finally confront the abuse.
One more point involves false memory. It can happen that a person thinks he or she was abused and this is not the case. This, then, becomes a horrendous injustice against the accused. The false memory is centered on unhealthy anger, now displaced inappropriately onto someone who does not deserve it. The practice of forgiveness for genuine injustices against those who truly have been unjust to us can reduce unhealthy anger, making the displacement of anger into a false memory less likely.
For additional information, see: Choose Love, Not Hate.
How do I know when I have truly forgiven someone? Sometimes I am still angry after I have worked through the process of forgiveness. Can you help me know when I have truly forgiven?
This is an important question precisely because many people hold onto at least a residual of anger when they recall deep injustices against them. Having some anger left over after you forgive is normal and not a sign of unforgiveness—-if—if the anger is not so intense that it is dominating your life. Is your anger controlling you or are you in control of your anger? If the latter, then take heart, you are probably on the road to forgiveness, especially if you have committed to “do no harm” back to the one who hurt you.
Some of the best wisdom I have heard regarding when a person has truly forgiven comes from the late-great Lewis Smedes in his book, Forgive and Forget. He says that if you wish the other well, then you have forgiven. As a point of clarification, you need not wish the person well as your boss now or as your boyfriend now if reconciliation is not possible. As you wish the other well as a person, you have entered into the spirit of forgiveness.
For additional information see: Learning to Forgive Others.
With mid-morning temperatures approaching 86° on Palm Sunday in April 2017, the security guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the seaside Mediterranean city of Alexandria, Egypt, approached and redirected a young man rushing for the church’s main entrance. Seconds later, the bomb strapped to the man’s body detonated, killing both him and the guard while dozens inside the church were spared harm by the guard’s quick actions.
Just days later, after the bomber had been identified as an ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) terrorist, the widow of that security guard was interviewed by an Egyptian television station. As she pulled her young children close to her side she announced:
“I’m not angry at the one who did this. I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’
“You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of.”
While millions of Egyptians across the country marveled at what the grieving woman said, it was far from the first time in recent history that Coptic Christians have expressed forgiveness rather than revenge.
A 2011 New Year’s Eve attack in Alexandria’s Church of Two Saints killed 23 Coptics, for example. In February 2015, the Islamic State in Libya kidnapped and beheaded 21 mostly Coptic Christians on the shores of Tripoli.
A December 2016 attack at a chapel of the flagship St. Mark’s cathedral in Cairo killed 29 mostly women and children–the deadliest terrorism attack against Egyptian Christians until attacks at two Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt’s Nile Delta killed more than 45 people and injured more than 100 others during Palm Sunday services in 2017.
But even in death, the Copts forgive. While Egypt’s president pledged retaliation following those tragedies, Coptic Christians continued to spread their message of forgiveness and love..
On the night of the Palm Sunday bombings, for example, Coptic priest Fr. Boules George said he thanks and loves those who did this crime. Speaking to a congregation in Cairo’s Cleopatra neighborhood, he first addressed the terrorists and said:
“I long to talk to you about our Christ, and tell you how wonderful he is.” But then he asked those in the church, “How about we make a commitment today to pray for them? If they know that God is love and they experience his love, they could not do these things—never, never, never.”(Watch Fr. George’s entire sermon including his explanation of why he thanks the terrorists, at this video link with subtitles.)
The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the most ancient churches in the world, founded in the first century in Egypt by Saint Mark the Apostle during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero. A conservative Church that shares many beliefs and practices with both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, it has carefully preserved the Orthodox Christian faith in its earliest form. Today the Church has 18-22 million members worldwide with more than 75% of them in Egypt–the country’s largest Christian denomination.
Learn more at:
• Forgiveness: Muslims Moved as Coptic Christians Do the Unimaginable
• Libya’s 21 Christian Martyrs: “With Their Blood, They Are Unifying Egypt”
• ISIS Church Bombings Kill Dozens at Palm Sunday Services in Egypt
This article was inspired by a blog post titled “The Scandal of Forgiveness in a Time of Terror” by R. H. (Rusty) Foerger on his website More Enigma Than Dogma. In his post, Foerger asks if forgiveness is ever wasted. He answers his own question with this: “On the surface I suppose forgiveness is a losing game; so is terrorism and retaliation. But go deeper and you will find forgiveness comes from a endless well – available for an ocean of need.”
I have heard the term “false forgiveness,” but I am not sure what it is and how can I make a clear distinction between the false variety and the real thing?
False forgiveness in essence is not about a moral response to someone who has hurt you. It is more about power than leveling the moral playing field (seeing the other and the self as precious, unique, special, and irreplaceable). There are two kinds of power-plays that someone practicing false forgiveness might show: 1) dominating the other person by constantly reminding him or her that, indeed, you have forgiven….and plan to do so tomorrow…and the next day…and the day after that. You keep the other under your thumb by reminding them of how noble you are and how ignoble they are; 2) being dominated by the other person by giving in to unreasonable demands, hastily reconciling, letting the other have power over you. True forgiveness is gentle and kind, honoring the humanity of the other person and the self. It does not dominate or allow others to dominate in a relationship.
For additional information, see What is Forgiveness?