You emphasize love, compassion, and benevolence as part of forgiveness, but not part of the decision to forgive. Why do you not see these as part of the decision phase of forgiving?
The decision to forgive usually is a cognitive act rather than an expression of the heart, of one’s emotions. One usually makes a decision to forgive without necessarily feeling love and compassion because we are not yet ready to offer these when we make the cognitive decision to forgive.
I can sympathize with my brother who hurt me, but I don’t seem able to have empathy for him (stepping inside his shoes, as the saying goes, and feeling what it is like inside of him.) Will I ever have compassion for him without empathy?
Not being able to empathize with your brother today does not mean you will never be able to do this. Empathy can open the door to compassion. Sympathy, or feeling sorry for him, also may be such a door to the eventual development of compassion. Yet, as you are seeing, empathy is the deeper, more challenging perspective. Here are some questions that might help you with empathy toward your brother: Was your brother hurt by others some time in the past? How deeply was he hurt? Is he still carrying those wounds? Can you see your brother’s struggles in life? Your answers may induce a greater empathy for him as you see his wounds from his perspective.
Potchefstroom, South Africa – A just-released scientific study from a theology professor at one of South Africa’s largest universities has determined that individuals with higher emotional intelligence are more effective at self-forgiveness because they can better address “the emotional and spiritual challenges linked to the process of self-pardon.”
The study was published on May 25, 2020, in In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi, the acclaimed official journal of the Reformed Theological Society. Although the study immediately generated some controversial backlash, its author says his findings should come as no surprise.
“Research has also shown how important emotional intelligence is for the success of a marriage, relationship(s), self-discipline, physical wellbeing, social popularity and the workplace,” according to researcher Wentzel Coetzer. “The literature is quite conclusive.”
A theology professor at North-West University in Potchefstroom (68,000+ students), about 35 miles south of Johannesburg, professor Coetzer focused his study on analyzing what he calls “the four prominent pastoral-psychological models identified in the forgiveness literature.”
The first of those four models was developed by psychologist Dr. Robert Enright (The Enright Forgiveness Process Model) while the second of the four models was developed jointly by Dr. Enright and psychiatrist Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons (Forgiveness Therapy). Professor Coetzer also outlines his belief that self-forgiveness has been more or less neglected by forgiveness researchers and is “even occasionally described as the ‘ stepchild ‘ of research on forgiveness.”
Despite that, professor Coetzer outlines that “one of the earliest psychological definitions of self-pardon was that of Enright (1996).” In fact, it was just one of Dr. Enright’s early contributions to the History of Forgiveness Therapy. The co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, who was labeled “the forgiveness trailblazer” by Time magazine, Dr. Enright’s definition of self-forgiveness hasn’t changed since he developed it nearly 25 years ago:
“Self-forgiveness may be defined as a willingness to abandon self-resentment in the face of one’s own acknowledged objective wrong, while fostering compassion, generosity, and love toward oneself.”
Dr. Robert Enright
Citing Dr. Enright’s definition and subsequent research, professor Coetzer uses his study to emphasize that self-forgiveness must not be “a self-serving mechanism to simply avoid the pains associated with owning up to ones offenses.” Rather, he says, authentic self-forgiveness must include:
- accepting full ownership of one’s transgressions;
- accepting responsibility rather than casting it unto others;
- acknowledging guilt or shame;
- refusing to consider yourself as a victim; and,
- attempting to repair the damage.
Professor Coetzer also emphasizes that the bitterness towards ourselves due to offenses and failures can be just as damaging and debilitating as not forgiving others. That can lead, he says, to emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, distrust, negative self-esteem, social withdrawal and neurotic characteristics. Accordingly, he concludes, these actions should be dealt with by “canceling the debt.”
Self-forgiveness, as outlined in this study (and as detailed in Dr. Enright’s seven self-help forgiveness books), is a rational decision affirming your intention to treat yourself as a valuable person. This implies, among other things, that you are no longer vindictive toward yourself and you are no longer going to try to punish yourself for failures of the past. On the contrary, you will consider yourself worthy.
Learn more about Self-Forgiveness from Dr. Robert Enright:
- Self-Forgiveness: Three Controversies
- Are You Interested in Ridding Yourself of All Resentment?
- How to Like Yourself After a Series of Failed Relationships
- How to Forgive Yourself for a Big Mistake–Even If No One Else Will
I started the forgiveness process, but I am stuck on the idea that I might be able to have some compassion for the one who injured me. This is not possible. So, am I flunking the forgiveness test?
You definitely are not “flunking the forgiveness test” if you are unable to feel compassion toward the other. Please keep in mind the following points: First, forgiveness takes time and so please be gentle with yourself. Second, we are not necessarily in control of our emotions, especially one as delicate as compassion, or a tender suffering along with the other. Third, please resist trying to force compassion. It likely will come only with time and the continual practice of forgiving. This could be many months. Fourth and finally, you do not have to forgive in its complete sense to have forgiven the person. Even if you can see his or her mistakes, pain, and confusion, this may be sufficient for your forgiving, at least for now.
For additional information, see Forgiveness Defined.
A close friend asked one of us yesterday, “What is a good heart?” We never had been asked this before. Our response is below. What is your response?
A good heart first has suffered. In the suffering, the person knows that all on this planet are subjected to suffering and so his heart is compassionate, patient, supportive, and loving as best he can in this fallen world. The good heart is forgiving, ever forgiving, vigilant in forgiving. The good heart tries to be in service to others. The good heart is no longer afraid of suffering and has joy because of the suffering, not in spite of it. Having suffered and having passed through suffering, the good heart dances. Others do not understand the good, joyous heart. Yet, the one with the good heart does not compromise the goodness and the joy. It is like a valuable gift received and she knows it.