We hear a lot today about forgiveness, but forgiveness is a loaded word. It’s been tossed around self-help circles for years, but little has been made of what the science behind forgiveness can teach us about our own lives. Psychologist Rubin Khoddam suggests we start with what forgiveness is not. Many suggest that forgiveness does not mean you become best friends with the person who wronged you. Forgiveness is not saying what happened was okay. Forgiveness is not saying you accept the person who wronged you. Instead, forgiveness is choosing to accept what happened as it happened rather than what could or should have happened. Forgiveness can mean that you let go. Forgiveness can mean you love from a distance. Forgiveness can mean you step into your present rather than anchoring in the past. Forgiveness means giving up all claims and insistence for the person who wronged the punishment they deserve.

Many people think of forgiveness as letting go or moving on. But there’s more to it than that, says Bob Enright, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who pioneered the study of forgiveness three decades ago. True forgiveness goes a step further, he says, offering something positive – empathy, compassion, understanding – toward the person who hurt you. That element makes forgiveness both a virtue and a powerful building block in positive psychology.

Not only that, but forgiveness is the cornerstone of any relationship, romantic or otherwise. We assume people see life the way we see life. However, there are as many perceptions as there are people in this world. Our lack of understanding of other people’s views can create gaps built on miscommunication, anger, animosity, and emotional disconnection. However, our relationship with forgiveness can help bridge these gaps. 

Psychologist Thomas G. Plante shares with us some rules of forgiveness. He says to begin with, it is really hard to forgive, whether it is forgiving yourself or others. We all could likely use some help learning to do it better. But what we may not be aware of is that learning to forgive is good for both our mental and physical health. Knowing that forgiveness is good for you doesn’t make it easy to put it in practice, though. While there are no simple solutions to be better at forgiveness there are several principles, we all can keep in mind, including the following:

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you have to forget. We don’t forgive and forget at all. People who have been terribly abused, neglected, and victimized don’t forget their traumas and they really don’t need to do so. They can learn to forgive, yet remember quite well.

Forgiveness and anger don’t mix well. It’s normal to feel anger toward your offender. There are good evolutionary reasons for this related to the maintenance of social order and fairness. Feeling angry also temporarily feel good – it’s an ego boost. But in the long-run, unchecked anger often leads to unhelpful amounts of mental stress over the wrongs done to you, which keeps those memories strong and readily accessible in your mind.

Forgiveness also doesn’t mean you’re minimizing your victimization experience. By engaging in forgiveness, you aren’t saying “it’s okay…it wasn’t that bad.” Not at all! You can forgive yet still admit that the victimization and trauma was very real and very bad.

Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re an easy target. Forgiveness is not a sign of weakness, inexperience, or foolishness. Many people who struggle with forgiveness have been given the advice that they need to “accept” what’s happened and move on. The problem is, terms like “acceptance” are fuzzy and mean different things to different people. Many people hear the word “accept” and assume that it implies endorsement, that you’re somehow okay with what happened or justifying it. But acceptance does not mean endorsement or justification. Many people who are victims of an injustice are further victimized by being manipulated into believing that they were somehow at fault for the bad thing that happened to them. That’s not acceptance. Acceptance means acknowledging that you don’t have power or control over the past.

Forgiveness should not depend upon the other person apologizing and accepting your offer of forgiveness. Sadly, you cannot expect that the person who wronged you can fully understand or appreciate that what he or she did wrong. They may never admit that they did anything problematic at all. That’s okay, because you can engage in forgiveness for your own benefit, not theirs. You don’t need anything from them to forgive them.

Forgiveness does not require reconciliation. Many people who have been wronged assume that they must achieve reconciliation with the person who wronged them. This is especially common among people with a strong religious background. From a psychological perspective, reconciliation is not required for forgiveness. And in fact, holding out for it can actually be detrimental to achieving genuine forgiveness.

The problem with making forgiveness contingent on reconciliation is that other people aren’t under your control. No matter how much you want the person who wronged you to see the error of their ways, offer a heartfelt apology and restitution, and mend the relationship, you can’t control that. And it’s dangerous to spend time and energy trying to control things we don’t ultimately have control over.

Forgiveness is a process. Forgiveness isn’t an all-or-none, black-or-white kind of thing. It is a process. You may never be able to completely forgive another person but you can work to get closer to do so. You may never get to a 10 on forgiveness scale, but you can turn a 6 into a 7 or to an 8. In other words, forgiveness at the lowest level can lead to a higher level.

Forgiveness is not one decision. Forgiveness begins with a single decision but it doesn’t end there. No matter how many stories you hear about the “moment of forgiveness,” don’t forget that forgiveness is a process, a journey. A firm decision and commitment to forgive is an important first step, but be realistic about the fact that it is just that – a first step. There will likely be many more steps along the road to forgiveness. You will continue to see that person you had the spat with at future gatherings. Memories of your trauma will pop into your mind from time to time. Your efforts at reconciliation will not be reciprocated. One decision to forgive is not enough. Be prepared to continue to forgive, day in and day out. And while it may get easier with time, forgiveness is forever.

Forgiveness is more than a feeling. Many people struggle with forgiveness because they confuse the act of forgiveness with their expected emotional outcome. Specifically, most people who are struggling to forgive desperately want to feel better – they want peace of mind, less anger and hate, calm and composure, perhaps they even want to feel compassion or love toward their offender or the person responsible for their hurt. But how we end up feeling is a consequence of forgiveness, not forgiveness itself. What’s more, the feelings that follow (or don’t follow) from forgiveness are not always the same. They vary greatly depending on the specifics of the people and circumstances involved.

Forgiveness is for your health and wellbeing. Since research shows that holding onto anger is toxic for your health and wellbeing, and since no one wants to be around those who are chronically angry, bitter, resentful, and unforgiving, then forgiveness is something that you do for you. It is in your best interest to forgive others for their transgressions, not necessarily theirs. You are not engaging in forgiveness to do them a favor, but to do one for yourself. 

The real secret in forgiveness is letting go of anger. Those who do well and cope best in life are those who have found some way to forgive themselves and others. They have worked hard to let go of the anger and resentment and moved on. They don’t forget and they don’t allow themselves to continue to be victimized. They let go of the anger and choose to forgive whether they deserve it or not.

The road to forgiveness is one’s own. After being wronged, our emotional landscape gets dominated by one or two loud (and sometimes culturally-engrained) emotions, typically some form of anger. But there are almost always other emotions present and worth considering on the road to forgiveness. Cultivate the habit of looking beyond and beneath your most obvious emotions and noticing smaller, quieter ones. These emotions are just as valid as your anger, for example, but they may be more helpful. If you can allow yourself to feel the sadness, regret, and pity for what happened, for example, you may be able to see your offender and offense in a new light. In turn, this may help you think about and act differently, perhaps in a way that better aligns with your long-term values and desire to forgive and let go.

But what does God’s Word have to say about forgiveness? Jesus told His disciples that if you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.[1] It cannot get any plainer than this.

Jesus also cautioned us that when you are praying and you remember that you are angry with another person about something, forgive that person. Forgive them so that your Father in heaven will also forgive your sins.”[2]

He also stated that if your brother or sister in God’s family does something wrong, warn them. If they are sorry for what they did, forgive them. Even if they do something wrong to you seven times in one day, but they say they are sorry each time, you should forgive them.”[3]

The Apostle Paul also believed in forgiveness as a way to dissolve anger and resentment. He says we should be kind and loving to each other. Forgive each other the same as God forgave you through Christ.[4]

Also, Paul urged us not to be angry with each other, but forgive each other. If you feel someone has wronged you, forgive them. Forgive others because the Lord forgave you.[5]

There are over 100 verses in the Bible about forgiveness. Again, and again we find that your forgiveness of others is tied to God’s forgiveness to you. I like the way the Psalmist puts it: “God has not punished us enough for all our sins. He has not paid us back for all our wrong-doings. For His loving-kindness for those who reverence Him is as great as the heavens are high above the earth. He has taken our wrongdoings from us and put them as far as the east is from the west. The Lord has loving-pity on those who reverence Him, as a father has loving-pity on his children. For He knows what we are made of. He remembers that we are nothing more than dust.”[6] – Dr. Robert R Seyda

[1] Matthew 6:14

[2] Mark 1125

[3] Luke 17:3-4

[4] Ephesians 4:32

[5] Colossians 3:13

[6] Psalm 103:12

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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