I define forgiving as the elimination of all desire for revenge and personal ill will toward those who deeply wrong or betray us. This elimination usually brings an inner peace of heart and the freedom of not having our lives defined by the injuries we have suffered.
Forgiving is reserved for serious betrayals and wrongs. It is distinguished from excusing, which applies to less serious injuries or irritations. It is also distinguished from pardoning, which simply releases the injurer from punishment. Forgiving is not the same as accepting or understanding. Forgiving is reserved for acts which, in the view of the one injured, are not acceptable and not justifiable.
I assume that forgiving is a concern for most human beings. But Christian forgiving is forgiving which emanates from Christian understandings and/or motivations.
The following is my personal model of interpersonal Christian forgiving:
My model of interpersonal Christian forgiving is a blend of biblical, psychotherapeutic, and personal insights. I believe my model of forgiving can be called Christian, because it is largely grounded in Christian scripture, and otherwise not incompatible with it.
In the following, I will list the elements of my model in six sections. In each section, I will identify the primary source(s) for these elements--biblical, psychotherapeutic, or personal. Also, I will comment briefly on key points. Though not always noted, my personal insights have ultimately guided my selection of appropriate biblical and psychotherapeutic insights.
1. In my model, God is all loving and forgiving. It is appropriate for Christians to forgive, because God has forgiven us. As we forgive others, our ability to appreciate God's forgiveness of us is deepened. We also witness to our own need of God's forgiveness for injuries we inflict on others, wittingly or unwittingly. In forgiving, we begin to rediscover the basic humanity of the person who injured us. Because of every individual's basic humanity and relationship to our loving God, no one is inherently beyond our ability to forgive.
- Biblical: These views grow out of my biblical understanding that God is a loving, forgiving being, and that there is an intimate connection between God's forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others. When this connection is deeply appreciated, we are brought face to face with our own humanity, as well as the humanity of those who injure us.
2. In order to forgive, it is essential that we decide we want to forgive the one who injured us. Without this decision, forgiving is not usually possible.
- Psychotherapeutic: To forgive, it is important that injured persons understand the nature of their injuries and take responsibility for initiating their process of forgiving.
- Personal: I do not recall ever knowing anyone who forgave, who did not first consciously want and choose (at least in some sense) to forgive. I do not believe our forgiving just happens without or against our wills to do so.
3. We cannot forgive through sheer will alone. Rather, our forgiving is ultimately a gift of grace from God. God prompts us to receive this divine gift, so we can forgive those who have seriously wronged or betrayed us.
After deciding we want to forgive, we can then set out on a personal journey of the heart with God, to forgive. It is during this journey that God's gift of forgiving usually comes to us. We know we have forgiven when we feel peace in our hearts concerning our injury; we no longer bear any ill will toward the one who injured us. Journeys of forgiving can sometimes take years.
- Biblical: I believe God's grace is a free gift which enters our lives in many ways. One of God's gracious gifts to us is a deep inner peace of heart, which we are incapable of creating for ourselves. Forgiving is ultimately the elimination of all desire for revenge and ill will toward those who injure us. I identify this elimination with God's gift of inner peace. Once we decide to enter the process of forgiving, we can become recipients of this gift from God in our hearts, even before we realize it. In the words of Colossians 3:12-15, NRSV:Forgive each other just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.
- Personal: After my parents separated with bitterness, my father rejected and tried viciously to hurt the good reputations of his sons. After more than twenty years of holding deep anger against my [by then deceased] father, I made a conscious decision to go on a journey of the heart to forgive him. After more than two years of journeying, my forgiveness finally came. I believe it came as a gift of inner peace from God. I do not believe that I or any other human being could have completely eliminated all my deep-seated negative feelings against my father. My forgiving finally came as an inner peace which "passes all understanding."
4. I believe forgiving is a legitimate and complete act for an individual, whether or not it leads to reconciliation. Forgiving happens inside the person who does it. Forgiving welcomes but does not depend upon the repentance of the injurer.
We can forgive in our hearts before we ever verbalize the words "I forgive." We may or may not choose to express our forgiveness directly to the one who injured us, depending on our sense of the situation between that person and ourselves.
According to Christian scripture, full reconciliation is the ideal in human relationships. But practically speaking, that ideal can only be reached through the mutual commitment and cooperation of both victim and injurer. An individual's act of forgiving opens the way for reconciliation, at least for the one who forgives. Reconciliation can, but does not necessarily, lead to actual reunion (i.e. divorced couples who later are reconciled, but choose not to be reunited).
- Biblical: Many New Testament passages portray human forgiving as an unconditional act which is not dependent upon the injurer's repentance. Some examples are: Mark 11:25; 2 Corinthians 2:7; Colossians 3:13; Luke 15:11-13, and Luke 17:3 [in which repentance is presented as a sufficient, not necessary condition for forgiving].
- Psychotherapeutic: Individual freedom, individual responsibility, and personal boundaries are important. Reconciliation is the responsibility of both the forgiver and the injurer, not the forgiver alone. Ultimately, neither can control the other's contribution to reconciliation, nor bear the other's responsibility for it. To make the authenticity of the victim's forgiving dependent on the injurer's repentance or on the success of reconciliation with that injurer, is to place the victim in the potential position of being a victim twice!
- Personal: Jesus' "Parable of the Prodigal Son" presents a wonderful image of reconciliation and reunion between a father and his son. But the sad reality of life is that not all prodigals return home. Neither do all prodigals recognize, take responsibility for, or even cease their injurious acts. Like my father, some even die, ending all hope for reconciliation.
5. Forgiving usually involves a process of inner healing. I believe it is entirely valid for Christians to forgive for the sake of their own well-being and inner healing, as well as for these three traditional, biblically supported reasons: God has forgiven us; Jesus has told us to forgive; to be reconciled with the injurer. See Modern Views.
- Biblical: My biblical understanding is that God is deeply concerned about our well being as individuals. Even the hairs on our heads are counted. Jesus devoted much of his ministry to healing those who suffered. In the process, he did not repudiate as "selfish," those who sought healing for themselves.
- Psychotherapeutic: When one is wronged or betrayed, one suffers emotional wounds which can give rise to feelings such as anger, enmity, guilt, rage, resentment, or shame. Forgiving a wrong or betrayal involves a process of emotional healing in which such painful feelings are worked through and ultimately resolved. Forgiving for the sake of one's inner healing and well being is important.
- Personal: After years of being angry with my father, I discovered one day that I needed to forgive my father at least for my own well being. My inner anger, though mostly hidden to others, was a great personal burden. This discovery was the turning point which prompted my decision to go on my journey of forgiving.
6. Forgiving does not necessarily involve: (a) the exemption of the injurer from the demands of justice, (b) our restoration of the injurer to his or her pre-injury position or status, or (c) a complete forgetting of the injury. Forgiving does not mean we condone the injury or that we can make things exactly the same as they were before the injury.
- Biblical: In Jesus' "Parable of the Prodigal Son," the father forgives his errant son. However, he does not also seek to divide his estate between his two sons a second time, as if the younger son had not already received his fair share. This father's forgiving remembers the circumstances of his younger son's leaving. It also honors fair treatment of the elder brother and the ultimate responsibility of the younger son for his actions.
- Psychotherapeutic: People are responsible for their behavior. For their own healing and well being, some victims may be well advised to abandon their expectation of some form of compensation from their injurers. However, even in such situations, injurers may still be subject to legal and other consequences of their behavior. Forgiveness does not necessarily include full restoration of trust broken by an injury. We should not deny the seriousness of our injuries or try to forget them completely. Rather, we should seek to learn from them, especially to prevent their recurrence in the future.
Lewis B. Smedes is the author whose published works best exemplify my views. See Select Annotated Bibliography.
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Last Updated on December 19, 1997 by Rev. Dr. Douglas K. Showalter