Over the past twenty plus years, the issue of forgiving has received much more attention in our society than before. Numerous books and articles on the subject have been published, national conferences have been held, and just this past year an international institute was founded to study forgiving. Why is there so much more interest now?
Until recently, psychotherapists avoided the issue of forgiveness, because they thought it was too religious in nature. But that began to change after 1988, due to the advent of programs for the adult children of alcoholics and therapeutic work with victims of severe physical and sexual abuse.
These led psychotherapists to discover and begin studying the importance of forgiving in psychological healing. As awareness in the therapeutic community grew, the issue of forgiving quickly entered the mainstream of our society, as a subject of widespread interest and concern.
This recent study and concern has raised challenges to at least four traditional views of forgiving which are held by some Christians in our society.
1. Abused women in our society have often been counseled by Christian clergy and others, that it is their duty to forgive and be reunited with their abusive husbands, even while the abuse is still occurring! Due to recent psychotherapeutic explorations of forgiving, as well as feminist and African-American critiques, the injustice and potential for harm in such advice is now widely realized.
It seems that prior to ten years ago in our society, Christian forgiveness was usually looked at from the viewpoint of injurers, and not from the perspective of victims.
2. A traditional view held by some Christians is that repentance and reconciliation are essential components of any act of Christian forgiving. Thus, when repentance and reconciliation are not present, forgiveness itself is said to have been diminished or to have not taken place at all. In this model, the act of forgiving is viewed as a transaction between victim and injurer which must end successfully.
Using psychotherapeutic insights, this view is now rejected by Christians who make a sharp distinction between forgiving and reconciliation. Such Christians view forgiving as a one-person act, authentic in and of itself for the person who forgives, apart from the injurer. In contrast, they see reconciliation as a two-person act which, though desirable, is not always achievable, depending on the situation.
As much as any forgiver may wish for an injurer to repent and for subsequent reconciliation with that injurer, these things are not possible unless the injurer also wants them.
3. A traditional view held by some Christians is that forgiving is a moral command which Christians should obey by forgiving others quickly through an act of sheer moral will. Several passages in the Holy Bible have been used to justify this view, including Jesus' words to forgive seventy times seven, his words to first go and be reconciled before offering one's gift at the altar, and the statement that one should not let the sun go down on one's anger. [Matthew 18:22; 5:23,24; Ephesians 4:26]
Many Christians now reject a legalistic interpretation of such passages. Drawing from psychotherapeutic insights, they now see forgiving as a process of inner healing which often requires time. Such Christians believe that forgiving which comes only in response to an external command, and not primarily as a response of the heart, is quite possibly premature or inauthentic.
In contrast, such Christians maintain that negative feelings need to be resolved, in order for individuals to be truly at peace with their injurers and injuries. They note that Jesus himself spoke of the importance of forgiving from the heart. [Matthew 18:35]
4. Most Christians agree on the following three, biblically supported reasons why Christians should forgive:
- The first reason is that God has forgiven us, which is the ground of all our human forgiving. [Ephesians 4:32]
- The second reason is that in the New Testament Christ tells us to forgive those who wrong us. [Luke 17:3]
- The third reason is that we should forgive for the sake of being reconciled with the person who wronged us. [ Luke 15: 11-32]
Yet, beyond these three, traditional Christian thinking has often disregarded this fourth motive for Christian forgiving: that Christians should forgive for the sake of their own well-being and inner peace.
In fact, traditional thinking has often branded this fourth motive as unimportant or selfish. However, some Christian theologians have recently asserted that this fourth motive is entirely valid for Christians. In fact, they see such well-being and inner peace as an essential component of true forgiving, and of the inner healing process which is characteristic of Christian forgiving.
The acceptance of this fourth motive reflects both psychotherapeutic and biblical insights. See What Forgiveness Is and Isn't.
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Last Updated on December 8, 1997 by Rev. Dr. Douglas K. Showalter