The concept of forgiveness should come naturally to us. Why? Because we are unique and fallible human beings. Because we make mistakes. We see the world differently. Our preferences, foibles, personalities, and needs differ. Our religions, cultures, and worldviews differ.
These differences, combined with the daily frustrations, hurts, and injustices we witness and experience throughout our lives, can cause us pain and inflict deep wounds in our hearts and psyches. For those wounds, forgiveness can be a powerful, self-administered salve. In fact, research has revealed that forgiveness can contribute to our health, happiness, and peace of mind.
For some of us, forgiveness isn’t something we think much about. For others, it is a central life practice. For many, it is misunderstood. When you think of forgiveness, what is the first thing that arises? A thought? A feeling? A memory? What does forgiveness mean to you? Whatever you think of when you think of forgiveness, it is a starting point for coming to a common understanding of this timeless and powerful practice.
If forgiveness is a hard concept for you to grasp, you aren’t alone. It’s not an easy practice or process. The first time forgiveness crosses your mind or lips is just one moment in a process to untangle yourself from the pain and repercussions of experiencing a hurt, transgression, or injustice.
You may be afraid that forgiving an offense will diminish the affront itself. It won’t. Forgiveness is not forgetting. It is not accepting or justifying the offense. It is not pardoning, excusing, condoning, or even reconciling.
And you don’t necessarily have to understand the offender or the offense to forgive.
Drawing from those who’ve studied it, we’ll use the following definition as a starting point for understanding and practicing forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a conscious, willful choice to turn away from the pain, hurt, resentment, and wish for revenge that arises from a betrayal, offense, injustice, or deep hurt. Forgiveness involves a willingness to see the transgression and transgressor in a larger context, and to replace negative feelings with compassion and tolerance.
Robert Enright, PhD, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute and professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, points out that by forgiving “we are acknowledging that the offense was unfair and will always continue to be unfair. Second, we have a moral right to anger; it is fair to cling to our view that people do not have a right to hurt us. We have a right to respect. Third, forgiveness requires giving up something to which we have a right—namely our anger or resentment.”
Forgiveness provides an opportunity for transformation, both individually and collectively.
It not only helps relieve mental and emotional anguish, but it offers the possibility for change, for redemption, for restoration—for hope and even love to blossom from pain and suffering. It can stop a cycle of hurt and create opportunity where there seemed to be none. Most of all, it has the potential to heal and open our hearts to love again and more fully, strengthening and building our capacity for compassion and understanding.
For each person, there is a unique history and set of reasons why we choose to forgive or not to forgive. If you’ve experienced someone forgiving you, you likely have an idea why this practice is important. If you’ve forgiven someone who hurt you and you have felt the tension within you begin to ease, you may understand the significance of forgiveness.
Until fairly recently there was little research to substantiate the tangible benefits of forgiveness. In the past few decades, however, interest in the topic has exploded both inside and outside academia. Researchers are exploring the role of forgiveness in our health, well-being, and relationships, and in healing intergroup conflict. Through their research, they are finding effective ways to bring this practice into many aspects of our lives.
Good evidence associates forgiveness with emotional, mental, and physical well-being.
Research has shown that forgiveness can reduce depression and anger, increases hopefulness and self-confidence, and helps improve the health of marriages and families. Forgiveness education has also shown promise in preventing crime by reducing vengeful responses that can lead to criminal acts.
In addition, researchers are testing the use of forgiveness training in reducing and healing intergroup conflict such as that experienced by Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland or Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda. In a study conducted by Fred Luskin, PhD, co-director of the Stanford-Northern Ireland HOPE Project, and Reverend Byron Bland, associate director of the Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation, which brought together Protestants and Catholics from Northern Ireland for group forgiveness training, participants who had family members murdered reported less hurt, anger, stress, and depression after the training, as well as improvement in physical vitality and general well-being. And South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) showed the power of forgiveness to transform a country, help its people heal from their injustices and wounds, and look together toward a brighter future.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, chair of the TRC, writes in No Future Without Forgiveness that
... to forgive is indeed the best form of self-interest
since anger, resentment, and revenge are corrosive of that summum bonum, that greatest good, communal harmony that enhances the humanity and personhood of all in the community.”
To forgive is also deeply rooted in many of the world’s religious teachings, beliefs, and practices. For many, religious beliefs provide a roadmap and a resource for forgiveness—a touchstone that helps to deal with what otherwise might be too overwhelming.
According to authors and professors of psychology, Michael McCullough, PhD, and Everett Worthington, PhD, “The concept of forgiveness has dual natures: a common one and a transcendent one. In the common, material world, forgiveness is just one more social-psychological phenomenon ...
But forgiveness has another nature as well. It is spiritual, transcendent, timeless.”
A study by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research found that nearly 60 percent of Americans reported they had forgiven themselves for past mistakes, while almost 75 percent said they felt God had forgiven them. “I think all of us, at one time or another, when we’ve made the same mistakes over and over again, have felt that we must be a disappointment in God’s eyes. Yet there’s a remarkably high level of confidence across the country that God forgives us, compared to a much lower level of forgiveness for oneself and others,” explained Loren Toussaint, psychologist and author of the study. Religion and spirituality offer a way to see life’s experiences in a larger context. Rituals, traditions, and sacred practices help us navigate the forgiveness process with a greater purpose and, for many, are a divine guide.
As long as we remain imperfect beings, there will be a need to forgive ourselves and others.
The practice of forgiveness holds hope for transforming not only our individual health and well-being, but also the health of our relationships, schools, workplaces, and communities. While researchers continue to explore why and how forgiveness works in our lives, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, having witnessed the power of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process, believes simply “there is no future without forgiveness.”
This is an edited version of an essay from our free, downloadable Conversations About Forgiveness: Participant Guide.
Roselle Kovitz, a member of Fetzer’s social media team, is a writer and communication consultant who lives in Seattle.