The entrance of the idea of forgiveness into the social sciences is quite recent. The first publication within psychology that centered specifically on people forgiving other people was published in the late 20th century (Enright, Santos, and Al-Mabuk, 1989). That article examined children’s, adolescents’, and adults’ thoughts about what forgiving is. In other words, the study took one slice of forgiveness, in this case people’s thoughts, and examined those thoughts from a scientific perspective. Such an investigation, of course, does not then imply that forgiving is all about thoughts and thoughts alone just because that was the focus of the scientific investigation.
People forgiving other people is an ancient idea, first explicated thousands of years ago in the story within the Jewish tradition of Joseph forgiving his 10 half-brothers who sold him into slavery. The portrait of forgiveness in that ancient report includes Joseph’s entire being, not just his thinking, as he shows anger, a sense at first of revenge, which slowly transforms into tenderness toward his half-brothers in the form of weeping, hugs, generosity, and an outpouring of love. His entire being was involved in the forgiving.
Philosophers, such as Aristotle and Aquinas, have developed what is known as the virtue-ethics tradition to explain morality. To be virtuous is, like Joseph, to produce a moral response with one’s entire being: thoughts, feelings, behaviors, motivations toward goodness, and relationships that reflect that goodness.
Psychologists, in contrast, and especially if they do not rely on this wisdom-of-the-ages, tend to compartmentalize forgiveness. For example, they may borrow from personality psychology and conclude that there is a trait of forgiving and a state of forgiving and these are somehow different. A trait forgiver, it is assumed, already has a personality geared to forgiving. In other words, expertise in forgiving is not forged by practice, practice, and more practice as we all have this opportunity toward developing expertise in forgiving.
Other psychologists, when they do not take the virtue-ethics position, tend to think of forgiving as mostly emotional as the forgiver substitutes more pleasant feelings for the existing resentment toward an offending person. Substitution of feelings, as seen in the Joseph story, is only one part, and not even the most important part of forgiveness. Offering love in a broad sense is the most important part.
The bottom line is this: Taking only a psychological perspective on the concept of forgiving tends toward reductionism, breaking up of forgiveness into smaller and more exclusive parts than should be the case. This tends to distort the concept of forgiveness. If a distorted view of forgiveness is presented to clients in therapy, are we helping those clients reach their highest potential as forgivers?
Enright, R. D., Santos, M., & Al-Mabuk, R. (1989). The adolescent as forgiver. Journal of Adolescence, 12, 95-110.