So frequently I hear this: “Forgiveness is for you, the one who was injured.”
I think this actually can be a distortion of what forgiveness is. We need to make a distinction between:
the end point or goal of forgiveness, and
a consequence of forgiving.
These are different. The goal is that to which forgiveness actually points. Given that forgiveness is a moral virtue, it is concerned about goodness toward others. Justice as a moral virtue is not primarily for the self but for all with whom you come into contact directly or indirectly. Patience is directed toward those who are moving slower than you would like. Yes, one can be fair or just to the self and patient toward the self, but these are not the primary goals of either virtue. They are outwardly directed to others. It is the same with forgiveness because, like justice and patience, it too is a moral virtue. The end point of forgiving is to reach out in goodness directly toward the one or ones who have been unfair to you.
Yes, there is such a thing as self-forgiveness, but notice that the wording is intended to expressly direct the attention toward the self. In the case of forgiving as it typically is used, the word “self” is not included.
A consequence of forgiving, shown frequently by our research, is that as a person extends goodness toward offending others, then the one who forgives experiences considerable emotional relief. Excessive anger, anxiety, and depression all can go down in the one who genuinely forgives.
These emotional-health consequences, while very positive and desirable, are not the ultimate goal of engaging in the moral virtue of forgiving. If it were, then this would be the goal for all of the moral virtues and such practice likely would degenerate into self-serving activities and therefore not be virtuous at all.
Is forgiving for the forgiver? No, this is not its goal. Is a consequence of forgiving emotional relief for the forgiver? Yes. And this distinction between goal and consequence makes all the difference in understanding what forgiveness is and what it can accomplish within the self.
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?
Editor’s Note:Forgiveness for sexual abuse survivors is a sensitive and controversial subject that is being addressed by Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D., Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Dr. Freedman has studied and conducted forgiveness research with Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. Her dissertationwas a landmark study that was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology onForgiveness with Incest Survivors. This is a summary of a blog Dr. Freedman wrote that was posted earlier this month on the website“And He Restoreth My Soul.”
To view the complete blog,click here.
The idea of forgiveness for sexual abuse survivors is often met with surprise, skepticism, and even horror. However, past research with forgiveness illustrates that forgiveness education and/or forgiveness counseling can be healing for those who have experienced past sexual abuse.
Freedman & Enright (1996) conducted an individual educational intervention using forgiveness as the goal with 12 incest survivors. Results illustrated that post intervention individuals were more forgiving toward their abusers, had decreased anxiety and depression and increased hope for the future as well as greater self-esteem compared to those who had not experienced the forgiveness education and themselves preintervention (see Freedman & Enright, 1996). Research with other populations who have experienced deep hurt also illustrates increased forgiveness as well as greater psychological well-being post intervention.
When discussing the topic of forgiveness for survivors of sexual abuse, it is important to be clear about what exactly is meant by forgiveness, specifically what forgiveness is and is not. . . According to Enright (2001) and North (1987), forgiveness can be defined as “a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and negative behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and sometimes even love toward him or her”.
Notice in the definition that one has a “right” to feel resentment because of the way she or he was injured and that the offender does not “deserve” our compassion and generosity based on his or her actions. Forgiveness can also be more simply defined as a decrease in negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors toward an offender and perhaps, over time, a gradual increase in more positive thoughts, feelings and sometimes even behaviors toward an offender can occur.
Why Forgive? Many survivors of sexual abuse often ask, “Why do I need to forgive? Why do I need to do all the work? I didn’t do anything wrong.” Of course, this is true but when one forgives, they are personally benefiting by freeing themselves of anger, bitterness, and resentment. . . .Forgiveness allows one to free themselves of negative feelings as well as find meaning in the worst of life’s event. It is also a selfless and compassionate act as one who forgives is helping to stop the cycle of revenge and hatred. Using a compassionate and generous heart to meet deep pain and hurt is one of the most difficult things to do. However, by doing so you are freeing yourself from the prison of anger and power the abuser has over you.
The points below illustrate how forgiveness is not the same as accepting or pardoning the sexual abuse, reconciliation, being weak, denying one’s anger or giving up, nor does it mean that justice cannot occur:
Forgiveness does not mean that you deny or excuse the offender of the wrongdoing. . . .
Forgiveness takes time. . . .
Forgiveness is a choice one makes for her or himself. . . .
Forgiveness does not mean Reconciliation. . . .
Forgiveness can occur in the absence of an apology. . . .
Forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive. . . .
Forgiveness does not mean Forgetting. . . .
Research supports forgiveness education and therapy as an effective form of treatment for those who have endured deep hurts such as sexual abuse and incest. Forgiveness leads to decreases in stress, anger, anxiety and depression (Enright, 2001). People who are able to forgive also are more hopeful, optimistic, and compassionate towards others. Forgiveness has physical heath benefits as well. Research illustrates decreased blood pressure, muscle tension and headaches in those who have forgiven.
I wrote this blog to describe how forgiveness can be healing for individuals who have been deeply, personally and unfairly hurt by acts of sexual abuse and incest. Forgiveness is an individual choice, and as such, we need to offer that choice to survivors of sexual abuse by accurately informing them about what it means to forgive, including what forgiveness is and is not, as well as respecting and supporting them when they choose to forgive.
Truth and Reconciliation is a profound process that takes longer, costs more, and is messier than one can imagine. Here is one story from the South African experience:
After Apartheid ended in South Africa, a white police officer named Mr. Van der Boek was put on trial. The court found that he had come to a woman’s home, shot her son at point-blank range, and then burned the young man’s body on a fire while he and his officers partied nearby. The woman’s husband was killed by the same men, and his body also was burned.
Unfathomable Cruelty and Indignity
I can’t fathom the source or the energy needed to fuel such cruelty. But more unfathomable is the surviving woman’s response (the mother of the son and wife to the husband murdered and burned). What must she have thought and felt as she sat in the court room being burdened and re-traumatized by evidence?
A member of the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission turned to her and asked, “So, what do you want? How should justice be done for this man?”
How is Justice to be done?
That’s the right question, isn’t it? What is justice; how can it be achieved; how does it look different from mere retribution and punishment? But the judge asked “how should justice be done for this man?” – not – “for this surviving woman.”
What would this wife & mother say in the face of such murderous cruelty that further caused indignity to her husband’s and son’s remains?
“I want three things,” the woman said confidently:
“I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial. My husband and son were my only family.”
Become My Son!?
“I want, secondly, for Mr. Van der Boek to become my son. I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have.”
This is truly a breathtaking request. We can finish her sentence starting with “I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I . . .” – fill in the blank!
So I can get him to feel the crushing poverty I live with.
So I can have him feel the full void of my loss with no husband or son.
So I can have him feel every distrusting eye scrutinize him as the minority in our community.
But no; she finishes her request with “so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have.”How much love does she still have?
And I could not find if Mr. Van der Boek could possibly receive such love. Did he come out, as she asked, twice a month to spend the day with her for the sole purpose of receiving what ever love she may still possess?
“And finally, I would like Mr. Van der Boek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. And so, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr. Van der Boek in my arms, embrace him, and let him know that he is truly forgiven.”
We start with a half truth here because, well, “post-truth” is two words, not one.
Even so, this award raises questions such as this: If there is such a thing as post-truth (or placing the narrative or emotions above what is actually true) then does it follow that the term forgiveness itself is not objectively true? Might forgiveness mean whatever people in certain communities or cultures say that it is?
We do not think so. If you examine Chapter 15 of the book, Forgiveness Therapy (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015), you will see that the meaning of forgiveness does not differ in its essence across spiritual and philosophical traditions from West to East. Yes, there are different religious and cultural rituals surrounding what it means to offer forgiveness, but the term itself still means the offering of goodness toward those who are not good to us.
If you examine Chapter 13 of the same book, you will see that when researchers try to measure the degree to which people forgive others, then you will find that regardless of the various cultures studied (again, across West, Middle East, and East), research participants tend to mean the same thing when they use the word forgiving.
While there certainly are “post-truth” narratives that attempt to persuade and to convince, regardless of the truth, rhetoric will never win the day entirely. Why? It is because there are essences to certain things……and forgiveness happens to be one of them.
Long live forgiveness…..may it outlive the fad of the “post-truth” attempt at power over truth-seeking.
Forgiveness therapy is a way for both client and therapist to examine those situations in which the client was or is treated unfairly for the express purpose of helping the person to understand the offender; to learn to slowly let go of anger with this person; and, over time, to make a moral response of goodness toward the offender or offenders. This process may require many months or even years.
Forgiveness therapy does not ignore the client and his or her needs. On the contrary, the paradox is that as the client or patient takes the light of scrutiny off of self and places it in a moral way on the offenders in his or her life, it is the client who is healed. As readers will see, our emphasis on a “moral” response is vital for understanding forgiveness therapy. There is nothing novel about forgiveness therapy if it reduces simply to “moving on” or “adjusting.” There is much that is novel about it when the therapist challenges the client to “have compassion” and “do no harm” regarding a person with whom he or she is angry and frustrated.
Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P. (2014-11-17). Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 164-171). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.
Think about this: Long after you are gone, your love could be alive and well and living on this earth in the minds, hearts, and beings of others. You can begin to leave a legacy of love by how you live this very day. In all likelihood, you will meet others today. If your heart is filled with love rather than with bitterness, it will be much easier to pass that love to others. Do you see why it is so important to forgive? You are given the joyous opportunity to shed bitterness and put love in its place for the one who hurt you and then more widely to many, many others, as you are freed to love more deeply and more widely. The meaning and purpose of your life are intimately tied to this decision to leave a legacy of love.
Enright, Robert (2015-09-28). 8 Keys to Forgiveness (8 Keys to Mental Health) (p. 225). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.