Is it ever too late to forgive? My dad has been angry with his own father now for decades. This anger has become part of his identity, part of who he is. I am worried that he never will be able to forgive and find peace.

You make a good point about anger sometimes becoming part of one’s identity. Also, at times people are fearful of confronting their own anger because they fear an inability to be rid of this. Yet, once a person realizes that forgiveness is a kind of safety net for the unhealthy anger, they tend to go ahead with forgiveness because they have more confidence in their ability to eliminate this excessive anger.

Also, with regard to the theme of identity, people can transform their identity, from resentful persons to persons who are caring and who do not let others’ injustices define who they are. If you see receptivity in your father regarding forgiveness, you might want to talk to him about these two themes: a) forgiving is a safety net for his anger and thus that anger will not overwhelm him if he starts to look at his own father’s behavior; and, b) his identity might change in a positive way.

For additional information, see Learning to Forgive Others.

I hate to admit it, but I have been hating someone for years. How long now will it take me to forgive? I want it all wrapped up this week.

Please do not think of forgiving as a kind of pill one takes for a headache. You do not take a forgiveness pill and then wait a little while for complete relief. Forgiveness, instead, is a process, a challenging process, that takes time to develop. We find that the more severe the injustice against a person, then the longer it may take to forgive. If you work at it, we find that people tend to feel some relief in about 12 weeks; others still may take much longer, but even in this longer process, you might sense that your anger is diminishing, which can motivate you to keep at the forgiveness process. Anger is not necessarily entirely eliminated when a person forgives, but hatred (very deep and abiding anger) does tend to diminish. I am encouraged that you are considering forgiving even with hatred in your heart. This, to me, is a good sign that you will make progress in your forgiving.

 

How does forgiving work in huge issues such as the Holocaust, for example? Can a person forgive an entire group that has followed a misguided ideology?

This idea of forgiving in the context of “huge issues” such as the Holocaust is extremely controversial. Some will say that forgiving is not appropriate in this context for a number of reasons (The vast majority of people in the current generation were not in the Holocaust and so it is not their place to offer forgiving; some injustices are so grave as to eliminate the possibility of offering forgiving). Yet, there are people who are on record as offering their own forgiveness to the Nazis. The late Eva Mozes Kor, in the film Forgiving Dr. Mengele, is one example of this. People can forgive groups because when we forgive we do forgive people; groups are made up of people. Thus, if certain people so choose, they can forgive those who instituted Nazism or slavery, as two examples.

Also, the philosopher, Trudy Govier, makes the distinction among primary, secondary, and tertiary forgiving. Primary forgiving is when someone hurts you directly; secondary forgiving occurs when you are hurt because a loved one was hurt (a grandson, then, who is hurt by the death of a grandparent in the Holocaust, can forgive for his own sake, but not forgive on behalf of the grandparent); tertiary forgiving is when you forgive, for example, a public official who is guilty of corruption in another country. In this case, you are not hurt directly and, let us suppose for the sake of this example, none of your relatives were hurt directly. You feel badly, even resentful, and so tertiary forgiving is appropriate.

We need to remember that forgiving is a person’s own choice. Even if everyone else says that injustice X is too severe for anyone to offer forgiveness, we still might be surprised to see that someone steps up and decides to forgive despite popular opinion to the contrary.

For additional information, see Forgiveness Defined.

The late Lewis Smedes has this quotation that confuses me: “Forgiveness offers the best hope of creating a new fairness out of past unfairness.” I am confused because I realize that as we forgive, we might not get justice from the other person. I need help on this one.

I think that Dr. Smedes meant this: When we forgive, often times the injustice comes from someone with whom we have been in a relationship (a family member, a business colleague, for example). The fact that we have to forgive means that there was an injustice that could strain a relationship. As we forgive, we become open to receiving that other person back into our lives. This does not mean that we will receive an apology and a new, trusting relationship (because our forgiving does not automatically mean that the other will now be fair). Yet, forgiving does make us open to this possibility of the other accepting our forgiving and thus becoming more fair. I think the key to understanding Professor Smedes’ sentence is his word “hope.” As we forgive, we are open to the other’s changing. We wait in hope for that change.

For additional information, see Why would fairness be given to someone who has been constantly unfair to me over the years?

I have a question as a Christian. Paul tells us to not let the sun go down on our anger. Does this mean that I cannot rest for the night until I forgive?

Paul, in that passage from Ephesians, uses the Koine Greek word parorgismos. The prefix “par” intensifies the word and so anger (orge in Koine Greek) in this case means an intensive, likely revengeful kind of anger. Paul also tells us to be angry but to sin not. In other words, people do exasperate us and so we can become angry. We just have to watch how intense, and possibly destructive to others and the self, that anger can get. Do not let the sun go down on hatred. Work on that first and if you have some anger left over, rest well knowing that anger in smaller doses over shorter periods of time shows that you are a person of respect who deserves to be treated well, just as all others should be so treated.

For additional information, see How do I know if my anger is healthy or unhealthy?

Can one begin the forgiveness process without first having a thought about committing to forgiveness?

Yes, one can have an intuitive sense that forgiving is good. One can try to “step inside the other’s shoes” to see the other’s woundedness. These processes actually are part of the forgiveness process, but not everyone is aware of this. As the forgiver softens the heart toward the other, then the commitment to forgive might emerge or develop strongly enough so that the person consciously commits to the forgiveness process.

For additional information, see  The Four Phases of Forgiveness.

Forgiveness is unfair to the forgiver. After all, those who forgive are asked to do the impossible: to feel compassion, to absorb pain that should not be theirs in the first place, to be kind to the unkind. Can’t we just set forgiveness aside?

Because forgiving is a choice, not demanded in any society of which I am aware, you can set forgiveness aside. Yet, when deeply hurt by others, what is your alternative for ridding yourself of a gnawing resentment that could bring you down? In the giving of the compassion, in the bearing of the pain, in the attempt to be kind, the paradox is that you, yourself, may experience a cessation of the poison of that resentment. Does this seem like an outcome you would like to set aside? Forgiveness advances you toward this healthy outcome and may even reestablish a relationship if the other can be trusted and does not harm you.

For additional information, see Forgiveness Defined.