Is Forgiving for the Forgiver or for the One Who Offended?

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.

Robert