Will the hurt ever end, can the pain ever stop? Perhaps authentic forgiveness can help
you move beyond hate and the desire for revenge.
- The decision not to seek punishment for those who have harmed you.
- A decision to release yourself from anger,
resentment, hate, or the urge
for revenge despite the injury you suffered.
- To let go of hope of a different past.
- A change of heart; ceasing to hate.
- Responding to unjust hurt with compassion, benevolence, and
- Moving beyond bitterness.
- Cancelling a debt.
- Choosing not to act on vindictive passions.
- Discharging—removing the obligation for—a debt owed to you.
- Ending estrangement and letting go of resentment and the urge for
- Surrendering feelings of animosity and hatred when others harm us
- Peace and understanding that come from blaming less that which has hurt you, taking the life experience less personally, and changing your
Amnesty—a general pardon for past offenses—is a variant of forgiveness that
may focus more on the needs of the offender than of the aggrieved.
The Vindictive Passions
Vindictive passion—intense feelings of resentment, anger,
hatred, and the desire for revenge
against those who wrong us—are an integral part of
human nature. They originate from the need for self-defense, for preserving
our self-respect, and for maintaining moral order—our clear understanding of
acceptable and unacceptable ways to treat humans. These passions are real,
natural, genuine, legitimate, useful, and valid emotions. The goal of
vengeance is to quench these vindictive passions.
While a moderate and proportional response to your injury can be appropriate, submitting
totally to these passions is often very dangerous, especially when they are used as an
excuse to justify destructive, sadistic, cruel, excessive, or violent behavior.
We control our actions. We are responsible for the choices we make. We can choose not to submit to these passions. We can exercise self control,
allow the passions to dissipate, and choose to forgive. Vindictive passions may
have every right to being the first word, but they don't have to be the last
The Paradox of Forgiveness
I know they are wrong. If I forgive them, how will they ever learn and change? I
will never forgive them. I can't possibly let them get away with it. If I
forgive them they will have won. I can never condone what they did; it is unforgivable. Despite
these common objections, the truth
is that forgiveness is an act of courage and not an act of weakness. Forgiveness
is correlated with better physical health, reduced anxiety, reduced
increased self-esteem. Forgiving may elicit a sincere
apology which can provide additional comfort. As
we reach out to the ones who hurt us, we are the ones who heal. Forgiveness
restores the congruence between what you desire and
what is possible and constructive.
To condone an offense is to overlook or disregard a harmful action without
protesting or expressing disapproval. Abuse can never be condoned, it needs to be
prevented and stopped. But forgiveness is not about overlooking, endorsing, or excusing an offense.
It is not about accepting the unacceptable. Forgiveness is about releasing yourself from destructive emotions
and a hurtful past. It is not about the offender, it is about yourself. You can
forgive the abuser without condoning the abuse. The past does matter and it may
make sense never to forget an outrage. Remembering may not be easy, but
forgetting may be impossible.
Forgiveness is not:
- Letting wrongdoers off the hook,
- Failing to hold people accountable for their actions,
- Forgetting, denying, ignoring, or overlooking the wrongs that have
- Repressing genuine feelings of hurt, anger, or hate.
- Condoning, excusing, or justifying bad behavior, unkindness, or abuse or
becoming complicit in continuing it,
- Denying, minimizing, or excusing your hurt or your feelings,
- Condemning the offender, demonstrating they deserve to know they are wrong,
or that you are morally superior.
- Contingent on seeking justice or compensation. It is not a bi-lateral
transaction; it is a unilateral act of generosity.
- Placation or simply calming down. While equanimity is valuable,
forgiveness requires more than a superficial tranquility.
- Insincere, thoughtless, casual, often easy, or a sign of weakness.
- Equivalent to trust. Forgiveness can be given, but trust must be earned.
- Contingent on religious beliefs.
- a remorseful acceptance of responsibility for your wrongful and harmful
actions, along with
- a repudiation (disowning, renunciation) of your character traits that led
to the wrongdoing, along with
- the resolve to eliminate the renounced character traits, and
- the resolve to make reparations—compensation to the victim—for the harm you have caused the victim
and to make them whole again.
Repentant people feel guilty and may seek out their
own punishment. They become recommitted to community values. Sincere repentance
cannot be coerced, it has to be given voluntarily.
It is often reasonable to make forgiveness contingent on some change or
transformation in the wrongdoer. Sincere repentance of the wrongdoer makes
forgiveness easier, but it is not an essential prerequisite to forgiveness. The
choice is yours.
Power Reversal and Transformation
Victims often have a goal to regain their power; to
reverse roles, feel less like a victim, and to exercise power over the
wrongdoer. This is often the goal of revenge. Being a
victim is an insult, the wrongdoer sends the message that he is powerful and you
are not. Transforming yourself from the powerless victim to the one with power
may require you to see a transformation in the wrongdoer. This transformation
may be expressed as their repentance, or apology. In
any case, since it is your choice if and when to forgive, you have the power.
Forgiveness and Punishment
Forgiveness is entirely consistent with the continued demand for punishing
the wrongdoer. The purpose of forgiveness is to release the victim (yourself) from the
vindictive passions. The purpose of punishment is to prevent future harm by
preventing the recurrence of injuries. Visiting the wrongdoer in jail to express
your forgiveness, while insisting he serve out his full sentence, is consistent
with both of these goals. Forgiveness does not forbid punishment, what it
forbids is punishment out of hatred. Christ himself, known as a champion of
forgiveness, is said to have
driven the money changers from the temple.
Who can forgive
Only the actual victim of a wrong has the standing to forgive the wrongdoer.
Person “A” cannot forgive someone who wronged person “B”. You can forgive
yourself, end your shame and
One step at at time
Authentic forgiveness is a process that requires particular understanding and
analysis to be effective. It may require a long period of time for you to be
prepared to sincerely forgive. Authentic forgiveness is often difficult to
The process must begin with an acknowledgement and careful analysis of your
hurt, anger, or hatred. What
happened; what are the facts of the event? What do you perceive as the
injustice? How do you apportion responsibly for
the injustice? What was your role? What role did others play? Why did they act
as they did? Can you understand their point of view?
The next step is for you to make a decision and to choose to forgive. A key
step is your decision to put aside any claim to revenge,
regardless of how justified or subtle it may be. Until you are able to totally
let go of your thoughts, feelings, or intentions for revenge, you are not yet
ready to forgive. You may need more time, more information, more
dialogue, or you may need to consider the offender's
perspective from a more compassionate point of view. To be ready to forgive you
must decide to bear (dissipate, dissolve, endure, overlook, tolerate, absorb, let
go of) your own pain rather than
pass it on.
The next step is to tell them you forgive them. This is done fully and unconditionally,
without any requirement for an apology, acknowledgement, remorse, repentance, or
If you still hate, then you have not yet forgiven. When you are beginning to wish the person well, you have accomplished genuine
forgiveness. Are you able to feel goodwill and express kindness toward the
Reconciliation is a Step Further
Forgiveness is a change within yourself. Reconciliation requires a change
within someone else. Forgiving is a unilateral step toward reconciliation, but reconciliation must
be bilateral and reciprocal. Reconciliation requires that both sides agree on the facts, the
hurt, the motivation, and that each can understand the other's point of view. It
requires each to understand a consistent or compatible account of what happened,
why it happened, and the consequences of what happened. Reconciliation requires
fact finding, discovering the truth,
empathy, fully telling your story, agreeing on the truth, acknowledging the
pain, acknowledging responsibility,
establishing trust, equalizing
or reversal of power and stature, remorse,
apology, and forgiving for a meaningful transformation
to take place. Reconciliation may also require reparations—payments intended to
compensate a victim for a loss. The goals of reconciliation are to prevent
repetition of the harmful behavior and ensure healing
and healthy co-existence. Genuine reconciliation leads to helping each other.
Although many people reject the idea of forgiveness and relentlessly
pursue revenge, people also have a variety of motives,
reasons, and expectations for forgiving. These are
arranged here from the least constructive to the most sincere, authentic, and
||Expectation, Rationale, Belief, or Defense
||After I get my revenge, the score is settled and I may be
able to forgive you. I certainly won't forgive you until I get a full
apology from you.
||You will hurt me (exercise your
dominance over me) again if I don't forgive you (or at least profess my
forgiveness) for abusing me the last
||I have been taught to “forgive and forget”. My boss,
parents, pastor, god, or friends expect me to “bury the hatchet and get over
it.” I am obliged to “turn the other cheek” whether I want to or not.
This is superficial and insincere reciprocity.
||I can look good by taking the high road and pretending to
overlook your offense. I'll keep the grudge to myself. This is good for my
image. We can establish a quid pro quo.
||You will pay your debt to society through the justice
system. I have my closure and can move on. I accept the rule of law to
resolve this issue. Just punishment leads to a just world.
||Let's all get along. If I don't talk about the issue it
will go away. Just forgive and forget and we can move on and be fine. Let's
all play nice together and nothing bad will happen. We have to get
along with each other. We have to find a way to continue to work together.
I'll give in and forgive to preserve our relationship.
||“Forgive them father for they know not what they do.” We
tend to pity and forgive the weak, the young, and
rather than hold them responsible for their transgressions.
||I am tired of begin angry,
hateful, and vengeful. I don't
want you controlling my life any more. I am choosing to release myself from
the need to control, change, or punish you. I am letting go of my
bitterness. I have had a change of heart and no longer hate.
||I may not understand why you caused such harm, but perhaps
it made sense from your point of view. I wish the best for you, even if I
don't condone what you did. This motivates authentic forgiveness.
The Paths of Forgiveness
Understanding when to forgive, the effect it can have on ourselves and the
offender, and its relationships to apology helps us to
manage our relationships and feelings. The
following figure illustrates choices we have and paths we can take to either
prolong or resolve our hurt. Use this like you would any other map: 1) decide
where you are now, 2) decide where you want to go, 3) choose the best path to
get there, and 4) go down the chosen path. If you can arrange a constructive
meeting with your adversary, use this map to discuss where each of you are now
and to choose a path leading to resolution of your conflict.
You may wish to print out this one-page version of the
Paths of Apology and Forgiveness map.
This diagram is an example of a type of chart known by systems
analysts as a state transition diagram. Each colored elliptical bubble represents a
state of being that represents the way you are now. The labels on the arrows
represent actions or events and the arrows show paths into or out of each state. You
are at one place on this chart for one particular relationship or
incident at any particular
time. Other people are likely to be in other places on the chart. This is
similar to an ordinary road map where you plot where you are now, while other
people are at other places on the same map. Begin the analysis at the green “OK”
bubble, or wherever else you believe you are now.
The following is written in first person; “I” and “me” refer to the
aggrieved, and “you” refers to the offender.
OK: This is the beginning or neutral state. It corresponds to
being free of hurt, anger, hate, or guilt;
including a full reconciliation of hurt or guilt
The green color represents safety, tranquility, equanimity, and growth
You hurt me: You did something (or neglected to take action) that hurt
me physically, materially, or psychologically. It could be a slight, insult,
betrayal, injury, assault, theft, or anything else that harms me or
humiliates me. This is an example of the “insult”
path on the “Paths of Anger” chart.
Hurt: I feel humiliated,
angry, resentful, bothered, or just plain bad. I am
annoyed at you, my offender. This is an instance of the “Angry” or “Resentful”
states on the the “Paths of Anger” chart and it can
lead to all the destructive states described there. The yellow color indicates
my pain and resentment, and the need for caution in choosing the next path.
I forgive you (before an apology): Even though you have not offered me
an apology, I decide to let go of my hurt. I forgive you and gain a serene inner
peace and satisfaction for myself.
Serene: My unilateral forgiveness puts the hurt in the past, allows me
to get on with my life, and provides me with a serene and tranquil inner peace.
I am OK now, but you may still need to apologize at some time for a full
resolution. I may feel proud of myself. This is shown
touching the OK bubble, because I am feeling OK. The green color acknowledges my peace.
You apologize to me (in response to my unilateral forgiveness): In
response to your expression of forgiveness, you apologize to me. The
relationship is now OK and fully reconciled.
Effective Apology Received: The offender offers me an effective
apology. I feel vindicated because you have acknowledged your responsibility in
causing me harm.
Ineffective Apology Received: An insincere attempt to patch things up,
a failure to acknowledge your responsibility,
lack of remorse, attempts to explain away your
actions, a failure to acknowledge your understanding of the injury you caused,
or any of several other omissions causes the apology to fail. I remain hurt by
the original offense, and now I hurt even more because you tried to make
yourself feel better, without addressing my needs.
Vindicated: You admitted your error, your responsibility, and my hurt.
Perhaps you made reparations and showed genuine remorse. In any case, I feel vindicated because you have
taken responsibility for my pain. The greenish color acknowledges the hurt may
be over, while the yellowish color recognizes this may be hurtful to you and my
forgiveness is still required for a complete resolution.
I forgive you (after an apology): You have apologized, the hurt is
over, and I feel compelled to forgive you. The relationship is reconciled and we
are both OK again.
I don't express forgiveness to you (after an apology): Even though
you have made a sincere and effective apology, I decide not to forgive you, or
at least not to express forgiveness to you. I let you suffer, perhaps only for a
few minutes, or hours, or maybe for days, weeks, and years. I am enjoying my new
power over you, and remaining spiteful.
Spiteful: You have humbled yourself and apologized to me, yet I decide
to withhold forgiveness. Don't go too far with this, hubris
goes before the fall. The yellow color indicates the need for caution in
choosing the next path.
I hurt you unknowingly: You have taken offense, you are hurt, and I am
clueless and unaware of your hurt, or what I have done to offend you.
Unaware: I am clueless and unaware of your hurt, or what I have done
to offend you. The greenish color acknowledges you may feel OK, while the
yellowish color recognizes that awareness will lead to guilt.
I become aware of your hurt: After reflection, reappraisal, or
dialogue with others, I recognize I have hurt you. I now feel guilty.
Guilty: I now understand that I have
transgressed your sense of justice and morality and hurt you. The yellow color represents the
dangers I can face and cautions about the choices I can make.
I accept responsibility: When I accept responsibility for what I did
to hurt you, I become remorseful.
Remorse: I feel genuinely bad about the hurt I have caused and I
take responsibility for the hurtful choices I
made. The greenish color acknowledges remorse can be only one step away from a
resolution while the yellowish color recognizes that a full restitution is still
I apologize to you (with remorse): I can authentically express to you
my responsibly and remorse and make a successful apology.
I Apologize to you (without remorse): I realize you feel hurt, but I
have no idea why. I apologize anyway to try to patch things up. I become
perplexed because I don't feel responsible for your hurt, yet you are clearly
Perplexed: I am confused because I don't feel responsible for your
hurt, yet you are clearly distressed. If I later understand my role and take
responsibility, I will feel remorse and can fully resolve the dilemma and
reconcile the relationship. The greenish color acknowledges you may no longer
feel guilty, while the yellowish color recognizes that you feel conflicted.
The paradox of forgiveness has inspired many thoughtful quotations. Here are
some of the more thought provoking ones:
- “Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” ~ St. Augustine
- “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” ~
- “There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.” ~
Josh Billings (1818 - 1885)
- “Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge.” ~ Fred Luskin.
- “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” ~
Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900)
- “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” ~
Mahatma Gandhi (1869 - 1948)
- “The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naïve forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.” ~
- “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” ~ Paul Boese
- “You cannot change the facts of the past but you can change the meaning of the past.” ~
- “Forgiveness is not an emotion, it's a decision.” ~
- “Forgiveness is the answer to the child's dream of a miracle by
which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is again made clean.” ~
- “It really doesn't matter if the person who hurt you
deserves to be forgiven. Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. You have
things to do and you want to move on.” ~ RealLivePreacher.com,
- “The hatred you're carrying is a live coal in your heart -
far more damaging to yourself than to them.” ~ Lawana Blackwell
- “The quality of mercy is not strain'd, It droppeth as the gentle rain from
heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and
him that takes.” ~
William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616),
“The Merchant of Venice”,
Act 4 scene 1
- “It is not the wrongdoer's repentance that creates forgiveness, but the
victim's forgiveness that creates repentance.” ~
On Apology, by Aaron Lazare
Bone to Pick: Of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Reparation, and Revenge,
by Ellis Cose
Forgiveness Is a Choice: A Step-By-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope,
by Robert D. Enright
When to Forgive,
by Mona Gustafson Affinito
Forgive for Good,
by Frederic Luskin
Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits,
by Jeffrie G. Murphy
Revenge: A Story of Hope, by Laura Blumenfeld
The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, by the Dalai Lama, Howard
The Wisdom of Forgiveness: Intimate Journeys and Conversations, by Dalai
Lama, Chan Victor
A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid, by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: A Search for the Soul of Kindness,
by Marc Ian Barasch
International Forgiveness Institute
is dedicated to helping people gain knowledge about forgiveness and to use that
knowledge for personal, group, and societal renewal.
The Forgiveness Web, an Internet
resource for forgiveness
campaign for forgiveness research.
Learningtoforgive.com, Learn to forgive for good to reduce anger and hurt.
See especially the
What is Forgiveness,
permission, from Dr. Fred Luskin’s Book: Forgive for Good
Of Repentance, an essay by Michel
South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission,
was set up to help deal with what happened under apartheid
Greensboro Truth and
was an independent body
seeking truth and healing transformation for Greensboro, N.C., a city left
divided and weakened by the
events of Nov. 3, 1979.
The Parents Circle,
Bereaved families supporting peace, reconciliation, and tolerance.
The Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests.
The New Zealand
is a justice system designed to prevent recurrence of youth crime.
The New Zealand
keeping promises made in 1840 and resorting a damaged community.