What is Forgiveness?
Article 3-A of a Forgiveness Section of the Positive Psychology Series
In my previous articles in this series on forgiveness, I presented the scientific confirmation of the benefits that forgiveness brings to those who practice it. I then outlined the concept of apology and its importance in our lives. In this article, I explain at length my own concept of what forgiveness actually is and what it is not.
In order to describe forgiveness at length, let us begin with a basic description of the concept. Forgiveness is the act of releasing a transgressor from your right to prosecute or indict them for hurting you – it is the choice to exact no revenge and to wish no harm. It is the decision to not willfully embrace darkness or negativity toward someone who has hurt you. And it is also a choice for goodwill in which you continually renew your effort to wish life for your transgressor.
When we probe deeper we see that forgiveness involves the following factors:
Forgiveness is Positive
Forgiving is the opposite of wishing something negative on someone else. Instead, forgiveness takes the idea that your transgressor deserves harm and suggests that both of you could really use another chance. Unfortunately, it is normal that being hurt causes us to wish harm on other humans – every one of us has done it. However, it is also true that throughout history men and women have shifted the attention away from the paradigm of attack or defense, and have met harm with a choice to wish well and to will goodness. Forgiveness is a decidedly positive act.
Forgiveness Relinquishes Your Right to Judge
When a wrong has been done, you have the right to accuse your transgressor. If they did this wrong intentionally, then they deserve the corresponding justice, namely, a punishment. But be careful. This quickly becomes a desire for revenge, and becomes twisted into a consuming thought that poisons the heart. Despite this, a wrong is a wrong, and you have the right to seek justice. Seen in this way, forgiveness is an unlikely alternative, an unseen option that simply flies in the face of your right to judge. It says: “I give this up, before it becomes vengeance or before my desire for justice consumes me.” Full forgiveness does not hold onto this right, but chooses to give it up.
Forgiveness Involves the Differentiation of the Self
One of the central concepts in my work with clients is the differentiation of the self. This is the process of becoming more one’s own person and achieving self-control in one’s reactions to the thoughts and words of others. The opposite of differentiation is reactivity, a state in which your activity is based on the actions of others. (Re-activity: As the word denotes, this mode of action lends itself to cycles and repetition). Reactivity means basing your actions and mental space on someone else, rather than on your own goals. When you travel the path of reactivity in relation to a transgression, it binds you to that hurt and to your transgressor – it fuses you with them. What they do and think affects what you do and think. They are the actor and you become the reactor, playing a role in someone else’s play. When you are reactive, you give someone else power over your freedom. In this sense, another person controls you, whether they intend to or not.
Forgiveness Brings Freedom
Forgiveness involves the difficult stance of letting go of your right to press charges, vindicate yourself, or indulge in thoughts of revenge (which enslave you in a cycle of unfulfillment). It means adopting a stance in which you choose goodwill and hope for life. It is essentially taking a hurt and removing the element of your reactivity towards the transgressor from it. Forgiveness often feels like a loss, but it enables you to be your own self by changing your negative thoughts in the process of differentiation. In this way, forgiveness reduces psychological distress by taking back your power. This is real power. It is not power to control or destroy, but power to stay yourself and offer your integrity to the world.
If you act out against your transgressor, you are still reactive. Forgiving a transgressor, and wishing them life, is a profound act of differentiation and of being your own person. It brings you freedom: Freedom from having to hold onto the wrong, from having a dark will toward someone (and its effect on you), from caring what they think of you, and from being in turmoil because of what they may say. In addition to its spiritual implications, research has linked unforgiveness to a host of negative outcomes – yet it does no harm to the transgressor. Unforgiveness is insidious because it ensnares, becoming an anti-life compulsion, and is something to be liberated from. By contrast, forgiveness is an act of freedom to choose, freedom from a vicious cycle, and it also brings freedom to your transgressor.
Christian Counseling to Tap into the Power of Forgiveness
If you would like to engage counseling from a strengths-based perspective, please contact me to inquire about setting up an initial session to explore how Christian counseling might fit with your journey and perhaps assist you in the matter of forgiveness. It is my pleasure to join with clients and help them to see the ways they have already overcome in life, and how God has uniquely shaped them both to do great things and to experience joy and goodness in their lives and relationships.
“Chain Link,” courtesy of Tante Tati, Pixabay.com CC0 Public Domain License; “The Family,” courtesy of Leo Hidalgo (CC BY 2.0)