is forgiveness important?

isn't forgiveness only for the weak?

are some sins too big?

what if I can't let it go?

should I correct someone's false words about me?

is there a unique Christian view?

don't people have to earn forgiveness?

why the constant focus on sexual infidelity?

doesn't forgiving mean losing self-worth?

  will I ever forget?

one-sided reconciliation? (by Yehudah Fine)

is it responsible to say "it's not your fault"?

Frequently asked questions

+ answers with links

send your own FAQs to andrew@forgivenessnet.co.uk


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is forgiveness that important?

Why is forgiveness so important?

Isn't it something that just crops up now and then, say when your partner's been unfaithful, you had a cruel or selfish parent, or your employer overlooked you for a promotion?

Short answer:  Forgiveness is one of the most constant and fundamental concerns for anyone seeking human and spiritual growth.  It is about the attitude and action we take in response to all human faults, failings, mistakes, inadequacies, etc.  Not only those faults which have hurt us personally, but any situations where we desire to help people overcome these failings in themselves, or their effect on others.
Longer answer with links

Your question is a very helpful one.  It allows us to look at how original and creative forgiveness can and should be - very often we just haven't seen this yet, and so we 'domesticate' forgiveness.  Forgiving means wanting people - including yourself - to be more free, happy and creative, not reduced to the level of their mistakes and wrongs; and it also means doing something about it.  Forgiveness means not defining someone in terms of the wrongs they have done; and not defining yourself in terms of the injuries you have received. 

Forgiveness is central to goodness  It generates its own atmosphere, world-view and value-system.  (Check The values implied by forgiveness after reading this.)   That's why forgiveness is a major underlying issue for large social organisations and international debt as much as domestic or one-to-one relationships.  Forgiveness is the fundamental way in which people can always put the 'person' before the deeds they (we) do.

There are different levels of activity in forgiveness.   Sometimes all we can do is let resentment go and stop seeing someone as bad.   Sometimes we can want better things for someone else, and be happy for them.  Sometimes we can do positive, creative things to give people fresh opportunities, to release and empower them.  (See The dimensions of forgiveness �/a>.)

Forgiveness is central to being a person  If we sense or discover the latent power in forgiveness, 'person' isn't just another label to apply to something.  Calling someone a person implicates us - it means, "I want to relate to this person, and deepen our relationship, not avoid him or her."   It's a word which commits us to costly action, openness and involvement.  Sadly, of course, the easier way is to label them in destructive ways which seem to allow us to ignore them.  (If you have time, read through the whole of the article, The dimensions of forgiveness.)


Forgiveness seems a weak, soft thing - surely it's not for the strong, confident achiever?

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isn't it only for the weak?

Short answer: It's true that forgiveness is often portrayed in TV soaps, popular news etc as 'giving in' for the sake of peace.  Perhaps often in the way people pray, too.  We need to learn a lot more about what strong forgiveness can achieve and create.
Longer answer with links

Your question expresses why Friedrich Nietzsche saw Christian 'virtues' as forms of weakness and cowardice, ways in which its adherents collude to cover up "their inability to courageously achieve revenge."  (He would emphasise the word 'courageously.')  Forgiveness can certainly be used as an excuse (see Wanting to calm my fears).  So let's see if we can understand how this popular view of forgiveness domesticates and distorts what it involves.

The (very tough) Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi said, "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."  Forgiveness is always a 'top-down' action, by people with the power to set others free.  (See The power to initiate forgiveness �/a>.) 

Such persons with power may or may not have been wronged personally.  But they will be members of a community or society which views the wrongdoer as a wrongdoer.   This view may mean criminal conviction or political division.  It may mean cheap fault-finding in the popular media, or careless gossip about someone who is not "our kind of person."   (We all belong to so many groups which find fault with others and condemn them.) 

To be forgiving you need to be in a shared starting point with victims of wrongdoing, and you also need to have - or to find - the potential to bring some release to wrongdoers and other victims.  You need to be in solidarity with the hurt ... and then also discover or own your solidarity with the guilty as well.  (See A community of guilt.)  Because of this shared starting point, the setting free involved in forgiving is both connected to, but different from, liberating oppressed people in another community or country; and connected to, but different from medical or inner healing. 

At a personal level finding the power to forgive may involve leading wrongdoer and victim to a reconciliation.  It should always aim for public mutual understanding and respect, at the least.   In institutions and organisations it may involve leading members to both appreciate and to let go of past practices and personal management loyalties in order to embrace a new context for work and to live out more appropriate and successful forms of the core vision which animates them.

And in fact, even in those simple examples in a TV soap or a movie mentioned at the beginning, ones where a character forgives his or her romantic partner, the forgiver has move from a self-perception as the victim, the weaker partner, to a new level of self-confidence.  Perhaps this has been prompted by time to remember the many good things in the relationship, perhaps helped by outside counselling.   And at the largest level, when a political opposition forgives an oppressive regime, it will be, say, from a position of military or democratic success, or after achieving international recognition.

These are not weak responses, but changes of attitude with the desire for affirmed, renewed people in a better working environment in the future.  They are not a return to the old, damaging situation, but they are creative and forward-looking.  

By the way, any third parties - counsellors, family friends, outside business consultants, international negotiators - who assist people to forgive are not themselves engaged in the work of forgiveness.  But they are certainly liberators - releasing the wounded and empowering them to forgive their 'oppressors' or hurtful friends.


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are some sins too big for forgiveness?


Are some wrongs harder to forgive than others?
Short answer: As long as we put ourselves in a position of judge, we will think in terms of equivalent response (punishment or retribution).  Bigger wrongs would therefore need bigger punishments ... and also bigger acts of forgiveness.  But forgiveness looks further than people's actions - it always asks us, "What can I do to make this person's life better?"
Longer answer with links

Does justice seek equivalence or destruction? Our aims in the arena of  justice and fairness may seem to be - in theory - a measured, tit-for-tat response.  In practice we may find that victory, the destruction or banishment of the wrongdoer, is preferred.  Even if we do work towards a measured response or equivalence, then although restitution was a preferred ancient model (the wrongdoer paying back the victim in appropriate measure), as states took over all legal functions of civilised life retribution - painful punishment, causing hurt to the wrongdoer - became the norm. 

The death penalty is the most obvious example of a retributive punishment that terminates the prospect of transformation in the wrongdoer or in the whole situation where harm was introduced.  Murder is often viewed as a sin which is 'too big' for forgiveness.  (See Seeing into a killer's mind.)  But any labelling - even gossip - condemns wrongdoers to a treadmill of mistreatment. See The 'no-name' game �/a>.)

Forgiveness and transformation.  The contemporary movement advocating restorative justice suggests how much more creative restitution is.  Unlike retributive responses to crime, restitution has the potential to repair the financial and perhaps relational harms that crime has left in its aftermath.

It is a form of creativity, of transformation and enlargement of life.  Forgiveness shares this with restorative justice.  And an important strand in real forgiveness also recognises that transformation is hard work.  Discipline is rarely practised or understood by caring and religious professions that often claim a special concern for forgiveness.   Discipline means leading a wrongdoer to self-knowledge, responsibility and a degree of brokenness, and helping her or him to rebuild relationships or form new ones.  (See Discipline and punishment, Reconciliation is the goal.)  The word 'righteous, applied to God, originally meant 'someone who makes others right.'   (See The place of anger in enduring love �.) 

Where forgiveness differs from restorative justice is that it involves a transformation of the injured persons or members of the wronged society, as well as transformation of the wrongdoer.  Most people tend to find forgiving powerful people much harder than forgiving relatively powerless people.  "She should have known better," "He could have done so much good, and instead ... " contrast with, "He didn't really mean to do what he did," "She just didn't know where to turn," etc.  This is a correct reaction - being able to forgive does require a (relatively) high level of power.  (See Should forgiveness be unconditional? �5)

But rather than humbly acknowledging we are not in a position to do much forgiving in this situation, and seeking or hoping that we will be one day (even to be in a position to reform an institution), we tend to make the aim of forgiving - which we are not yet able to contribute to - into a regulation and requirement that the wrongdoer has to meet first.   In other words: "I can't help him, so he has to do it himself."   Whatever else that attitude displays, it is not any kind of forgiveness!  People committed to forgiveness have a greater realism about human frailty (it was Jesus who said "No one is good but God alone" [Mark 10.18]).



What do I do when I can't let it go?

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can't let it go?

Short answer:  We tend to trap ourselves in permanent defensiveness when we try to 'let go' of (i.e. jettison) the people who have wronged us, rather than letting go what they did.   Aim to be open to some kind of relationship with the other person or people, while letting go of seeing them only in terms of what they did.  And while letting go of defining yourself by what went wrong.
Longer answer with links

Very many people struggle with the issue you are raising.   When we aren't able to forgive someone, we tend to see the person and 'what they did wrong' as one and the same thing.  So we think that letting go of the hurt and wound also means 'letting go' (i.e. in practice rejecting or abandoning) the person too!

The other person, or the hurt?  Well, it's this that causes many difficulties in letting go!  There is a chicken-and-egg here: We can only even want to let go the hurts and wrongs if in some way we want relationships to be restored or transformed.  For some people their beliefs and sense of self inspire a desire not to continue to be cruel - (see What motivates us to forgive #3).  Yet we can only find the courage to want this if our relationships improve.  For a lot of people this happens through an experience of healing relationship with people other than the wrongdoer - with God or with a beloved friend.  (See You are forgiven #18.)

By saying there is a chicken-and-egg, we are acknowledging than very often we cannot do it ourselves.  We are in the hands of other people's goodness, too.  We have to be 'lucky' with good friends; or surprised by God or by joy.  Part of the spiritual dimension of 'letting go' lies in owning this dimension to human life and daring to hope for a deeper human dependence on other people.  So if it is proving hard to be courageous with one person or group who may have been damaging, see what steps you can take to open out to new ones.  (See Letting go hatred for the Holocaust.) 

Take care when with new friends not to rubbish or belittle the people who wronged you.  Acknowledge your own failings, and hope to be empowered to be courageous - eventually - with those who wronged you.  Be more aware that letting go of another's errors and wrongdoing will only be rewarding to you and to others when you also let go of your own claim to superiority.  (See Being true to myself through forgiving.)

Institutional survival  Letting go is not always a virtue.  It can be decisive and good as an inner spiritual journey of discovery – falling, yet falling into the arms of God or of Life.   But it can be done wrongly, used as a technique for keeping the institution on the rails, and therefore jettisoning people in the name of letting go.  The mantra "No one is indispensable" is often a good sign of this false forgiveness (see The values implied by forgiveness #5).  And it is vividly illustrated by an episode in The Godfather II, where Hyman Roth tells Michael that "When I heard you had killed my friend Mo Green, I let it go."   Why?  "It had nothing to do with business."  (See Letting it go - coldly.)


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correcting a false accuser?

should I correct someone's false words about me?
"I keep bumping into an acquaintance from the past, who takes every opportunity to remind me of my mistakes and ‘put me in the dock.’  Yet though I have acknowledged I messed up badly, what he says now is not true.  Should I try to correct him, as kindly as possible?"

Short answer:  Truth matters, but only when it is second to love.  If you want to show forgiveness, then your primary concern is always seeking to strengthen your relationship with him or her, so that you can help in some way ... including bringing in right judgement.  It cannot be to defend yourself.   Starting from a position of response to accusation, rather than initiating a helpful visit, tends to dictate what happens thereafter.  So it's wiser to seek to change the subject to a positive one for both of you.

Longer answer with links

The claim to be "Just speaking the truth" has become one of the main cries of our media-conscious society, a first level justification for tearing other people to shreds!  See, for example, Truth is not the end, Staying alive and The use we make of truth on the Images + Words page, and the passage by C S Lewis included in The 'no-name' game �/a>.)  When it comes to bringing in truthful views of lives and situations, there’s a big difference between starting to do this – initiating – in a helpful, compassionate way, and retaliating or responding because of what someone says.  Even if you mean to be kind, the given situation of responding means that you will probably be perceived by the other person as guarding yourself rather than helping him.

Real forgiveness is not soft.  Working out details of a history – particles of the whole truth – is vital when someone wants to be forgiven and restored.   It’s not a condition of your giving him or her forgiveness, but it is a condition for him or her if they are to receive it deep down. There is a kind of spiritual surgery going on here, to help a mistaken person to get free of entanglements, errors and flawed assumptions or desires. (See the whole article Good judgement and bad judgement.)

But this helpful process can only begin because he or she wants forgiveness.  If someone comes to you as an accuser, they almost certainly haven’t yet realised their own need for forgiveness, their own bigotries or inaccuracies, fears or failings.

We often play through interior monologues about this.  Try this example.  I can imagine meeting an old colleague, and getting a slightly frosty comment. Something like, "So I see you’re still drinking?"  What should I say to that?  A bit of me still wants to retaliate, to say something like, "And I see you’re still a judgmental hypocrite who feels better when you highlight other people’s failing!"  Or else to be defensive, and to say something like, "No, nowadays I hardly drink at all …"

Initiating forgiveness here does not mean starting by addressing the truth of an accusation, but by affirming the relationship at a level I believe I can hold up my end in.  In other words, I may not feel I can cope with the old form of relationship, but can handle a polite, ‘acquaintance-like’ one.  Or I may sense or know that the old relationship is what I now am called to, and I can open my heart to this stern critic without fear.  These are levels of forgiveness, which relate to my own power and powerlessness, authority and lack of it.

A good action from a good heart will always respond to miserable, belittling words with a change of subject, whether accomplished with smiles and grace or stuttered.  What is not a good action from a good heart is to say or do anything which makes the meeting into an act of termination, closure or censure on my part.


Is Christian forgiveness different from other kinds?

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a unique Christian view?

Short answer: The aim of forgiveness is restoring and deepening relationships, so relationship with a personal God is likely to be different from other ones.  However, Christian churches often cling on to this obsessively, and tend to ignore or overlook their own ordinariness and apparent incapacity to develop the power of forgiving.
Longer answer with links

There are two main things to say here.  1 The focus of Jesus  On the one hand, the figure of Jesus stands out as an extraordinary and radical person who gave an exceptionally high profile to forgiveness.  (See The power to initiate forgiveness �/a>.)  He not only taught it, but delivered it, and it is very understandable when people call him a source of forgiveness.   He also - counter to the religious authorities of his time who tried to reserve forgiveness to God alone - empowered and encouraged other human beings to forgive again and again.  Most of what anyone would want to understand or experience about forgiveness is conveyed by his teaching and recorded actions.  The most quoted of all Bible verses (John 3.16 "God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son ...") is a sensational illustration of initiated forgiveness - undeserved mercy to people in a mess.

2 The church's lack of focus  On the other hand, the church so often has restricted its view of forgiveness to the experience of being forgiven (by God).  So it has given undue emphasis to penance and repentance as steps towards to finding God's forgiveness.  It treats being forgiven as ineffable and almost mystical, and also as rare, as if the reality and joy of forgiveness isn't something it's very familiar with.   (See throughout the article You are forgiven.)  But most seriously, it has seldom if ever looked at its own role and performance as the provider of empowering forgiveness. 

Ironically, then, the religious attitude of reserving forgiveness to God alone - which Jesus so opposed - has come to dominate church practice.  Perhaps the centuries of teaching about how different Jesus was has artificially polarised church members, creating a 'him and us' mentality?  Certainly Jesus' main teaching that to be forgiven you must forgive is not commonly practised by church authorities.  (See When churches prevent God' forgiveness.) 

Individually, some saintly Christians provide remarkable and stunning examples of forgiving, but little attention is given to creating and building communities which provide and enable forgiveness for others.  (See A place for forgiveness to aim for.)  The work by teachers such as John MacArthur or Gregory Jones, or the practice of communities such as Taiz� or Sojourners, stand as important exceptions to this statement.  But David Jenkins realised, when Bishop of Durham, "So much churchgoing is just religious practices and not godly living and godly exploring."

Relationship with God  We can also realise that, because full forgiveness means the new and healthy restoration of relationships, Christianity teaches that this means relationship with God, too, and by definition this is different from non-religious examples of restored relationship.   God is believed to be - and expected to be - radically forgiving: Catholic thinker Edward Schillebeeckx inspirationally defined God by saying, "God is new every moment."  God always has a fresh approach, not restricting people to their pasts and labels; and also God is indefinable, always 'person' rather than a label.  Christians are often unwilling to learn that this is something Christianity shares with other religions, though.


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constant focus on sexual infidelity?

Why does society focus any concerns about forgiveness largely on sexual infidelity?
Short answer: Being secure in our sexual identity is at the heart of all personal identity.  We often cling onto sexual institutions (marriage, etc) to make our identity for us, and the loss of an institutional identity seems to take away our very soul.
Longer answer with links

Secular, Westernised society today does not often view sexual activity as sinful in itself, although there is often embarrassment when we are confronted with more unusual forms.   Mainstream religions have also become more tolerant, partly adapting to social pressure, partly through learning from human developmental science.  So speaking about 'sexual sin' really means speaking about wrong-doing which happens to have a sexual aspect.  This can mean criminal behaviour (for example, rape or the abuse of children).  But usually it means infidelity in established partnerships. 

Marriage and personal identity  Marriage was historically a property contract, and an alarmingly male-biased one.  Today's society usually wants to replace this with the idea of an equal, relational partnership, and certainly the 'theft of one's property' does not seem to underlie today's enthusiastic focus on publicly 'outing' infidelity. 

Infidelity will seem to be the biggest wrong imaginable to anyone for whom 'being married' or 'bonded' is the most important thing in his or her life - and this is the situation for a large percentage of humanity.  Marriage can seem to be more important than spirituality, or generosity or wisdom - or forgiveness.  Young adults hope to step out of their insecurities into secure identity by becoming 'married' - and this is only a modified version of the hopes invested in property contracts in past eras.

In other words, what is at stake in infidelity is the loss of my own personal identity, my sense of self and worth.  (Sometimes this is helpfully re-interpreted as a modern issue about property - what is 'proper' to me - to convey our sense of theft and loss.  See The place of anger in enduring love �/a>.  Also visit the FAQ about self-worth on this page.)  Let's explore a little how this need to establish personal identity works out in sexual bonding.

Re-establishing my identity  Responses to the issue of infidelity in the westernised world are ambivalent.  Between friends, office colleagues etc a liberal tolerance is normal.  People are familiar with the scale of marital break-up, and they are well-meaning if often embarrassed towards glbt (gay/lesbian/ bisexual/transsexual) unions. 

Yet the thrust of tabloid journalism and participatory TV chat shows is to pull in people determined to 'beat up' their unfaithful partners in as public a way as possible.  Participants endlessly repeat the cry "He/she has hurt me so much."  In a media culture, encouraging fault-finding and litigation, being a victim has become the most powerful person to be.  "I am a victim, therefore I exist, I matter."  (See the insight Victims who purchase compassion.)  When someone has placed a high priority on finding themselves in and through (the institution of) marriage and lost this, they can re-establish a sense of identity as a victim - or even a chat-show 'star'.

Getting away with it  Personal wrongs and mistakes in the areas of sex and financial sleaze make up the staple diet of gossip, TV soaps and tabloid headlines, and forgiveness rarely appears as an issue in these.  However, tabloid journalism and 'gossip-TV' now market and profit hugely from not only the vicarious involvement in other people's sexual pleasure, but also the pleasure of involvement in other people's fame and power.

This produces the strange hypocrisy that while many public figures lose their careers through 'friends' who kiss and tell, nonetheless if you're big enough a star, and powerful enough, these stories become part of your celebrity.  Because you're successful, and also because your identity is bigger than your career or profession, you 'get away with everything.'

The culture of success and prosperity most of us inhabit (and which the underdeveloped world is learning from the West) means that our core value is not compassion, creativity or helpfulness, but 'getting away with it.'  And since everyone commits many wrongs and makes many mistakes, not being publicly criticised or punished ... and at the same time being able to find fault with someone else ... provides most people with their sense of achievement!   Again, this shows us that what is most at stake is the matter of trying to find or keep personal identity.


Doesn't forgiving often mean losing my sense of self-worth?

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losing self-worth?

Short answer:  For people who don't have a lot of self-worth, or who have had it taken away, the stronger levels of forgiveness are not usually possible.  They belong at the end of a process of healing, not the beginning.  If hurried in this kind of situation, forgiveness can easily be distorted into a sell-out, condoning a wrong for the sake of 'keeping peace.'  The real thing is only possible when you have become empowered.
Longer answer with links

This question goes deep.  Self-worth - being happy and comfortable with who you are, not needing popularity or public power - is essential if you are to be able to forgive.  (See the quote An assertion of dignity.)  If you don't have a lot of self-worth, you will probably fear that your forgiveness would further damage your self-respect, and may amount to condoning the wrong.  When as a mob we bay for 'justice' - meaning punishment - part of what is driving us is our own sense of inadequacy or powerlessness generally, and the glee of getting something 'right' by pinning someone down into a set of labels and procedures.

People who have been hurt by another's wrongdoing very often lose their sense of worth.  This is different from the 'professional victims' who kiss-and-tell, or who populate the tabloid press and media.  (See the insight Victims who purchase compassion.)  When you are wronged by an organisation or institution, you feel even more paralysed and intimidated.  Whistle-blowers who try to speak out against institutional abuses really do receive threats - even death threats.

Before I can be in a position to do much real healthy, creative forgiving, I will almost always need to recognise that I have basic human rights, which have violated.   And I will need to allow myself to feel and express anger and sorrow.  Then I will reflect on the wrongdoer's attitudes and failure to manage her or his actions responsibly.  Do I want the wrongdoer to be removed for a period of time, protecting myself (or society)?  What sort of outcome can I aim for?  Am I strong enough yet to face the offender?  Do I want some form of restitution -   an apology, or reimbursement? 

This kind of process is healing, and increases our sense of self-worth.  But forgiveness has only just started at this point.  Reflecting a bit further on the wrongdoer's attitudes and failure to manage her or his actions responsibly leads me to concern, compassion, and the ability to recognise that "there but for the grace of God go I." (See There indeed by the grace of God go I.)  Can I do anything to help this person manage her or his life better? 

Margaret Holmgren, who wanted to forgive her own father and who has explored these question very wisely in essays including an article for the Forgiveness Institute (see Useful web links), says of the later stages of this process of real forgiving:

"We can recognise that the offender is a valuable human being like ourselves, who struggles with the same needs, pressures, and confusions that we struggle with. We can think about his circumstances and come to understand why he did what he did. In doing so, we will recognise that the incident really may not have been about us in the first place. Instead it was about the wrongdoer's misguided attempt to meet his own needs."


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shouldn't they earn it?

Don't people have to earn forgiveness - to show they've suffered and changed?
Short answer:  Wanting a wrongdoer to show repentance first may be understandable, but it expresses our underlying desire for her or him to suffer and squirm some more.  More retributive punishment than forgiveness.  In reaching out to full forgiveness, the emphasis we need to be concerned with is not on what the wrongdoer needs to do but on whether or not we have the power to transform her or his situation and attitude.
Longer answer with links

For a thorough longer answer, visit the page Should forgiveness be unconditional?   That page should help us discover that the desire to see someone else squirm is a direct reflection of our own lack of ability to make the situation any better - an issue of power and powerlessness.  It is of course telling that most of us no longer expect to do the punishing ourselves.  We leave it up to 'them' (institutional authorities) to do the hurting.  (See the introduction to these issues in Justice through restitution.) 

People involved with Christian churches either today or as children sometimes feel uncomfortable when they glimpse that, by contrast, Jesus did give a unique emphasis on grace and unmerited forgiveness, one which sets the standard for all approaches to justice and forgiveness.

Philip Yancey, the editor of Christianity Today, said that what defines the bourgeois mind-set in almost all society's institutions, from schools to multi-nationals and certainly churches, is "the insistence that we earn our way".  (See The power to initiate forgiveness �.)  By the 19th century, work and wealth were taken to imply a higher implicit moral status, an assumption which conservative strands in society still make today.

This medieval concern with 'works' is expressed in the moralities which influenced Shakespeare, and Shakespeare's presentation of forgiveness places a similar emphasis on winning pardon by good works, suffering and repentance.  (See Shakespeare and forgiveness.)  But they are not usually punishments or penances imposed by other authorities, in the way that the Catholic Church and then the penal system undertook to 're-form' their clients.

Ask yourself what kind of change you would wish to see in a wrong-doer.  To become a damaged, depressed or incapacitated reject; or to become a loving, compassionate, generous and creative person?  Then ask yourself: What kind of approach to his or her wrongdoing is likely to generate the reformation you want to see?


Will I ever be able to forget what happened?

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will I forget?

Short answer:  Don't expect to forget it.  The proverbial remedies "Forgive and forget" and "Forget and move on" are terribly misleading.   Many people may try to ignore what happened, trying to bury it in the sand and saying they have forgotten and forgiven.  But often all they are burying in the sand is their head, like an ostrich.  Forgiving means working with what has happened - the actions and reactions, and the people who wronged you - not walking away.
Longer answer with links

Victims of wrongdoing, and also perpetrators, often report replaying episodes and incidents in their minds, like video-tapes.  They have imaginary conversations with their attackers.  This is normal and a healthy part of moving into forgiveness.

What happened won't go away - except through natural ageing and forgetfulness!  'Never forgetting' is part of the Jewish response to the Holocaust, just as 'remembering' is a definitive activity for the Jewish people. (See Forgiveness for the Holocaust?)  It is not possible to eradicate the events - the joys and sorrows - of a human life.  But it does not need to define the persons involved, or subsequent relationships they may endeavour to form.  One strand in popular Christian piety suggests that "God forgets, so we can too," referring to Jeremiah 31.34 or Hebrews 10.17.  John MacArthur looks at this very clearly, showing that what happens is that God chooses to not remember or bring up the mistake or wrong - within a continuing relationship with the wrongdoer.  (See Forgive and forget.)   What matters takes place within the continuing relationship between wronged and wrongdoer. 

In this sense, God and human people can forget the labels attached to others.   John Donne vividly spoke of forgetting the 'labels' which adhere to sinners - i.e. all of us (see This man is forgiven).  Labelling is at the deadly heart of alienating and destroying human life.  It was used particularly in Nazi Germany and then Rwanda, where political and racial opponents used the labels of disgust - 'cockroach,' 'vermin,' etc - to justify unbearable inhuman genocide.  (See Disgust and oppression.)

Trying to forget, and wanting to forget, are aims which a very false kind of 'letting go' fosters in us, one geared to promoting institutional survival.  (See the FAQ Can't let it go? on this page.)   Forgetting should be a mutual decision to set aside what went wrong.  But institutions can often forget their members, abandoning them and moving away.  (See The values implied by forgiveness #5.)  To disremember can be a deliberate political act, a re-writing of history.

It's important to be clear how different forgetting a wrong action or behaviour is from forgetting a whole person and relationship.  The Danish thinker S鴕en Kierkegaard gave a powerful description of how someone can develop the 'trick' of walking away from you - rejecting you - while managing to turn her or his face towards you.  He or she says "Here I am" while all the time getting further away! (See Good intentions which conceal rejection.)


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one-sided reconciliation?

Can I be reconciled with someone who doesn't want it?
Fuller question:  I need to ask something about forgiveness and reconciliation.  What if one party wants to express forgiveness and hopefully be reconciled with a person?  But the other person does not want to be found.  What do you do about forgiveness on both parties' sides?  What do you do next?
Longer answer by Rabbi Yehudah Fine

(anchoring the live forgiveness conference a few years ago at the Addiction and Recovery Forum on AOL; reproduced with permission)

Let me say that if one party is missing in action they "ARE MISSING" in action!  There's nothing you can do in terms of direct reconciliation except one very powerful thing. That is, to let go and let God!   (grant healing grace).   Forgiveness transports us into a new vision, a new reality where we come in direct contact with the healing compassionate grace of our spirit and treat ourselves and the world with clarity, reverence, and love.

Reconciliation presupposes and willingness on both parties to understand and forgive.  Forgiveness is never found through "I'm sorry, " or "I didn't mean to."  When someone has hurt another, the impact and remorse must be felt and directly experienced by both parties involved - the one seeking forgiveness and the one who can grant forgiveness.  Reconciliation does not mean putting yourself at risk or chasing after the person who hurt you in order somehow to rehabilitate them.   Reconciliation, while wonderful, is a separate department in the universe of forgiveness.  And it has limits and boundaries.

If you've tried and not succeeded and if you've made efforts then you can let go!  And hope some day, with a prayerful heart that things will come together. The long awaited pouring out of the heart will unfold.

But that does not mean that you have to live your life filled with unfinished business.  We all live our life with unfinished business,but there are things that you can do to dedicate your life to reconcile.  Simply put, every time you reconcile an issue with another person, set aside a little prayer that is dedicated to that other person that you wish to gain clarity with some day.  And every opportunity where you remove ill feelings from your heart, send that, too, out into the world of prayer to help make the world a little more whole and better.  The Talmud teaches that no prayer is ever lost.

visit http://www.yehudahfine.com/


Is it responsible to say "It's not your fault"?

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it's not your fault?

Short answer: The questioner wanted someone close to her to face up to his responsibilities, rather than blame other people for his or her wrong behaviour.  However, in serious forgiving we want all parties to recognise their responsibilities for what happened, yet work together constructively to transform the situation and/or the personal failings.  This shared concern with resolution helps us realise that forgiveness is about a worldview of shared responsiblity rather than merely individual actions.
Longer answer with links

Saying “It’s not your fault” can be a whitewash, or a major positive turning point.  It's not a magic phrase by itself, any more than saying "Sorry."  There are many aspects - for example, in Gus van Sant's movie Good Will Hunting therapist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) says this to client Will Hunting (Matt Damon) at a climactic moment of release.

Often, it is a way of stepping towards forgiveness, a cautious and helpful first step when you feel you can’t yet be intimate or mutual with people who have wronged you.  Saying it speaks a worldview or theory, and helps the other person or persons to enter that worldview, yet does not commit you to close intimacy with them if you feel you don’t want this or that (in some cases) it would not be safe to do so.  Or indeed if it is impossible - like Jesus' last words from the Cross – “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” 

Your concern about not helping someone to take responsibility is important.  But we often oversimplify social life into one where everyone acts on their own - the catholic clich� "Love the sinner; hate the sinner" assumes a naive world in which there are just individuals and their record of actions - the bourgeois, consumer-class society.  Philip Yancey wisely observes that what defines this bourgeois mind-set in almost all society's institutions, from schools to multi-nationals and certainly churches, is "the insistence that we earn our way", so that not only is it economic success which creates our assumed standard of superiority but that more generally our deeds earn or merit their consequences (What's so amazing about grace? p 36).  We earn our rewards, we deserve our punishments.  We judge people almost entirely by what they have done.

Forgiveness belongs with a somewhat different value system, one where responsibility is shared.   Not one where there is no responsibility … the saying might seem to suggest this, but when used well it normally means, “It’s not your fault alone; it’s something we can work at together,” rather than “It’s not your fault, so let’s pretend it never happened.”  

In this new world of shared responsibility (perhaps the defining characteristic of the whole set of values and moral qualities), forgiveness is not the absolutely primary value - the mutual interdependence is.  But forgiveness is the basic heroic action, the one which requires courage and personal risk more than any other.



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Last modified  16 April 2005