What was she to do? Brenda’s husband of three years abandoned her two years ago and today she received the divorce notice. “I don’t want to hate him for the rest of my life,” she said of Nathan. “I want to forgive him, but I don’t know how.”
Brenda is typical of most of us in not knowing the path to forgiving. We have been hurt, we realize that our resentment could destroy us, and so we want to forgive. We even know as Catholics that Jesus, in Matthew: 6, asks us to forgive. And yet, because the Bible is not primarily a psychological document, it does not give us step-by-step instructions of how to accomplish this challenging task of forgiving those who have been unjust to us.
This is where the book “Forgiveness Is a Choice” comes in. I wrote this book as the wounded person’s guide to accomplishing the task of forgiving one person who has hurt him or her. When we forgive, we do not excuse what the person did. Nathan did wrong and so to find an excuse for his abandonment is to distort reality, not to forgive. When we forgive, we do not necessarily reconcile. Brenda very much wants to reconcile with Nathan, but he will not even consider this because he plans to “marry” (his word) another. When we forgive, we do not toss justice aside.
Brenda will do her best for a fair settlement once Nathan files for and insists on a divorce.
If forgiveness is not to excuse or to reconcile or to ignore justice, what then is it? In the book I define forgiveness this way: When we forgive, we know that what the other did was wrong and despite this, we struggle to offer an end to our resentment and to offer goodness to the one who has been unjust. It is an act of mercy. To go a little more deeply, forgiveness, like justice, love, patience, kindness, and courage, is a moral virtue.
All moral virtues start with an inner understanding of that virtue, develop internally as goodness, and then flow out to others for their good. With regard to the moral virtue of forgiveness, I would say that it is a heroic virtue, centered in mercy, because you are trying to meet the challenge of offering respect or even love to someone who hurt you, perhaps deeply. As we know, when Jesus asks us to forgive, He already has shown us the way by offering us love (agape, or self-sacrificial love) by dying for us on the cross. He was offering mercy in the face of our sins. Of course, we do not forgive sins when we forgive because only God forgives sins. We forgive people because of their offenses against us.
What then are the steps to forgiveness? In “Forgiveness Is a Choice,” I outline 20 different steps. Here is the short version. First, the person who forgives must realize that he or she was treated unjustly. This is usually easy because we recognize when others are unfair. Yet, for some it is not always so clear. Brenda, for example, kept asking herself: What did I do wrong? What might I have done differently? She had to move away from the false belief that she was at fault. Sure, she was not perfect in the relationship, but nothing she did as a wife deserved abandonment. She had to stand in the truth: Nathan acted unfairly.
Next comes an examination of the consequences of that injustice so that she can begin to heal. She realized that she was quite tired (a typical consequence when one is a recipient of injustice). She further realized that she was becoming pessimistic across the board with so much in her life. As a result of Nathan’s actions, she began to lose trust in her fellow human beings. “Everyone is just out for themselves,” was her common thought, which needed changing because it is not true. She realized that the injustice was changing her in a negative way. It was time to act to recapture her essence as a person and at the same time to recapture her understanding of Nathan as a true person.
The next step is to decide to forgive, which necessitates knowing what it means to forgive: to deliberately try to reduce resentment and offer goodness toward the one who was unfair. Many people find this to be the most difficult part because it involves a commitment to something new for them.
Once the person decides to forgive, the next step is to begin examining in new ways the one who was hurtful. The essence of this is to see that this is a person, who is more than the behaviors that were hurtful. We examine what it means to be a person and, for Catholics, this is to see that we are all made in the image and likeness of God—even the one who acted badly. (The book is published by the secular publisher, the American Psychological Association, and so the emphasis is on the psychological journey of forgiving, not on Catholic theology per se). When we forgive, we try to see the other as vulnerable rather than someone who only acts poorly. These kinds of thinking exercises are challenging because the forgiver is asked to see beyond the other’s actions to something more, and more important, in him or her.
Practicing this kind of thinking over time can engender a sense of compassion, or a “suffering along with” the other, who is now seen as having weaknesses, just like everyone else, and is so much more than his or her actions. The forgiver has to be careful here not to slide into excusing or condoning. The person is more than his or her behaviors, but the behaviors themselves were wrong and will always be wrong.
The next part of the forgiveness journey includes bearing the pain. By this I mean that the injustice did happen; we cannot go back in time and reverse it. We have been emotionally injured. What then do we do with the pain? Forgiveness asks you first to be aware of the pain and then deliberately decide to shoulder that pain so you do not toss that pain back to the one who hurt you. Bearing the pain helps the forgiver realize that he or she is strong enough to withstand the inner discomfort for now and in this bearing of the pain, one realizes this paradox: as we accept that this did happen to us and as we take on that pain so that it is not passed to others, we begin to heal internally.
Bearing the pain is a kind of gift given to the other. You will not take an eye for an eye and instead will treat the other as a full person worthy of respect and even love And it bears repeating: You can and should strive for justice as you forgive.
Over time, the inner sadness or anger or even rage begins to lessen and eventually these difficult emotions can end. How do we know this? Our research group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have done about 20 social scientific studies, a few of which are discussed in the book, showing that as people forgive, they significantly reduce their depression (if that is present), anxiety, and anger, and increase their self-esteem and hope for the future. Forgiveness works as a healing strategy for reducing and even eliminating disruptive emotions.
“But, I don’t know how,” was Brenda’s lament. She now can know how. “Forgiveness Is a Choice” is a road map to forgiving and science has proven the method works.
Robert Enright is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
“Forgiveness Is a Choice: A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope” (2001) at amazon.com.