[3] ANGER and
by Jane C. Goerss,

 Judas Betrays Christ in the Garden  Cimabue, 1280







Be angry, but do not sin. (Psalm 4:4)

In integrating psychology with spirituality, I make the fundamental assumption that emotional health and spiritual health enhance one another.  True emotional health, if understood deeply, does not inhibit spiritual growth, nor does spiritual growth undermine emotional health. The yearning for relationship with God is central to the human spirit, and the reality of being God’s beloved creatures is the core of human identity at its healthiest.

It was fashionable in recent years to quote Korzybski: “The map is not the territory.” We were to understand that our maps or models of reality were not to be confused with reality itself, and there is certainly an important lesson in this. But the second half of the quote disappeared for a decade or two. Here it is in full:  “A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.”[6]  There is a territory that transcends our maps, and a particular map can be more or less accurate in representing it.

    When we come to dealing with anger, psychology and the spiritual tradition seem to disagree about the right path. It sometimes seems as though popular psychology would have everyone getting “comfortable” with anger, expressing their feelings, ventilating rather than suppressing. And it sometimes seems as though religious tradition would have us always meek and mild, turning the other cheek.  It looks as though the two paths diverge. It’s as though we have a travel guide from the automobile club, one of those maps with the recommended route traced out with an orange marker, and suddenly we get to a major interchange and there are two orange paths leading in different directions, one to Cincinnati and one to Omaha.  Navigation gets confusing.

    But I think if we take a closer look at both sources of understanding, we can find more convergence than might at first appear.  This is not to imply that reconciling the two approaches will be easy or comfortable.  Just after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the Dalai Lama met with a panel of prominent psychotherapists at a conference on peace.  The psychotherapists posed many questions to this Buddhist authority, until he turned the tables and asked the therapists, “Why do you need to speak your anger?”  One of the panelists responded that psychotherapists are “trying to discover . . . how to allow anger not to be suppressed or repressed, but to have it come fully, wholeheartedly into the mind, into awareness, so it can be met, investigated and seen as empty and changing.”  “But as it comes wholeheartedly into the mind, should it also come wholeheartedly out of the mouth?” quipped the Dalai Lama.[7]




There are several perspectives which may help make sense of this difficult emotion, anger.  First, let’s return to the interpersonal model of emotions and the primitive situations which evoke them.  I have not devoted an article in this series to sadness, because there is already sufficient literature discussing grief from a spiritual perspective.  But in brief,

[1] the most primitive situation evoking sadness is bereavement.  The process of grieving is necessary in mourning a significant loss.  It not only facilitates internal emotional healing, but also draws other people toward the grieving person to give support and comfort, thus mending the social fabric which was torn by the loss.

[2] Joy, as discussed in the first article in this series, is the emotion which bonds us into loving human relationships despite the constant threat of loss and disappointment.  The most primitive situation evoking joy is the contented suckling of an infant gazing at the mother.

    We are creatures of relationship, and there is a constant modulation of distance which allows us to come close together and yet remain apart.  Whereas both joy and grief draw us together, anger is a distancing emotion, a protective emotion.  Whereas joy says an enthusiastic “yes,” anger says a vehement “no.”  The most primitive situation evoking anger seems to be physical restraint or abuse.  Anger provides the energy to resist danger.  In our contemporary world, physical danger and violation remain woefully frequent, and anger is a natural response.  We also experience many situations in which the danger is more abstract, but is nevertheless threateningly real.  Anger then is a response not only to physical abuse, but also to social or personal injustice.  The prototypical angry cry is “You can’t do this to me!”




Throughout this series, I have used a model of emotion which emphasizes the primitive interpersonal functions of feelings.  To discuss anger productively, I must now add some nuances to that model.  Humans are social creatures and creatures of language.  Other higher animals show states which appear similar to our emotions, but only humans show such a complex range of emotional expressiveness.  We show our feelings in our facial expressions, in our body postures and gestures, and in words. 

    Such sophistication develops during our relatively long period of childhood dependency, in which we learn from adults how to experience and express our feelings.  All known human cultures demand some restraint of emotional expressiveness.  In addition to these societal constraints, each family has its own idiosyncratic emotional culture.  Without delving too deeply into the processes which shape our experiences of emotion, let’s skip to the final outcome: that we seldom, if ever, experience a single pure emotion, but instead experience complex symphonies of feeling-tones.



Two complexities are particularly relevant for understanding anger.  First, some people do not experience their own anger easily and instead experience some other emotion, such as sadness or fear, in situations which would ordinarily evoke anger.  Thus, someone might cry when angry.  Conversely, some people are “comfortable” with anger, but uncomfortable with more vulnerable emotions such as sadness or fear.  Thus, someone might become enraged when frightened.  The primary emotion is layered over with another emotion, a “secondary” or defensive emotion.[8]  Our unique patterns of emotional comfort and discomfort are determined by many factors, including our inborn temperaments, the emotional styles of our families, and our other life experiences.


    Secondly, humans learn very early that certain emotional displays produce certain effects, leading to “instrumental” emotions, those which serve as means to ends.  The expression of anger has different consequences from family to family and from situation to situation; for some people it proves highly effective.  The tantrums of toddlers are primitive anger displays, but rather than resulting from a purely spontaneous eruption of primary anger, they are often emotionally coercive, aimed at producing an effect.  If angry outbursts accomplish desired results, then anger will be habitually expressed.  Displays of anger in adults are ordinarily more controlled than in toddlers, but may be similarly manipulative.

    These distinctions among levels of emotion have been discussed under various labels in different schools of psychology.  They are now being studied more systematically.  For present purposes, it is enough to note that it is the primary emotions that provide significant information about inner experience and that give intensity and authenticity to relationships.  They are the “gut” feelings of experiential psychotherapies.  The secondary and instrumental emotions can be so problematical that they bring people into psychotherapy.

[1] Chronic depression, for example, often involves the habitual expression of secondary sadness thinly layered over suppressed anger.

[2] Conversely, domestic violence often involves the habitual violent expression of anger without awareness of the more primary feeling stated underneath. 

These are two among many possible examples.  Note that there cannot be standardized lists of primary versus secondary versus instrumental emotions; for each person there is an idiosyncratic pattern of emotions some of which are more easily experienced and some of which are habitually suppressed.  The pattern is further complicated by variations in social situations.




We can now see one of the problems with the catharsis method for dealing with emotion.  Catharsis of a secondary or instrumental emotion will never relieve the feeling.  If a depressed person is inhibiting rage, then crying will not be cathartic and will never relieve the depression.  The underlying anger must be accepted into awareness and worked through.  If an angry person is inhibiting fearfulness, then shouting or pounding pillows will not be cathartic and will not discharge the anger.  The underlying fears must be accepted and worked through.

    Even when anger is the primary emotion, the gut feeling, it is questionable whether unrestrained expression is healthy.  It was once thought that suppression of anger led to various physical maladies.  It now appears more common that chronic anger and habitual angry outbursts, rather than restraint, lead to significant health problems.[9]  Anger isn’t really supposed to be comfortable, after all.  It wasn’t created with comfort in mind.  It’s there as a warning that something is wrong.  It’s emotional red alert.  It’s there for protection, for energy, for taking action.

   What does appear to be necessary for emotional health is that we allow ourselves the internal awareness of our anger when we feel it.  Anger itself is natural and inevitable given the limitations of human relationships.  This understanding was behind the psychotherapeutic encouragement to “get in touch with” anger.  But for a time, some psychotherapists implied that anger was not associated with destructive aggression.  It is now clear, as if anyone else ever doubted it, that anger and destructive aggression are indeed associated.  Awareness of anger is important, but the expression of anger must be modulated to protect our relationships with other human beings.




For most of us, if anger is problematical, it is within the context of our relationships: families, friendships, religious communities.  No simplistic solution has worked well for maintaining loving, intimate relationships, not the old injunctions never to feel or express anger and not the newer injunctions to get in touch with anger and let it out.  Is there a way to understand anger and use it to enrich and deepen our relationships?

I won’t pretend that this issue is simple for me.  As several friends have pointed out over the years, I am not comfortable with anger.  I don’t seek to be.  Neither do I claim to have polished my intimacy skills to a smooth anger-free sheen.  Rather, I offer in this article some of the perspectives that I have found helpful.  I hope to encourage continuing dialogue within the spiritual and psychological communities about the skillful and loving handling of our more difficult emotions.

    Harriet Goldhor Lerner has written beautifully about anger in intimate relationships, giving helpful practical advice while avoiding the simplistic pseudo-solutions.[10]  Carol Tavris has written a readable, yet scholarly, account of the research on anger, particularly on the catharsis controversy.[11]  I have depended heavily on both these authors and recommend them highly.  Both view anger as a signal, first and foremost--as information that something is going on in a situation that needs attention.  If you can avoid succumbing to either instant suppression or the instant impulse to act, then anger can be useful relationship information.

    It is natural to take anger as a cue to focus on the other person, who is, quite obviously, a jerk.  The skillful use of anger demands a different focus: take anger as a cue to focus on the self.  “Anger is a tool for change when it challenges us to become more of an expert on the self and less of an expert on others.”[12]  Take time to turn inward, to tune in to the real source of the anger.[:] 

What am I really feeling?

What is it about the situation that makes me angry?

What is threatening to me here?

What do I need to accomplish?

What do I want to change?

What am I willing to do and what am I not willing to do?


    Instead of speeding up, slow down.  Take time to think things through.  The old adage about counting to ten has some merit, but only if you continue to breathe while counting.  If you are really in danger of exploding, take a break and leave the situation, if possible.  The psalmist who said, “Be angry, do not sin,” suggested a quiet break: “Ponder it on your beds and be silent (Psalm 4:4).

    There are many popular books on communication skills, and communication is indeed the key to solving the problems that generate chronic anger in relationships.  I won’t reiterate here all the guidelines for problem-solving communication, such as the use of “I” language and maintaining respect for differences.  The care and nourishment of intimate relationships will always include some mutually acceptable way of dealing with angry feelings and other uncomfortable patterns.  Harville Hendrix has written an excellent book for couples[13] that includes a sensitve treatment of anger and a particularly valuable discussion of how to work through those frustrating conflicts that seem to repeat themselves endlessly without resolution, like mindless feedback loops.

    The three books I’ve recommended here represent the best understanding of anger I’ve found within contemporary psychology.  Their recommendations do not conflict in essence with Christian understandings of love and relationship.  Robert Enright and Robert Zell[14] analyzed the New Testament references to anger, including the passage from St. Paul most often used to exhort suppression of anger.  The passage in full reads:

Be angry but do not sin;

do not let the sun go down on your anger,
and do not make room for the devil

(Ephesians 4:26-27).

Their exegesis, based on the two Greek words translated as “anger,” suggests that the simple feeling of anger is not prohibited here.  What is prohibited is an intensification of the feeling, an internal assent to the feeling, which then justifies outbursts, harm, and lasting bitterness.  What is prohibited is the deliberate harboring of resentment, which destroys loving relationship. 




T’ai Chi is an ancient form of moving meditation related to the martial arts.  In it, one centers one’s awareness in the 1-point, the “hara,” a point just below the navel.  When awareness is centered there, balance is maintained almost effortlessly and movement flows naturally in a state of relaxed alertness.  This relaxed and centered stance provides an enormous degree of physical power.  In martial arts applications, the attacker is met, not with braced resistance, but with this balanced and flowing power.  The attacker is assisted to the floor using his own energy.

    Gerald May[15] points out that it is natural when physically attacked to brace oneself, to tense up and prepare to resist or fight back.  In martial arts training, this impulse must be unlearned.  One must learn, with painstaking patience, not to brace oneself, but to maintain relaxed and centered alertness.  May used this metaphor in a different connection, but it applies to dealing with anger as well.  It is our natural impulse when verbally attacked to become angry, to brace up.  Perhaps we can unlearn that impulse and learn instead to maintain relaxed and centered awareness in situations of emotional threat.

    In that state, we will neither fight back nor yield our center.  Note that this position calls for neither aggression nor submission.  The trick would be to maintain awareness of your true center, emotionally and spiritually.  If you can maintain interior balance, then you don’t have to respond defensively when threatened.  If you can train yourself to maintain relaxed awareness, then perhaps you can develop a sort of interpersonal T’ai Chi, a constant, balanced, gently powerful way of relating.

I believe that St. Benedict had something like this in mind when he admonished the cellarer about responding to inappropriate requests.  Imagine the position of the keeper of the storehouse.  Imagine the obnoxious demands that he must have encountered daily.  St. Benedict advises neither yielding nor escalating.  Here is the Benedictine response:

If any brother happens to make an unreasonable demand of him, he should not reject him with disdain and cause him distress, but reasonably and humbly deny the improper request.[16]

In discovering and maintaining an emotional center, the simple daily practice of prayerful meditation can be profoundly helpful.  Just as I suggested in the last article, in discussing recovery from shame, prayer heals.

Apatheia and Recovering Emotional Awareness


There were good reasons why psychotherapists emphasized recovering lost emotional experience.  Many people have learned to reject their emotions.  They are numb.  A first step in recovering full healthy emotionality is regaining feeling, melting the frozen tundra.  As emotional awareness is recovered within a safe and supportive environment, then the second step is experimenting with various forms of emotional expression.  There is often some interpersonal clumsiness at this stage.  With patience and persistence, emotional communication comes to enrich life and relationships.  These two levels of recovery, the level of awareness and the level of expression, are well-articulated within psychology.  But yet another level of recovery is suggested by the spiritual tradition.

    Early Christian writers used the term apatheia to describe an important aspect of spiritual maturity.[17]  Apatheia has unfortunate connotations because of the easy mistranslation into the English word “apathy.”  Nevertheless, I suggest that it captures a further stage of growth in experiencing emotion.  The term comes from the Christian tradition, but there is a concept similar to it in almost all spiritual pathways.  It does not mean apathy, but something like serenity.  It means learning that you are not your emotions.  Emotions are like storms on the surface of the ocean; when feelings are strong, you needn’t be swept away.  To develop apatheia is to become increasingly identified with the calm ocean depths underneath the surface waves.  It is not repression, but full awareness, in serenity.

    The danger in the spiritual tradition has been skipping over the development of awareness and attempting to cultivate apatheia prematurely.  Apatheia can then become the poor translation, apathy, and can yield unhealthy forms of stoic suppression, uncompassionate behavior and acedia.  For those devoted to the spiritual life, it is particularly tempting to try to bypass such a disturbing emotion as anger.  But serenity is developed by passing through emotions, not around them.  Serenity allows for the awareness of natural emotionality and for the enriching of relationships through safe expressiveness.

    The danger in the psychological approach has been getting stuck at the levels of awareness and expression, yielding indiscriminate expressiveness and overidentification with feelings.  Some people become almost addicted to their feeling states and must learn to allow the natural ebb and flow of emotions.  The spiritual path involves an increasingly rich identification with our deepest center through which we are connected to God.




A theological discussion of the apparent incidents of God’s anger at us would be beyond both my competence and the scope of this article.  Since Julian of Norwich, our great spiritual foremother, engendered some controversy on that issue, I would hesitate to offer my own speculations.  But I think it necessary to comment on the converse point: the human experience of anger at God.  When life becomes very painful or when past pain is recalled, as in psychotherapy, people may find themselves feeling angry at God.  This feeling is often accompanied by discomfort and guilt, by a sense that anger at God is disrespectful or shameful.  Our relationship with God is precisely the relationship least likely to be harmed by expressions of anger.  God is capable of transforming all our complexity and confusion; none of our emotions need to be hidden.  And although we may sometimes try to cut ourselves off from God when we are angry, God never really leaves us:

And so when my heart grew embittered

   And when I was cut to the quick

I was stupid and did not understand,

   No better than a beast in your sight.

Yet I was always in your presence;

   You were holding me by my right hand.

(Psalm 72/73)

In the last article in this series, I will discuss the process of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is the most thoroughly scriptural resolution to anger, yet it is easily misunderstood.  When deeply and freely given through grace, forgiveness has the potential for healing our emotional wounds and furthering our spiritual growth and serenity.






It is not because angels are holier than men or devils
that makes them angels,






Return of the Prodigal





but because they do not expect holiness
from one another, but from God alone.
--William Blake



   I walked this morning.  It’s the end of a long Midwestern winter, gray and muddy.  It’s supposed to freeze again tonight, maybe snow tomorrow, and there will be several more thaws and freezes before it’s truly spring.  The first buds are out on the pussy willows.  Nothing else is budding yet.  Except for patches of white on the birch trees and the tails of the deer, everything is dun-colored.  The pussy willow buds are hardly noticeable, just tiny white tufts of fur on bare branches against brown earth.

    Forgiveness begins like that.  Just a small budding, a little furry softening, frightening in its vulnerability when you know it’s going to snow again.  Forgiveness doesn’t come like a sudden burst of sunshine with everything thawing instantly and birds singing and flowers blooming and Bambi and Thumper bounding through the forest and never again will there be fire or ice.  It’s slow, it’s muddy, and it comes in fits and starts.

    We can approach forgiveness as yet another task to perform, another burden we place on ourselves, another expectation.  Or we can approach it as a healing process.  We can try to forgive using our own power, in an imitation of grace.  Or we can open to forgiveness and accept the real thing, the gift of grace.

    There is the forgiver and the one forgiven.  In any single story of harm and healing, we may have both roles.  In our lives we will certainly have both roles, but in this article I take the perspective of the forgiver.  I attend to the process of our forgiving someone who has wronged us by the grace of God who has forgiven us.  We have no control over another person’s choice to forgive us, although that can be a healing experience when it happens.  We can, however, accept God’s graciousness toward us and, in response, open ourselves in willingness to forgive others.  When we do this, we participate in our own healing.  In a sense, forgiving others benefits us more than it does them.

    On rare occasions we may experience forgiveness in a single instantaneous burst, perhaps as part of a particularly compelling spiritual experience.  Ordinarily, though, forgiveness comes as part of a long, slow process of healing.  Let’s look more closely at that process. 




It all begins with a deep hurt.  We trivialize forgiveness if we include petty little events, like someone running into our cart in the grocery store.1  A small everyday irritation requires a mere social interchange: “Excuse me,” “That’s all right,” and it’s over.  The sort of event requiring forgiveness is entirely different in magnitude.  At worst, the event may have caused deep and serious harm: infidelity, desertion, physical and emotional abuse.  “Typically, the most traumatic hurts occur within the context of close interpersonal relationships, often leading to the tragic irony of hurting and being hurt by those whom one loves most deeply”.2  These are the events which most profoundly challenge our capacity to forgive.

    I have worked professionally with people who, in the grip of insanity, murdered family members, and whose surviving relatives were left to struggle with the devastating aftermath.  I worked with a man who put his mother’s eyes out, leaving her blind.  He told me tearfully about how she visited him in the state hospital, led by others, and forgave him before she died.  These are the extremes of human experience, the obvious forms of violence.  If we listen to each other with compassion, it becomes clear that many of us have suffered violence, sometimes in more subtle forms hidden under a facade of normalcy.

    When we forgive, we need not minimize the harm done:  “Oh, it was nothing.”  In fact, minimizing the harm short-circuits the healing process and allows only a shallow form of forgiveness. Deep forgiveness involves facing squarely the magnitude of the harm done and allowing ourselves full awareness of its impact on us. Neither need we excuse those who have harmed us or say that they couldn’t help it.  It may be true that they were sick or impaired or just plain human, but they made choices and we were hurt.  When we forgive, we are not condoning cruelty or wrongdoing.  We forgive the actor, not the action.




   Throughout this series on emotions and spirituality, I have emphasized the primitive functions of emotion, the ways in which emotions serve to inform and enrich our lives and relationships. Both positive and negative emotions serve their purposes.  It is the negative emotions which come up most powerfully when we are harmed by someone: anger, fear, grief.  Anger at its most primitive, at the level of our bodies, fuels our resistance to physical injury and gives us the energy to fight back to save ourselves.  Fear prompts us to escape danger by fleeing.  Grief is the natural response to loss, and losses are always sustained when harm is done, if only the loss of innocence and trust.

    Forgiveness does not require us to suppress these feelings. The feelings may dissipate as we heal and forgive, and it is part of our healing to become willing to let go of them, but we need not force ourselves to stop feeling.  In fact, our healing and our forgiveness will be deeper if we allow ourselves to feel the negative emotions fully.  This does not imply that we must express them fully to a particular person, a point to which I will return.

    Please see my article on anger for a fuller discussion of that emotion.  For present purposes, let me reiterate that some people are relatively comfortable feeling anger, but are uncomfortable with more vulnerable emotions such as fear and sadness.  Some people are comfortable with fear or sadness, but uncomfortable with anger.  Some people are uneasy with all emotions.  For each of us, depending on our emotional temperament and personal history, the initial tasks in healing will be slightly different.

    It is important to allow ourselves a full range of emotional responses as we recover.  Therefore we must watch ourselves for signs of clinging to some emotions and avoiding others.  After being harmed, an angry person may be tempted to cling to the anger and wrap herself in bitterness and resentment.  She will need to yield to the softer emotions as she heals; she will need to face her fear and her sadness.  On the other hand, a fearful person may retreat, avoiding all situations that might evoke the sense of danger.  In healing, this person might need to recover his anger, might need to experience a deep, authentic outrage at having been abused.  Forgiveness will be authentic only after that rage has been experienced.  Similarly, depressed people must often face their anger in order to release the past and recover healthy daily functioning.  The objectivity of a trusted friend, counselor, or psychotherapist can help keep us honest about our feelings.




    As we allow ourselves the full awareness of our emotions, we are enabled to choose freely how to express them.  We are not at their mercy, but can choose the time and place and mode of their expression.  We can keep in mind the need for authenticity, for safety, and for compassion toward ourselves and others.

    These issues often come up in working with adult survivors of child abuse.  Among those who work in this field, there is controversy about the issue of confronting the perpetrator.  Some encourage the adult survivor to confront the perpetrator in person or by letter.  Others believe that confrontation rarely yields a therapeutic outcome and that the survivor may be doubly wounded by the perpetrator’s response, especially if the survivor harbors unconscious expectations that the relationship will be healed or that the perpetrator will finally accept responsibility and express remorse.  Because of the danger of unconscious unrealistic hope, I discourage confrontation until the healing process is very well advanced.  When the survivor is far along in recovery, she or he can better explore the emotional purpose of making contact and can then choose freely.  Considerations at that point will include whether there is ongoing contact with the perpetrator, whether there are other potential victims, and whether the well-being of the survivor can be assured.  These issues are particularly relevant for survivors of abuse, but the themes may arise in other situations of healing from harm.

    It is far more important to express one’s emotions to someone who can be trusted to be compassionate and accepting, whether that’s a friend, a psychotherapist, or a support group.  If the harm done was extremely serious, such as sexual or physical abuse, it is usually wise to seek professional help, choosing the therapist carefully.  Laura Robinson and others have suggested that pre-forgiveness work might be necessary for people who have been severely wounded, in order to build the ego strength necessary to make forgiveness possible.3

    What about working through our emotions without professional help?  Telling our story is necessary, and often it must be told more than once.  A well-chosen friend may be a good listener.  A support group provides the added advantage of people whose empathy is deepened by common experiences and who can tolerate a certain necessary repetitiveness.  A spiritual director or companion may help to integrate the emotional experience with spiritual growth.

    Writing in a personal journal can be helpful; many people in twelve-step recovery programs find writing to be an important tool in healing and self-discovery.  Tell what happened.  As a first step, write the story entirely from your own perspective, without any thought of objectivity or fairness.  Write about your grievances against the other person.  Let your feelings show.  If you choose to do this exercise in the form of a letter, don’t even consider mailing it.  The decision about communication must come later. 

    If you are reading this article with an interest in working through a forgiveness process that is personally important to you, I suggest that you focus first on a person who caused you only moderate harm.  It is usually not wise to begin this spiritual practice by focusing on a severely harmful experience.  By focusing on experiences of intermediate intensity, you can stretch your capacity to forgive and develop your trust in the possibility of emotional healing through forgiveness.

    As a part of this process, many find it helpful to review their own faults.  We may not have harmed this particular person, but we may be surprised to discover that we have harmed others in similar ways.  This part of the process may also be shared with a trustworthy person.  As we are forgiven, it becomes easier to forgive.  In learning to forgive ourselves, we learn to forgive others.  “To forgive is to acknowledge the ambiguity of good and evil that exists in all human beings and in all of life.”4

    However we choose to tell the story, it must be told fully. Only when we tell the whole story and experience all the feelings can we begin to notice the boundaries of the experience.  At one time, it seemed overwhelming; it seemed that we might never recover.  Now we notice that our suffering has limits.  We were hurt deeply, yet we survived.  “To forgive someone entails accepting the fact that you can be hurt by another and not destroyed by that hurt.”5  Now we notice those first vulnerable buds of compassion.




    At some point in the healing process, it becomes possible to consider the existential choice of forgiveness.  And true forgiveness is freely chosen; it cannot be forced.  When parents insist that quarreling children forgive one another, this may have its purposes, but superficial words and grudging handshakes do not make true forgiveness.

    The choice of forgiveness is made possible only through grace. As much as I affirm the positive functions of all our emotions, we cannot depend on them to lead us to forgiveness.  A natural response to injury is anger.  Furthermore, there seems to be a natural impulse to hurt back, and not only to retaliate, but to believe that we have the right to retaliate.  Many of the Biblical injunctions to forgive prohibit acting on exactly that impulse; they were given when there was less societal inhibition of overt revenge--people openly feuded and plotted vengeance against one another.  Most basically, then, forgiveness is a choice to release someone from our right to hurt them back, a choice to restrain our impulse to harm them.  We choose to release the person freely and without cost.

    I have emphasized in previous articles the sheer joy of relating to our God, a God of incomprehensibly vast love, of wildly improbable mercy.  If there is a catch, this is it: we are supposed to pass along the mercy, even in our own faltering way.  In this sense, forgiveness is required of us.  We are not required to suppress anger, fear, or grief.  We are not required to ignore, excuse, or rationalize others’ behavior.  We are not required to acquiesce to abuse.  We are required to give up our “right” to hurt back and through God’s grace to give it up freely.

    When the time comes to make this choice, we can express it in words and in behavior.  Perhaps the most important words are to God: “What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace.”6  We can pray for the grace to forgive.  We can pray for ourselves, for our healing and safety. We share with God all of our pain and all of our emotions: the anger, the fear, the grief.  We pray for the gifts of compassion and understanding.  And, finally, we come to be able to pray for our enemy.  We release the person into God’s hands for healing and safekeeping.  We release them from their debt to us.  We release ourselves from bitterness and resentment.

    In our behavior, we simply refrain from harming.  This does not mean that we fail to protect ourselves; we actively avoid being harmed further, to the degree that it is in our power to do so. Forgiving is not forgetting.  We do not suddenly cease to remember the character defects of the person in question, opening ourselves or others to further harm.  We vigorously protect those in our charge.  We do what we can to reduce the violence around us.  If we needed our anger to energize our self-protection, then we need to learn new ways to take care of ourselves as the anger begins to dissipate.  But we protect ourselves and others without indulging the impulse to hurt back. 

    It cannot be overemphasized: Be gentle with yourself.  Do not bludgeon yourself with the demand to forgive.  If you force yourself prematurely, you will have to forgive yourself later for that act of violence.  If you notice an impulse to rush through the process, slow down and attend even more deeply to your own healing, to your capacity for self-forgiveness and deep self-care.  There are exercises which involve imagining Jesus in the forgiveness scene.7  Some people find these helpful, but others feel pressured by the expectation of speedy resolution.  Trust your own responses.  Stephen Levine offers a forgiveness meditation which can be useful, particularly if it is preceded by journal work and telling the story fully.8  His meditations illustrate the healing power of directing loving forgiveness both toward others and toward oneself.

    When we have forgiven someone privately, do we inform the person forgiven?  Many of the same issues apply here as were discussed above about whether to express our emotions to the person involved.  But in this case, our consideration is not only for ourselves and whether we will be helped or harmed by the contact. We now include the other person in our consideration: will he or she be helped or harmed by the contact?  Again, the healing process should be far advanced when this decision is made.  Otherwise, there is the danger of intending consciously to communicate forgiveness while unconsciously communicating blame and reprehension.  The ideal circumstance for forgiving is a contact initiated by the other person, perhaps as part of his or her own recovery, seeking to make amends.  But this is rare, and our own choice for forgiveness cannot be held hostage to the other person’s enlightenment or repentance.  If it must be between us and God, so be it.

    Sometimes forgiveness does lead to the reconciliation and healing of the wounded relationship.  This is a great gift and allows us to manifest on earth God’s profligate willingness to reconcile with us.  We can be profoundly grateful when dissension and estrangement yield to reconciliation and renewed love.  Love may grow deeper and stronger through precisely such experiences of brokenness mended.




    It is unrealistic to expect that, after we have made the decision to forgive, we are immediately cleansed of all negative emotion.  Instead, like grieving, forgiveness ebbs and flows. Sometimes, suddenly, there we are again, furious and resentful, faced with yet another choice to cling to our bitterness or to let it go.  Sometimes the occasion of our relapse is obvious, perhaps an anniversary or a chance meeting or some other reminder.  There may be other times when we simply relapse inexplicably, as part of the deep internal rhythm of our own life and growth.

    But, as with grieving, emotions do heal.  As time passes, we are freed to live for today, no longer bound by the injuries of the past, looking toward the future in hope.  We are granted the grace of present-centeredness.  Only in the naked vulnerability of forgiveness can we “clothe” ourselves “with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:14)




    This is the final article in this series on emotions and spirituality.  More could be said.  A discussion of fear and anxiety would be particularly valuable; the psychological understanding of these emotions would be enriched by a spiritual perspective emphasizing the development of trust.  That discussion would be valuable, but, like an amphibian learning to come out of the water and breathe air, I am just learning about trust.  So I’ll end by quoting someone with more experience:


Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication make your requests known to God.  And the peace that passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

(Phil 4:6-7)


[6]A. Korzybski, Science and Sanity (Clinton, Mass: Colonial Press, 1933).

[7]C.H. Simpkinson, "Dalai Lama Engages Therapists in Dialogue", Common Boundary, May/June, 1990

3L.S. Greenberg & J.D. Safran, Emotions in Psychotherapy. (New York: Guilford, 1987).

[9]C. Tavris, Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion (Revised Edition). (New York: Touchstone/ Simon & Schuster, 1989).

[10]H.G. Lerner, The Dance of Anger. (New York: Harper Collins, 1985)

[11]Tavris, op.cit.

[12]Lerner, op.cit.

[13]Hendrix, Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. (New York: Harper Collins, 1988).

[14]R.D. Enright & R.L. Zell, "Problems Encountered When We Forgive One Another," Journal of Pychology & Christianity, Vol. 8, pp. 52-60.

[15]G. May, Obsessions: The Empty Tyranny. Audiotapes: Credence Cassettes) .

[16]T. Fry, (Ed.) RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in Latin and English with Notes. (Collegeville, MN : Liturgical Press, 1980).

[17]These writers include Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Evagrius of Pontus, John Climacus, and Maximus Confessor.

1L. B. Smedes, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve.  (New York: Pocket Books, 1984).

2J. P. Pingleton, "The Role and Function of Forgiveness in the Psychotherapeutic Process," Journal of Psychology and Theology, Vol. 17, pp. 27-35, 1989.

3L. Robinson, The Role of Forgiving in Emotional Healing: A Theological and Psychological Analysis.  (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1988).

4Ibid., p. 168.

5Ibid., p. 168.

6Fry, T. (Ed.)  RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict In Latin and English with Notes.  Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1980, Prol. 41.

7See for example, Linn, M. & Linn, D.  Healing Life's Hurts: Healing Memories Through Five Stages of Forgiveness.  (NY: Paulist, 1978).

8Levine, Stephen.  Healing Into Life and Death.  (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1987).