by Jane C. Goerss, Ph.D.



It is not because angels are holier than men or devils that makes them angels, but because they do not expect holiness from one another, but from God alone.

      --William Blake

Forgiveness as Process

     I walked this morning.  Itís the end of a long Midwestern winter, gray and muddy.  Itís supposed to freeze again tonight, maybe snow tomorrow, and there will be several more thaws and freezes before itís 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 itís going to snow again.  Forgiveness doesnít 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.  Itís slow, itís 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 personís choice to forgive us, although that can be a healing experience when it happens.  We can, however, accept Godís 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.  Letís look more closely at that process. 


Harm Done

     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," "Thatís all right," and itís 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 motherís 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 couldnít 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.

Emotional Awareness

     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.

Emotional Expression

     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 perpetratorís 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 oneís emotions to someone who can be trusted to be compassionate and accepting, whether thatís 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, donít 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.

Forgiveness as Choice

     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 othersíbehavior.  We are not required to acquiesce to abuse.  We are required to give up our "right" to hurt back and through Godís 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 Godís 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 personís 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 Godís 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.

The Aftermath

     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 Iíll 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)



1L. B. Smedes, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Donít 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 Lifeís 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).


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