Skip to main content
Select Source:

Forgiveness

Forgiveness


Long a topic of discussion and inquiry among theologians and philosophers, forgiveness has attracted the serious attention of scholars within counseling, family studies, and psychology as well. Those interested in understanding this concept, however, will find that there is nearly as much disagreement as agreement among experts about how best to define forgiveness. Numerous definitions of forgiveness exist, and considerable debate continues concerning key components of these definitions.

Despite this debate, most definitions of forgiveness share three elements. First, most describe forgiveness as an active, effortful, and typically difficult process (Enright and Fitzgibbons 2000). Second, most require that the injured party renounce the right to take revenge or exact retribution on the offender (Pingleton 1989). Third, most assume that forgiveness involves cessation, or at least considerable reduction, in negative feeling toward the offending party (North 1998). In an apt summary of these points of agreement, James N. Sells and Terry D. Hargrave (1998, p. 22) describe forgiveness as "the antithesis of the individual's natural and predictable response to violation and victimization."

Apart from the relative consensus on these three basic elements of forgiveness, theorists and scholars disagree on various salient issues concerning what forgiveness involves. For example, although some scholars believe that the reduction of negative feeling toward the offender is sufficient for forgiveness, others (Enright and Fitzgibbons 2000) argue that true forgiveness requires that the injured party endeavor to replace negative feelings with such positive feelings as compassion and respect. Scholars also vary considerably in the extent to which they believe that reconciliation is an integral part of the forgiveness process. Some authors argue that forgiveness without reconciliation is not true forgiveness at all (Hargrave 1994); others contend that reconciliation, although perhaps a desirable goal in many cases, is neither a necessary condition of true forgiveness nor, in every case, advisable (Enright and Fitzgibbons 2000).

Related to the debate concerning reconciliation and its part in forgiving are issues surrounding the role of the offender in the forgiveness process. Those who view reconciliation as an issue separate from forgiveness argue that the offender need not even be aware that the injured party is considering a move toward forgiving (Freedman 1998). Regardless of their perspective on reconciliation, however, most scholars believe that the forgiveness process is facilitated when offenders acknowledge their wrongdoing, express remorse, and are willing to change their behaviors (Enright, Freedman, and Rique 1998). At their roots, these disparate views regarding the importance of reconciliation and the role of the offender may derive from more fundamental disagreements about whether forgiveness is primarily for the benefit of the injured party (Gustafson-Affinito 1999) or the offender (Enright and Fitzgibbons 2000; North 1998; Gordon and Baucom 1999).


Arguments For and Against Forgiving

One interesting theoretical perspective on forgiveness likens forgiving to other pro-social acts such as empathy-motivated helping, accommodation (the process by which individuals choose to inhibit destructive responses to a relationship partner's breach of good conduct and substitute instead constructive responses), and willingness to sacrifice (McCullough 2000). Each of these pro-social behaviors shares the possibility that acting in ways that are beneficial to the other—or the relationship with the other—may come at a personal cost to the individual. From an evolutionary perspective, Michael C. Luebbert (1999) suggests that forgiveness is a pro-social adaptation passed on from generation to generation because of its intrinsic survival value. This view, together with literature that suggests that forgiving may benefit the forgiver in various ways, highlight the possibility that forgiving may be good for both the individual and the larger social group. For example, it can help to restore or maintain supportive caring relationships, which are important for good physical and mental health, as well as help to reduce potentially debilitating emotions such as hostility, bitterness, and resentment, thereby ameliorating their negative effects on health and well-being (see McCullough 2000, for a critical review of the relevant literature).

At the same time, opposing viewpoints emphasize the possibility that serious negative consequences may be associated with a decision to forgive (see Enright and Fitzgibbons 2000 for a review). For example, some authors (Bass and Davis 1994) believe that forgiving gives the offender license to continue the hurtful behavior in which he or she has engaged and, furthermore, that it makes the injured party appear weak, maintaining a power differential that favors the offender over the victim. This sentiment that forgiving keeps the injured party in a subjugated position relative to the offender is echoed by the philosopher Nietzsche (1887) in his claim that forgiveness is a strategy employed by weaklings whose only recourse against injustice is forgiving.

Proponents of forgiveness (Sells and Hargrave 1998) counter this position by arguing that critics who depict forgiveness as detrimental to the individual often base their thinking on underdeveloped concepts of what forgiveness entails—for example, models of forgiveness that confuse forgiving with condoning or excusing the actions of the offender. In Sells and Hargrave's view, such underdeveloped conceptualizations of forgiveness may indeed jeopardize the well being of individuals who have been injured by another's actions. In particular, they argue that mental health professionals who espouse such flawed views of forgiveness may fail to offer their clients a valuable process by which they could overcome the significant and enduring negative effects of the harm they suffered.

At the same time, such criticisms identify the need to distinguish between true or authentic forgiveness and artificial or false forms of forgiveness that either maintain the offender's dominance over the injured party and facilitate continued victimization (Sells and Hargrave 1998) or are used by the injured party as a means of gaining moral superiority over the offender by using forgiveness to induce feelings of guilt and shame. In the first case, such pseudoforgiveness effectively denies the impact of the offender's actions on the injured party and their relationship. In the second case, forgiving is essentially a way of getting even with the offender, an act of condescension rather than of release (Gustafson-Affinito 1999).

Forgiveness as an Intervention in Family/Marital Relationships

Some theorists and practitioners have argued that forgiveness can be used as an effective means of resolving marital and family conflict and promoting healing of the pain associated with the hurtful actions of close family members (Enright and Fitzgibbons 2000; McCullough and Worthington 1994). Some, in fact, have argued that forgiveness is absolutely essential to family and marital relationships because, even when reconciliation may be inadvisable, forgiving enables the hurt individual to move on with his or her life free of the disabling effects of the injury or betrayal (Coleman 1998). There have been several efforts to document specific approaches to conducting forgiveness interventions with spouses and family members (Coleman 1998; DiBlasio 1998; Gordon and Baucom 1999; Safer 1999).

Various unique issues emerge when transgressions occur in the context of extended relationships with kin. For example, sometimes family members may pressure an individual to forgive before he or she is ready or able to consider the possibility or will expect forgiveness to occur within a shorter timeframe than is reasonable. In contrast, family members may sometimes prefer to sweep transgressions under the rug, so to speak, because they would rather not deal with the broader implications of or the fallout from the harm that has been caused. In other cases, family members may choose sides, supporting the offender and perhaps blaming the injured party. Sometimes they may actively discourage forgiving (e.g., in situations involving acts of infidelity, in the case of bitter divorces).

The therapist may often encounter additional challenges when delivering the intervention as part of family as opposed to individual therapy (see Worthington, 1998, for a more detailed discussion). For example, within a family context, transgressions seldom exist as isolated events, but instead as part of chains of events that stretch far back in time and in which the roles of offender and injured party may have been exchanged repeatedly (i.e., often individuals will have both suffered and caused harm themselves). If the offender or other family members are present during therapy, it is unlikely that this point will go unnoticed. In addition, both the offender and the injured party may have their own agendas (as may other family members attending the sessions), some of which may conflict with the therapist's goal of promoting authentic forgiveness. For example, research by Robert D. Enright and Richard P. Fitzgibbons (2000) has demonstrated that people vary in their developmental understanding of forgiveness. If the offender and injured party differ in their characteristic way of thinking about forgiveness (e.g., differing in their views regarding whether or not the offender must make restitution as a prerequisite to being forgiven), it will be more difficult to establish the common ground during therapy needed to facilitate true forgiving.

Several variables have been identified as potentially influential in determining whether or not an individual will forgive. First, forgiveness is generally facilitated if the injured party experiences— or can be brought to experience—empathy for the offender (McCullough, Worthington, and Rachal 1997). Accordingly, forgiveness interventions typically involve efforts to promote cognitive reframing of the hurtful event as a means of separating the offender from his or her hurtful actions (i.e., distinguishing the person from his or her behavior) and thus inducing in the injured party a measure of empathy for the wrongdoer. Forgiving also requires a certain degree of humility on the part of the person who has been harmed (Cunningham 1985; Worthington 1998). Wounded individuals must recognize—or come to recognize—that it is not fair to expect mercy from others in situations when they have done wrong without also extending mercy to those who have hurt them. Therapists will often work with individuals to help them recognize their own fallibility, to acknowledge that they too have needed forgiveness on occasion, and thus to assist them in coming to terms with the paradox that, at some level, being forgiven requires being willing to forgive. Finally, commitment to the forgiveness process is important because it helps to reify the decision to forgive in the forgiver's mind and contributes to the initiation and maintenance of behaviors and changes in attitude that promote continued efforts at forgiving (Worthington 1998). Forgiveness interventions often include real or symbolic gestures that signify in an overt and often public fashion the injured party's (and perhaps the offender's) dedication to the forgiving process.

Unfortunately, there have been relatively few attempts to test the efficacy of forgiveness interventions, whether designed specifically for application within families and marital relationships or for a broader client base. The results of those studies (DiBlasio 1998; Enright and Fitzgibbons 2000; McCullough and Worthington 1995; Worthington 1998) that have sought to empirically validate such interventions have, however, generally been promising. Obviously, there is an urgent need for further research directed toward systematic assessment of the effectiveness of existing forgiveness therapies and the theoretical frameworks upon which they are based.

It is also important to note substantial cultural and religious variation in people's definitions of forgiveness, their ideas concerning whether, when, and under what circumstances it is appropriate; the importance they ascribe to forgiving; and the processes by which forgiving is achieved (for a detailed discussion, see Augsberger 1992). Scientists and practitioners need to be alert to the implications of this variation in conducting their work. Diverse cultural or religious perspectives on forgiveness preclude broad application of forgiveness interventions grounded in one cultural or religious viewpoint. They also proscribe drawing general conclusions from research on forgiveness that is based largely on samples of North American, Judeo-Christian participants.


See also:Conflict: Couple Relationships; Conflict: Family Relationships; Conflict: Parent-Child Relationships; Discipline; Therapy: Couple Relationships; Therapy: Family Relationships


Bibliography

augsberger, d. w. (1992). "reconciliation: the manyfaces of forgiveness." in conflict mediation across cultures: pathways and patterns. louisville, ky: westminster/john knox press.

bass, e., and davis, l. (1994). the courage to heal. newyork: harper perennial.

coleman, p. w. (1998). "the process of forgiveness inmarriage and the family." in exploring forgiveness, ed. r. d. enright and j. north. madison, wi: the university of wisconsin press.

cunningham, b. b. (1985). "the will to forgive: a pastoral theological view of forgiving." the journal of pastoral care 39:141–149.

diblasio, f. a. (1998). "the use of a decision-based forgiveness intervention within intergenerational family therapy." journal of family therapy 20:77–94.

enright, r. d., and fitzgibbons, r. p. (2000). helpingclients forgive: an empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. washington, dc: apa.

enright, r. d., freedman, s., and rique, j. (1998). "thepsychology of interpersonal forgiveness." in exploring forgiveness, ed. r. d. enright and j. north. madison, wi: the university of wisconsin press.

freedman, s. (1998). "forgiveness and reconciliation: theimportance of understanding how they differ." counseling and values 42:200–216.

Gordon, K. C., and Baucom, D. H. (1999). "A Multitheoretical Intervention for Promoting Recovery from Extramarital Affairs." Clinical Psychology-Science and Practice 6:382–399.

gustafson-affinito, m. (1999). when to forgive: a healingguide. oakland, ca: new harbinger publications.

hargrave, t. d. (1994). families and forgiveness: healingwounds in the intergenerational family. new york, ny: brunner-mazel.

luebbert, m. c. (1999). "the survival value of forgiveness." in evolution of the psyche, ed. d. h. rosen and m. c. luebbert. london: praeger.

mccullough, m. e. (2000). "forgiveness as humanstrength: theory, measurement, and links to wellbeing." journal of social and clinical psychology 19:43–55.

McCullough, M. E., and Worthington, E. L. (1994). "Encouraging Clients to Forgive People Who Have Hurt Them: Review, Critique, and Research Prospectus." Journal of Psychology and Theology 22:3–20.

McCullough, M. E., and Worthington, E. L. (1995). "Promoting Forgiveness: A Comparison of Two Brief Psychoeducational Group Interventions with a Waiting-list Control." Counseling and Values 40:55–68.

mccullough, m. e.; and worthington, e. l.; and rachal,k. c. (1997). "interpersonal forgiving in close relationships" journal of personality and social psychology 73:321–-336.

nietzsche, f. w. (1887). on the geneology of morals, trans.w. kaufman. new york: vintage books.

north, j. (1998). "the 'ideal' of forgiveness: a philosopher's exploration." in exploring forgiveness, ed. r. d. enright and j. north. madison, wi: the university of wisconsin press.

pingleton, j. p. (1989). "the role and function of forgiveness in the psychotherapeutic process." journal of psychology and theology 17:27–35.

safer, j. (1999). forgiving and not forgiving: a new approach to resolving intimate betrayal. new york: avon books.

sells, j. n., and hargrave, t. d. (1998). "forgiveness: areview of the theoretical and empirical literature." journal of family therapy 20:21–36.

worthington, e. l. (1998). "an empathy-humility-commitment model of forgiveness applied within family dyads." journal of family therapy 20:59–76.

susan d. boon stacey l. nairn

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Forgiveness." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Forgiveness." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/forgiveness

"Forgiveness." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. . Retrieved July 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/forgiveness

Forgiveness

279. Forgiveness

  1. Angelica, Suor is forgiven by the Virgin Mary for ill-considered suicide. [Ital. Opera: Puccini, Suor Angelica, Westerman, 364]
  2. Bishop of Digne character who forgives Jean Valjean when latter steals the bishops valuables. [Fr. Lit.: Les Misérables ]
  3. Christ forgives man for his sins. [Christianity: Misc.]
  4. fatted calf killed to celebrate return of prodigal son. [N.T.: Luke 15:23]
  5. Matthias of his brother, for twenty years false imprisonment. [Ger. Opera: Kienzl, The Evangelist, Westerman, 264]
  6. Melibee shepherd who pardons his enemies. [Br. Lit.: Canter-bury Tales, Tale of Melibee]
  7. Myriel, Bishop saintly cleric befriends Jean Valjean after the latter steals his candlesticks. [Fr. Lit.: Victor Hugo Les Misérables ]
  8. Porgy of Besss promiscuity with Crown. [Am. Opera: Gershwin, Porgy and Bess, Westerman, 555]
  9. prodigal son received with open arms by loving father. [N.T.: Luke 15:2021]
  10. Tannhäuser unexpectedly absolved by the Pope for sinning in the Venusberg. [Ger. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 932]
  11. Timberlane, Cass receives Jinny after her extramarital venture. [Am. Lit.: Cass Timberlane ]
  12. Titus Roman emperor pardons those attempting his destruction. [Ger. Opera: Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito, Westerman, 100101]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Forgiveness." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Forgiveness." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/forgiveness

"Forgiveness." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . Retrieved July 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/forgiveness

forgive

for·give / fərˈgiv/ • v. (past -gave ; past part. -giv·en ) [tr.] stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake: I don't think I'll ever forgive David for the way he treated her. ∎  (usu. be forgiven) stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for (an offense, flaw, or mistake): they are not going to pat my head and say all is forgiven | [intr.] he was not a man who found it easy to forgive and forget. ∎  used in polite expressions as a request to excuse or regard indulgently one's foibles, ignorance, or impoliteness: you will have to forgive my suspicious mind. ∎  cancel (a debt): he proposed that their debts should not be forgiven. PHRASES: one could (or may) be forgiven it would be understandable (if one mistakenly did a particular thing): the arrangements are so complex that you could be forgiven for feeling confused.DERIVATIVES: for·giv·a·ble adj. for·giv·a·bly / -əblē/ adv. for·giv·er n.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"forgive." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"forgive." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/forgive-0

"forgive." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved July 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/forgive-0

forgive

forgive pt. forgave, pp. forgiven †give, grant; remit, pardon. OE. str. vb. forġefan; see FOR-1 (1) and GIVE; corr. to Du. vergeven, OHG. fargeban (G. vergeben), ON. fyrirgefa forgive, Goth. fragiban grant.
So forgiveness OE. forġief(e)nes, rarely -ġiefennes.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"forgive." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"forgive." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/forgive-1

"forgive." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved July 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/forgive-1

forgiveness

for·give·ness / fərˈgivnəs/ • n. the action or process of forgiving or being forgiven: she is quick to ask forgiveness when she has overstepped the line.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"forgiveness." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"forgiveness." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/forgiveness

"forgiveness." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved July 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/forgiveness

Forgiveness

Forgiveness: see ATONEMENT.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Forgiveness." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Forgiveness." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/forgiveness

"Forgiveness." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved July 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/forgiveness

forgive

forgiveforgive, give, live, misgive, outlive, shiv, sieve, spiv, Viv •endive • gerundive • olive

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"forgive." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"forgive." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/forgive

"forgive." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved July 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/forgive