FORGIVENESS , the act of absolving or pardoning; the state of being pardoned.
In the Bible
The biblical concept of forgiveness presumes, in its oldest strata, that sin is a malefic force that adheres to the sinner and that forgiveness is the divine means for removing it. This is demonstrated by the vocabulary of forgiveness which, in the main, stems from the cultic terminology of cleansing, e.g., tiher ("purify"; Jer. 33:8); maḥah ("wipe"; lsa. 43:25); kibbes, raḥaẓ ("wash"; Isa. 1:16; Ps. 51:4, 9); kipper ("purge"; Ezek. 16:63; Ps. 78:38). Even the most common verb for forgiveness, salaḥ, probably derives from the Mesopotamian cult where it connotes sprinkling in purification rites. More significantly, the most prominent epithet of God in His role of forgiver is noseʾ ʿavon/ ḥeṭ/ peshaʿ (lit. he who "lifts off sin"; e.g., Ex. 34:7; Num. 14:18; Hos. 14:3; Micah 7:18; Ps. 32:5).
In the religion of ancient Israel, in contrast to that of its neighbors, rituals are not inherently efficacious. This point is underscored by the sacrificial formula of forgiveness. Whereas the required ritual is carried out by the priest, its desired end, forgiveness, is granted solely by God, e.g., "the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin and he shall be forgiven," i.e., by God (Lev. 4:26, and passim). Another limitation placed upon sacrificial means of obtaining forgiveness is that it can only apply to inadvertent errors (Num. 15:22–29). Blatant contempt of God cannot be expiated by sacrifice (Num. 15:30–31; i Sam. 3:14) or any other means (Ex. 23:21; Josh. 24:19). Moreover, contrition and compassion are indispensable coefficients of all rituals of forgiveness, whether they be expiatory sacrifices (Lev. 5:5–6; 16:21; Num. 5:6–7) or litanies for fasting (Joel 2:12–14; i Sam. 7:5–6).
Indeed, man's involvement both in conscience and deed is a sine qua non for securing divine forgiveness. It is not enough to hope and pray for pardon: man must humble himself, acknowledge his wrong, and resolve to depart from sin (e.g., David, ii Sam. 12:13ff.; Ahab, i Kings 21:27–29). The psalms provide ample evidence that penitence and confession are integral components of all prayers for forgiveness (Ps. 32:5; 38:19; 41:5; Lam. 3:40ff.). The many synonyms for contrition testify to its primacy in the human effort to restore the desired relationship with God, e.g., seek the Lord (ii Sam. 12:16; 21:1), search for Him (Amos 5:4), humble oneself before Him (Lev. 26:41), direct the heart to Him (i Sam. 7:3), and lay to heart (ii Kings 22:19). The rituals of penitence, such as weeping, fasting, rending clothes, and donning sackcloth and ashes (ii Sam. 12:16; Joel 1:13; Ezra 9:3ff.; 10:1, 6), are unqualifiedly condemned by the prophets if they do not correspond with, and give expression to the involvement of the heart (lsa, 1:10ff.; 29:13; Hos. 7:14; Joel 2:13).
At the same time, inner contrition must be followed by outward acts; remorse must be translated into deeds. Two substages are involved in this process: first, the negative one of ceasing to do evil (Isa. 33:15; Ps. 15; 24:4) and then, the positive step of doing good (Isa. 1:17; 58:5ff.; Jer. 7:3; 26:13; Amos 5:14–15; Ps. 34:15–16; 37:27). Again, the richness of the biblical language used to describe man's active role in the process testifies to its centrality, e.g., incline the heart to the Lord (Josh. 24:23), make oneself a new heart (Ezek. 18:31), circumcise the heart (Jer. 4:4), wash the heart (Jer. 4:14), and break one's fallow ground (Hos. 10:) However, all these expressions are subsumed and summarized by one verb which dominates the penitential literature of the Bible, שוב (shuv, shwv;"to turn; to return") which develops ultimately into the rabbinic doctrine of teshuvah ("repentance"). This doctrine implies that man has been endowed by God with the power of "turning." He can turn from evil to the good, and the very act of turning will activate God's concern and lead to forgiveness.
What is the source of the biblical optimism that man's turning will generate divine movement to pardon him? This confidence resides in a number of assumptions concerning the nature of God, as presumed by the unique relationship between God and Israel, the bond of the *covenant. Covenant implies mutuality of obligation, that Israel's fidelity to God's demands will be matched by God's response to Israel's needs, particularly in his attitude of forgiveness (e.g., ii Sam. 24:14, 17; cf. Ps. 25:10–11; 80; 103:17–18; 106:45). That is why in the wilderness traditions, Moses can continue to plead with God despite the lapses of his people, because of his certainty that God's forgiveness is a constant of his nature (Num. 14:18–20; Ex. 32:11ff.; 34:6ff,). Again, the profusion of idioms expressing divine forgiveness (in addition to the cultic expressions, mentioned above), e.g., overlook sin (Micah 7:18), not reckon it (Ps. 32:2), not remember it (Ps. 25:7), hide his face from it (Ps. 51:11), suppress it, remove it (Ps. 103:12), throw it behind his back (Isa. 38:17) or into the sea (Micah 7:19), points to the centrality of this concept.
Another covenant image which invokes God's attitude of forgiveness is his role of Father and Shepherd. A father's love for his children (Ex. 4:22; Num. 11:12; Deut. 32:6, 19; lsa. 64:7) can lead them to hope that their sins will be forgiven (Jer. 3:19; 31:19; Hos. 11:1ff.). Furthermore, this parental relationship shows that Israel's suffering is not inflicted as retribution for their sins but as corrective discipline – "afflictions of love" so that Israel may correct its way (Deut. 8:5; Prov. 3:12).
Another component of the covenant is that God will accept the mediation of an intercessor. He is not bound to comply – in contradistinction to the coercive claims of the pagan magician – for God will reject even the mediation of the most righteous when Israel's sins have exceeded the limit of His forbearance (Jer. 15:1; Ezek. 14:13–20). Intercession is, first and foremost, the function of Israel's prophets. Indeed, the only time Abraham is called a prophet is at the precise moment when his intercessory powers are invoked (Gen. 20:7). Moses' main concern, to judge by the narratives of the Exodus and the wandering in the wilderness, is to intervene on behalf of others (e.g., Ex. 9:27ff.; 10:16ff.; 34:8–9; Num. 12:11ff.; 21:7ff.; Deut. 9:16–10:10; Jer. 15:1). The psalmist singles this out in his eulogy of Moses: "He (God) said He would have destroyed them, had not Moses, the chosen one, stood in the breach before Him" (Ps. 106:23). To "stand in the breach" is for Ezekiel the main function of the prophet (Ezek. 13:5; 22:30).
An equally significant concomitant of God's covenant is His promise to the forefathers that the people of Israel) will exist forever and that they will be in eternal possession of Ereẓ Israel. This aspect of the covenant is constantly invoked in pleas for forgiveness (Ex. 2:24; 3:6; 15–16; 4:5; 6:3–5; Lev. 26:42; Deut. 4:31, 37; 7:8, 12; 8:18; 9:5, 27; 13:18; 29:12; Josh. 18:3; 21:44; i Kings 18:36ff.; ii Kings 13:23; Isa. 41:8; 51:2; Micah 7:20; Ps. 105:9; Neh. 9:7; ii Chron. 30:6).
This promise to the forefathers bears a final corollary. Because of the covenant, God's honor is at stake in the world. Israel's woes will not be comprehended by the nations as divine punishment for its covenant violations but as God's inability to fulfill His covenant obligations. This argument features prominently in Moses' intercession (Ex. 32:12; Num. 14:13–16) and is mentioned repeatedly in subsequent prayers for Israel's pardon (Josh. 7:9; Ps. 74:10, 18; 83:3, 19; 92:9–10; 109:27; 143:11–12). Conversely, the argument continues, it is important for God to redeem Israel for the glorification and sanctification of His name throughout the world (Ps. 79:6; 102:16; 115:1; 138:3–5) even if Israel itself is undeserving of forgiveness (Isa. 48:9–11; Ezek. 36:22ff.).
See also *Repentance.
In Talmud and Jewish Thought
The theme of God's forgiveness for man's sins is recurrent in talmudic and midrashic literature and reappears in later rabbinic writings and the synagogue liturgy. Its main theological purport is to counterbalance, and indeed outweigh, the strongly entrenched rabbinic belief in the inevitable punishment of sin. The rabbinic outlook on the subject may be most simply expressed as "God is just"; He rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked (Principle number 11 of Maimonides' 13 principles of the Jewish faith). Only the unrepentant sinner incurs His wrath; the sinner who repents is always forgiven. Thus the Talmud states, "He who sins and regrets his act is at once forgiven" (Ḥag. 5a; Ber. 12b) and the Midrash states, "Says the Holy One, even if they [your sins] should reach to Heaven, if you repent I will forgive" (Pes. Rab. 44:185a; see Yal. Ps. 835). The Tosefta even gives a statistical figure to the matter, basing itself on Exodus 34:6–7, and says that God's quality of forgiveness is five hundred fold that of His wrath (Tosef., Sot 4:1).
The idea is more picturesquely expressed in the talmudic image of God praying to Himself that His mercy should prevail over His anger and that He should deal with His children "li-fenim mi-shurat ha-din," i.e., that He should forgive them even though strict justice would demand their punishment (Ber. 7a). The whole of Jewish thought on the subject stems from the forgiving character of God depicted in the 13 Divine attributes as revealed to Moses (Ex. 34:6–7). The rabbinic mind embroiders the fundamental biblical idea in a homiletic way, thus giving encouragement and hope to the sinner who would turn to God but is troubled by the burden of his past deeds. The liturgy of the *Day of Atonement, and indeed its very role, bear eminent testimony to the central role that the idea of God's forgiveness plays within Jewish religious practice.
Maimonides formulates the breadth of the Jewish attitude on Divine forgiveness thus: "Even if a man has sinned his whole life and repents on the day of his death, all his sins are forgiven him" (Yad, Teshuvah 2:1). Though this forgiveness is always ultimately forthcoming, for various categories of sin it only comes into effect when the Day of Atonement, or the sinner's death, or both have finalized the atonement (Yoma 85bff.; Yad, loc. cit., 1:4).
In later rabbinic literature, ideas about God's forgiveness are variations on the original theme outlined above, though now and again, the emphasis is changed. In ḥasidic writings, for example, where the dominant notion of God is that of a merciful father, there is a tendency to overstress His quality of forgiveness at the expense of His quality of justice. Naḥman of Bratslav, one of the early ḥasidic leaders, writes: "There is no sin that will not be forgiven by sincere repentance. Every saying to the contrary in the Talmud and the Zohar is not to be understood literally" (Likkutei Eẓot ha-Shalem (1913), 119). R. Naḥman is adverting here to certain categories of sinners who, it is claimed, will never be forgiven because of the nature of their crimes, however genuine their repentance. Among those said to be excluded from God's grace are those whose sins involved a desecration of God's name or caused an evil repute to fall on their fellow, or even those who indulged in evil language in general (tj, bk 8:10, 6c; arn1 39, 116; Zohar, Num. 161a). But R. Naḥman's interpretation is according to the tradition that no sinner was ever absolutely excluded from the sphere of God's forgiveness (see Yad, Teshuvah, 1:4; rh 18a; S. Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, ch. 18 and references cited). The intention of those texts that do seem to exclude certain classes of sinner can be interpreted as a way of emphasizing the gravity of the sins involved.
There are two further general points. Rabbinic literature is on the whole concerned with God's forgiveness for the individual sinner, rather than for Israel as a nation (the latter is more characteristic of the prophetic ethos than the rabbinic, for during most of the creative period of rabbinic thought, Israel had ceased to exist as a cohesive national entity). Forgiveness is always and only consequent on repentance (theidea of an arbitrary grace is almost totally absent; but see Ber. 7a on Ex. 33:19). Similarly the doctrine of the merit of the fathers, zekhut avot, was given an ethical interpretation (Sanh. 27b.).
The place of a forgiving God within the Jewish Weltanschauung has been of interest in modern times and is discussed by both Jewish and Christian scholars. The immediate causes of this interest were partly a desire to uncover the rabbinic roots of New Testament theology and partly an attempt to rectify the widespread but distorted image of the Jewish conception of God, according to which the Jewish God was seen as a legalistic and strict overlord who rewards and punishes according to man's deeds, and the Jew was thus thought to inhabit a somber religious world devoid of Divine compassion. A more thorough acquaintance with the sources shows how wrong such a picture was.
God's forgiveness, however extensive, only encompasses those sins which man commits directly against Him, "bein adam la-Makom"; those in which an injury is caused to one's fellow man, "bein adam le-ḥavero" are not forgiven until the injured party has himself forgiven the perpetrator. Hence the custom of seeking forgiveness from those one may have wronged on the eve of the Day of Atonement, without which proper atonement cannot be made (Yoma 8:9, basing itself on Lev. 16:30 "… all your sins before the Lord," i.e., and not to man; Yad, loc. cit., 2:9; Sh. Ar., oḤ, 605:1; see also rh 17b; Sifra, Aḥarei Mot, Perek 8).
The law regarding physical injury, for example, is explicit in that even after the various compensatory payments have been made, the inflicter of the damage must seek the forgiveness of the injured party for the suffering caused (bk 92a; Yad, Ḥovel u-Mazzik 5:9; Sh. Ar., Ḥm, 422). Not only must he who sins against his fellow seek forgiveness from him, but the one sinned against is duty bound to forgive. "Man should be pliant as a reed, not hard like the cedar" in granting forgiveness (Ta'an. 20a). As the Talmud puts it: "All who act mercifully (i.e., forgivingly) toward their fellow creatures will be treated mercifully by Heaven, and all who do not act mercifully toward their fellow creatures will not be treated mercifully by Heaven" (Shab. 151b; see also rh, 17a; Meg. 28a). If the injured party refuses to forgive even when the sinner has come before him three times in the presence of others and asked for forgiveness, then he is in turn deemed to have sinned (see Tanh. Hukkat 19). He is called akhzari ("cruel"). The unforgiving man is not of the seed of Abraham (Beẓ. 32b), since one of the distinguishing marks of all of Abraham's descendants is that they are forgiving. The quality of forgiveness was one of the gifts God bestowed on Abraham and his seed (Yer. 79a; Num. R. 8:4; Yad, Teshuvah 2:10).
The rabbis go even further in the ethical demands made upon the injured party, for not only must he be ready to forgive his injurer, he should also pray that God forgive the sinner before he has come to beg forgiveness (Yad, loc. cit.; Tosef., bk 9:29; Sefer Ḥasidim ed. by R. Margalioth 1957, 267 no. 360). This demand is based on the example of Abraham, who prayed to God to forgive Abimelech (Gen. 20:17). The reasons the injured party should be ready to forgive the injurer are mixed. On the one hand is the self-regarding consideration, already mentioned, that forgiveness to one's fellow wins forgiveness from Heaven. As Philo states: "If you ask pardon for your sins, do you also forgive those who have trespassed against you? For remission is granted for remission" (ed. by Mangey, 2 (1742), 670; see also Yoma 23a). On the other hand there is the purer motive of imitatio dei. Just as it is in the nature of God to be merciful to His creatures, so man in attempting to imitate the ways of God should be forgiving toward those who have injured him (Shab. 133b; see Lev. 19:2). R. Naḥman combines both motives when he says: "Imitate God by being compassionate and forgiving. He will in turn have compassion on you, and pardon your offenses" (op. cit. 81–91).
in the bible: C.R. Smith, The Biblical Doctrine of Sin (1953); E.F. Sutcliffe, Providence and Suffering in the Old and New Testaments (1955); W.L. Holladay, The Root šûbh in the Old Testament (1958); W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, 2 (1967), 380–495; J. Milgrom, in: jqr, 58 (1967), 115–25. in talmud and jewish thought: J. Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, 1 (1917), 139–67; G.F. Moore, Judaism, 1 (1927), 535–45; 2 (1927), 153–5; S. Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1909), 293ff.; R.T. Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha (1933), 157–61; E.E. Urbach, Ḥazal. Pirkei Emunot ve-De'ot (1969), 396ff.; K. Kohler; Jewish Theology (1918), 112–7, 246–55; C.G. Montefiore and R. Loewe (eds.), A Rabbinic Anthology (1938), 460–469.
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.
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susan d. boon stacey l. nairn
Through the mid-twentieth century, academic treatments of forgiveness were largely theologically based. The latter part of the century saw the start of a secular discussion of forgiveness within analytic philosophy. The topic provides rich ground for philosophical reflection.
Participants in the discussion often focus on three issues: what forgiveness is, how it is accomplished, and when it is justified. Regarding the first, many appropriate Bishop Butler's claim that forgiveness is the overcoming of resentment. It is widely thought to be accomplished through compassion, perhaps by an imaginative process. The question of justification raises interesting issues about whether forgiveness can be required or whether it is always supererogatory.
There is, however, a prior question of considerable philosophical interest: How is forgiveness, so understood, even possible? Most would agree that not just any elimination of resentment counts as forgiving. You could not forgive by simply taking a pill that rendered you incapable of resentment. Nor does simply forgetting count as forgiving. Forgiveness requires overcoming resentment in the right way. However, it is not merely hard to say what that way is; it is unclear whether there could be such a way.
To keep forgiveness distinct from other responses, such as excuse or contempt, the forgiver must not deny (a) the seriousness of the wrong, (b) the moral standing of the wrongdoer, or (c) his or her own moral standing. Overcoming resentment by denying either the seriousness of the wrong or one's own claim against being wronged is excusing. Overcoming resentment by denying the standing of the wrongdoer is showing contempt for the wrongdoer, excluding him or her from the class of persons whose actions matter. To forgive, one must affirm the seriousness of the wrong and the importance of both oneself and the wrongdoer. Forgiveness must be uncompromising. The difficulty is that the three claims that forgiveness must not deny seem sufficient to ground the resentment that forgiveness must overcome. How, then, is forgiveness possible?
If resentment were necessarily vengeful or malicious, one could overcome it without compromise by achieving compassion. But resentment—that anger over a wrong that is incompatible with forgiveness—is not necessarily vengeful or malicious. One can empathize with the plight of the wrongdoer, have no desire to see him or her harmed, and still resent the wrong. Thus, in contrast with a widely held view, compassion will not secure forgiveness.
If the three most obvious ways to overcome resentment—to discount the wrong, the wrongdoer, or oneself—were the only ways to overcome it, then forgiveness would be impossible. In order to understand an overcoming of resentment as a case of forgiveness, it needs to be distinguished from compromise. Here, then, lies a task for philosophy: to provide an articulate account of the way in which the overcoming of resentment can count as forgiveness. With that task completed, discussion can turn to how forgiveness is accomplished and when it is justified.
See also Moral Sentiments.
Butler, Bishop Joseph. Sermons. Boston: Hilliard and Brown, 1827.
Grover, Trudy. Forgiveness and Revenge. London: Routledge, 2002.
Hieronymi, Pamela. "Articulating an Uncompromising Forgiveness." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 62 (2001): 529–555.
Murphy, Jeffrie G., and Jean Hampton. Forgiveness and Mercy. Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Law. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Pamela Hieronymi (2005)
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.
- Angelica, Suor is forgiven by the Virgin Mary for ill-considered suicide. [Ital. Opera: Puccini, Suor Angelica, Westerman, 364]
- Bishop of Digne character who forgives Jean Valjean when latter steals the bishop’s valuables. [Fr. Lit.: Les Misérables ]
- Christ forgives man for his sins. [Christianity: Misc.]
- fatted calf killed to celebrate return of prodigal son. [N.T.: Luke 15:23]
- Matthias of his brother, for twenty years’ false imprisonment. [Ger. Opera: Kienzl, The Evangelist, Westerman, 264]
- Melibee shepherd who pardons his enemies. [Br. Lit.: Canter-bury Tales, “Tale of Melibee”]
- Myriel, Bishop saintly cleric befriends Jean Valjean after the latter steals his candlesticks. [Fr. Lit.: Victor Hugo Les Misérables ]
- Porgy of Bess’s promiscuity with Crown. [Am. Opera: Gershwin, Porgy and Bess, Westerman, 555]
- prodigal son received with open arms by loving father. [N.T.: Luke 15:20–21]
- Tannhäuser unexpectedly absolved by the Pope for sinning in the Venusberg. [Ger. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 932]
- Timberlane, Cass receives Jinny after her extramarital venture. [Am. Lit.: Cass Timberlane ]
- Titus Roman emperor pardons those attempting his destruction. [Ger. Opera: Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito, Westerman, 100–101]
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.