Forgiveness as a Choice to Give Up a Right
The interesting thing to me was that he didn’t attribute his burdens to the challenges in his life; he attributed his burdens to HIS inability (or refusal) to forgive. He saw this as a personal failure.
This meeting launched me on a study of the Positive Psychology of Forgiveness. I was looking for a lifeline that I could throw to my friend.
I found that Positive Psychologists have defined forgiveness in various ways. The definition I liked most was one created by Robert Enright. To him, forgiveness is a “willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly hurt us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her.”(Italics added)
This definition acknowledges what we all feel when we have been hurt. Be honest, don’t you feel that you have a RIGHT to resentment and that the qualities of compassion, generosity, and love are UNDESERVED by the perpetrator? These two aspects of forgiving set the stage for the miracle and the irony of forgiving.
Forgiveness as Pure Happiness
Martin Luther said that “forgiveness [is] pure happiness.” The miracle and the irony of forgiving is that to achieve this “pure happiness” and to heal from our wounds we must CHOOSE to give up our right to resentment and we must CHOOSE to re-establish compassion, generosity, and love toward the very person who hurt us. This can be very tough. Perhaps, this is why Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
Another irony is that if we choose NOT to forgive, then WE must carry the heavy burden of resentment and feel the negative emotions of hatred, and the helplessness of the victim.
Positive Psychologists have studied the effects of forgiving. Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet found that people who visualized forgiving those who had offended them experienced less anger, sadness, and overall negative emotions compared to when they relived the hurt and held a grudge.[iv] Martin E. P. Seligman found that “physical health, particularly in cardiovascular terms, is likely better in those who forgive than those who do not.”
Everett Worthington, a noted forgiveness researcher, said that “you can’t hurt the perpetrator by not forgiving, but you can set yourself free by forgiving.”
Yes, but how do you do this? How do you give up the right to resentment? How do you show compassion, generosity, and love to those who have offended and hurt you? Worthington provides us a model. Worthington’s “Five Steps to Forgiveness” were born of his own struggle to forgive the person who raped and then brutally murdered his aging mother in a most shocking and horrific way. Worthington’s “REACH” acronym helps us to remember the steps.
R = Recall the hurt; visualize the event or the circumstance.
E = Empathize with the perpetrator. Understand his/her point of view.
A = Altruistic gift of forgiveness. This must be given freely without self interest.
C = Commit yourself to forgive publicly.
H = Hold on to the forgiveness. (Forgive seven times seventy as the scripture says)[vii]
Each of these steps can be extremely difficult to take and it may take time – sometimes a long time – to take each one.
Other ideas to help us develop the virtue of forgiveness include:[viii]
- Let a grudge go every day.
- When you feel annoyed, even with justification, take the high road and do not tell anyone how you feel.
- Write a “forgiveness Letter;” DO NOT send it, but DO read it every day for a week.
As we attempt to “REACH” to be more forgiving, we begin to feel a motivating peace that propels us forward. “When we forgive others, there is a sense of a burden being lifted. When we forgive others, we give up our position as an aggrieved victim and lose the power to induce guilt and the luxury of experiencing and expressing righteous indignation. Forgiveness require[s] us to put pride aside and be humble.”
My friend is still struggling to give his gift of forgiveness. Maybe a place to start — for him and for us — is to forgive ourselves. I think there is something noble and majestic, and at the same time, humble about someone who forgives. Those who truly forgive seem to attain a serenity that is deep and rich. These “forgivers” give a unique and singular gift that is theirs alone to give.
Enright, R. D., Freedman, S., & Rique, J. (1998). The psychology of interpersonal forgiveness. In R. D. Enright & J. North (eds.), Exploring Forgiveness (pp. 46-62). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness Is a Choice: A Step-By-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope (Apa Lifetools). American Psychological Association.
Luther, Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Trinity; Matthew 9:1-8, in the Sermons of Martin Luther, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mish.: Baker Book House, 1983), 5:198.
Gandhi, M. (2000). The collected works of Mahatma Gandhi (2nd ed., Vol. 51, pp. 301-302). Mahatma Gandhi Young India. New Deli: Government of India, Publications Division.
Witvliet, C. V., Ludwig, T.E., & Vander Laan, K. L. (2001). Granting forgiveness or harboring grudges: Implications for emotion, physiology, and health. Psychological Science, 12, 117-123.
Seligman, M.E.P. (1994). What You Can Change . . . and What You Can’t*: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement. New York: Knopf. See chapter 9, “The Angry Person.”
Worthington, E. (2001). Five Steps to Forgiveness: The Art and Science of Forgiving. New York: Crown.
Worthington, E. (2009). A Just Forgiveness: Responsible Healing Without Excusing Injustice. IVP Books.
St. Matthew 18:22
Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Carr, A. (2004). Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Human Strengths. Hove. Routledge.
Nelson Mandela courtesy of Paul Williams. The number 46664 was his prison number, and the significance here is that forgiveness is in our hands.
Doug, You have done a great job of bringing out the power in forgiveness. We can find strength in what some may call a weakness (abandoning our “right” to resentment). Thank you for sharing these essential truths.
Always good to hear your thoughts – and I hope you and your loved ones are flourishing. I thought you would be interested to know that the Church of Scotland has recently rebdagd its social provision arm as CrossReach, see http://www.crossreach.org.uk/.
Thanks, Doug, for opening up this topic. There is so much power in forgiveness, although it is so hard to let go of resentment, especially when it feels (and often is) so justified. I have a audio book by Jack Kornfield, a meditation teacher, called The Beginner’s Guide to Forgiveness. I think he holds the key in this, which is that he begins by asking the listener to first go to a place in his or her heart where he or she needs to ASK forgiveness. Then, through a series of steps (including forgiving oneself), he finally leads the listener to the place of being able to forgive. Coming in through the back door in this way opens up possiblities that otherwise might be hard to access.
Angus and Kirsten:
Thanks for your kind comments. Angus – great to hear from you. I hope I can visit Scotland someday and have you give me the grand tour.
Kirsten, As you mentioned, forgiving and being forgiven are very powerful. I know I just scratched the surface of this profound topic. Worthington mentions a technique similar to Kornfield’s to prepare for the alturistic gift of forgiveness. Its part of the “A” step in his REACH model. Thanks for your thoughts.
Doug, thanks for this post. Aside from your spirit shining through, I really appreciate that you are continuing to study and apply your knowledge for the benefit of those in your life. A real gift.