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A New Blog Series on Forgiveness: Some Preliminary Definitions

June 10, 2014

In a fallen world, no one escapes the bumps and bruises associated with our interactions with others. Sometimes, the cuts and scrapes form gaping holes that may leave us offended and wounded, hurt by angry words, callous actions, or selfish disregard. While we can confidently affirm that conflict is an inevitable, if not unfortunate part of human life, the aftermath of such often comes down to a choice between resentment and forgiveness. This new blog series will focus attention on the latter.

Forgiveness, or the lack thereof in ourselves or in others, is a subject that affects each of us, undoubtedly on a daily basis. Its role is so significant that psychologists and healthcare professionals over the past thirty years have begun studying what people of faith have known about for millennia, namely that forgiveness plays a powerful, therapeutic role in better physical and mental well-being. Of course, Christianity uses another language—the language of the heart, the language of brotherhood, and the language of God Himself—to speak about forgiveness, whereas psychology uses the terminology of science. Is there a meeting place between our forgiving our brothers and sisters from our hearts their trespasses against us (Matthew 18:35) and what psychologists are exploring today? That will be one of the questions this series will attempt to answer.

A starting point for that question would be to look at some definitions that psychologists propose for forgiveness. As Blake Riek and Eric W. Mania have noted in their article “The Antecedents and Consequences of Interpersonal Forgiveness: A Meta-Analytic Review,” there have been various opinions concerning an exact definition of the term. Yet, they do point out the definition put forth in 1997 by McCullough, Worthington, and Rachal: forgiveness is “a set of motivational changes whereby one becomes a) decreasingly motivated to retaliate against an offending relationship partner, b) decreasingly motivated to maintain estrangement from the offender, and c) increasingly motivated by conciliation and goodwill for the offender’” (pp. 321-22). In other words, forgiveness is about how we are moved with respect to someone else or a change in disposition in which the fight or flight impulse has weakened and an inclination towards meeting the person with kindness begins to grow stronger. There is a change in the will and a change in perspective that allows for a radically new and undeniably positive approach to someone else that is manifest in thoughts, emotions, and behavior. That this is something good, almost goes without saying.

Others have understood forgiveness in terms of letting go of past hurt and bitterness, (Berecz). After all, the English word forgiveness etymologically comes from the Germanic vergeben meaning to abstain from something (ruminating about the hurt) and to give it away. Still others view forgiveness as the removal of negative and introduction of positive emotions toward an offender. The sense of relaxing tension meshes rather well with a willingness to give up the necessarily tense states of fleeing from others or fighting them. Exline and Baumeister (2000) understand forgiveness as debt cancelation by the victim. The cancellation of debt has particularly strong Christian overtones, but leaves out some powerful elements: the presence of God and the need for humility. For instance, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem would comment on the verse “And forgive us our debts as we also forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12) as follows “For we have many sins. For we offend both in word and in thought, and very many things we do worthy of condemnation; and if we say that we have no sin, we lie, as John says. And we make a covenant with God, entreating Him to forgive us our sins, as we also forgive our neighbours their debts. Considering then what we receive and in return for what, let us not put off nor delay to forgive one another. The offences committed against us are slight and trivial, and easily settled; but those which we have committed against God are great, and need such mercy as He alone can give. So, be careful lest for the slight and trivial sins against you you shut out for yourself forgiveness from God for your very grievous sins” (Catechetical Lecture 23).

The value of these psychological definitions is that they draw some sharp lines that we can use to look inwardly and decide whether we have forgiven someone else. If we are tense around someone who has hurt us and feel the urge to flee or alternatively if we have to control ourselves in order to not lash out, if we hold onto the offense with the clenched fist of our mind, we have not yet begun to forgive. Psychology tells us that much. As for theology, it opens up other horizons in the soul through which the impossible becomes possible. With this introduction in mind, let’s begin to explore the topic of forgiveness.

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