15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.
16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.
17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosedin heaven.
19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.
20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
As a believer in Christ, I am always pleased when empirical scientific research validates the Christian worldview. “Empirical” is one of those research words meaning something has been verified or observed. For this blog, we are going to look at the act of forgiveness, particularly, what forgiveness entails, research that was conducted on the subject, and how forgiveness can restore relationships.
First of all, let’s talk about what forgiveness is. Forgiveness has been described as having two parts. Worthington and Jennings (2010) conceptualize forgiveness being both external and internal. In the external part, there is a decisive change in one’s behavior toward the offender. These changes include abandoning revenge, quitting attempts to avoid the offender (unless safety is a continued concern), and generally treating the other person as having worth. These are some example actions that could be witnessed by an outsider.
The other half of forgiveness described by Worthington and Jennings (2010) is emotional. In this part, the individual replaces angry, resentful, and negative emotions with love, empathy, compassion, etc. These changes are mostly hidden from sight, internal to the individual. These two parts of forgiveness may happen together simultaneously or separately, but they are both conscious decisions to change behaviors and attitudes. And in fact, Enright and Fitzgibbons (2000) describe forgiveness simply as abandoning resentment and replacing that with positive responses like compassion.
Some have mistakenly confused forgiveness with other qualities. Forgiveness is not necessarily forgetting. Nor is it a denial of wrongdoing. Forgiving an offender does not mean allowing them to repeatedly do harm. Finally, it may not be a one-time decree but rather an ongoing travail. Most people will find that the hurtful event will come back to their mind, and they are faced once again with the decision to let go of revenge or “holding it over their head” and replace those thoughts and feelings with softer ones. There is an element of empathy to forgiveness (Worthington and Jennings, 2010).
Empathy is putting one’s self into the other’s shoes. In the context of forgiveness, empathy involves an attempt to understand the needs, hurts, history, and inner workings of the offender. When you are able to do so more accurately, you might find that you would have done a similar action in those circumstances. When one is able to identify more with the offender, those realizations will ameliorate attitudes of judgment, fostering forgiveness instead.
Letting go of revenge, however, is unnatural. Why? Several things can go wrong, but here are a few possibilities. When others hurt us, we often feel powerless. In order to regain the lost power, we hold it over their head, so to speak. Often in the victim’s mind, refusing forgiveness means they have some power over the person. The fear is this: if they were to release what, in their mind, is a right to punish the offender, they will be powerless.
Another thing blocking forgiveness can be haughtiness, or superiority. The thought says, “I would never do such a thing.” Haughtiness is a miscalculation of one’s own capacity for evil. When we have a superior attitude, we fail to see that without the covering of Christ we are all guilty. At the heart of this attitude is the belief that we can earn righteousness. If one can earn righteousness, then it matters where one stands in relation to the crowd – his ranking, so to speak. “I may have done a few bad things, but I’m not nearly as bad as Ted Bundy. He’s an animal.”
A final problem blocking forgiveness that I will mention is fear of repeats. In this situation, the victim is bracing for the next failure. Someone has hurt them multiple times, and the expectation is the behavior will only continue. How can this victim release feelings of anger and resentment when they fear it will only happen again? As mentioned earlier, releasing another from retribution does not mean that hurtful behavior will be allowed indefinitely. At the appropriate time, steps will need to be taken to protect people who are repeatedly being harmed. Matthew 18:15-17 gives one example of how the church community can help resolve disputes. Other protections may need to be placed, such as restraining orders in more severe cases. Regardless of the method, there may at times be a need for protection. Forgiving the offender is still necessary, however. In fact in Matthew 18:22, Jesus says to forgive “not seven times, but seventy-seven times”. In other words, always forgive – no matter how many times your brother or sister sins.
Enright, R. D., & Fitzgibbons, R. P. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
Worthington, E. L. Jr., and Jennings, D. J. II. (2010). Interventions to promote forgiveness in couple and family context: Conceptualization, review, and analysis. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 38(4), 231-245.