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Forgiving When It Seems Impossible

Nathaniel Wade

What do emotions have to do with forgiveness?

Associate Professor of Psychology, Iowa State University
July 21, 2014

John wanted to forgive, he just didn’t know how. He believed that forgiveness was the right and Godly thing to do. He discussed forgiveness frequently in his church. He quoted the Lords Prayer often, “…forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Despite this, John still felt the burning anger, the hurt and betrayal of his wife’s affair. When asked, he would say that he had forgiven her. But deep in his heart, during his private moments of honesty, he could still feel all the emotions, and none of them felt like forgiveness.

What if I can’t forgive?

This is a familiar experience for many Christian people. When faced with a significant hurt—the kind that shakes one to their core—it can be very difficult to forgive, at least on an emotional level. To help make sense of this struggle, Everett Worthington (2005) has made an important distinction between emotional and decisional forgiveness.

Emotional forgiveness is what most people think of when we talk about “moving on” from a hurt. It is the change that occurs when someone goes from the anger and bitterness about an offense to more positive emotional responses.

Decisional forgiveness, on the other hand, is the willful action to respond to an offending person with charity despite the offense and any lingering negative emotions stemming from it.

For many Christians, and others who highly value forgiveness, decisional forgiveness might be a much more manageable goal than emotional forgiveness shortly following a significant hurt. In other words, someone who was hurt might make a decision to forgive (that is, to move toward forgiveness and act in a forgiving way) much sooner than they might experience emotional forgiveness. This type of forgiveness might match with the person’s moral code, theology, or personal conviction to forgive others.

Why is this distinction important for Christians?

This distinction between decisional and emotional forgiveness is important because it provides alternatives to those who want to forgive or feel obligated to forgive and yet are unable to feel differently about the offense or the offending person. It provides space for them to make a decision to forgive without having to force an emotional experience. This is the real benefit.

Being morally obligated to have an emotional experience of one sort or another can create serious difficulty for faithful people. The difficulty primarily ensues when the emotional experience does not follow as one would desire or as religious beliefs might dictate. This can cause people to doubt their own faithfulness or spiritual maturity, further adding to the pain of the offense.

Alternatively, the person who was hurt might will a shift in their feelings about the offending person, causing them to deny or disregard feelings of anger, sadness, and confusion. By doing this they may disregard important information that can be gleaned from emotional reactions, such as the need to protect themselves from hurtful people or to advocate for their own needs.

How does one go about forgiving, emotionally?

Although emotional forgiveness may not be directly under willful or moral control, there are things that people can do to move toward emotional forgiveness. A considerable body of research now exists that provides strong evidence that counseling interventions can be effective in helping people forgive. In a recent meta-analysis of the existing studies on forgiveness interventions, my colleagues and I have shown that such interventions help people to develop emotional forgiveness following an offense, more so than no treatments or alternative treatments (e.g., stress reduction; Wade et al., 2014).

We know they are effective. But what exactly is done in these “interventions”? In a separate review of published efforts to help people forgive, Ev Worthington and I identified a core set of activities that seems to be important when working toward emotional forgiveness. These are:

  1. Sharing the hurt with trusted, supportive people
  2. Building empathy for the offending person
  3. Committing to forgiveness

Sharing the hurt

Sharing the hurt with trusted and supportive people is a first step toward forgiving. Psychological research shows that expressing difficult or traumatic events in a safe environment can be very healing. However, the quality and tone of the sharing might be important for the eventual development of forgiveness. Forgiveness is less likely when the story is told and retold in a way to demonize the offending person, to gossip about or denigrate the offender, or to cast oneself in an untruthfully positive light. However, facing the reality of the pain one experienced, and sharing the emotional aftermath of the offense can be very helpful, if at times painful.

Building empathy

Building empathy for the offending person is one of the most thoroughly researched correlates of forgiveness. Considerable empirical evidence shows that the increase in empathy for an offending person corresponds with increases in forgiveness. Both longitudinal and experimental research suggests that empathy is a causal factor in the development of forgiveness (e.g., McCullough et al., 1998). But how does one increase empathy for an offending person, particularly when the hurt is considerable? There are many possible strategies, most of which rely on perspective taking.

Perspective-taking is often focused on trying to see the broader view of why the offender acted the way they did, but might also include helping the victim think of times when they have also been an offender. For example, someone who has been hurt might think of all the reasons why the offender acted the way they did, listing as many as they can think of. Then, they might return to that list and try to add more situational reasons for the offending person’s behavior. Alternatively, victims might recall times when they have offended others and others have forgiven them. This helps to change the perspective and realize that in many cases those who hurt others are regretful (even if they don’t express it) and want to be forgiven.

An important final caveat to empathy is that these strategies are recommended only once the offense is no longer occurring and after the victim is safe and has been given adequate space and time to make some sense of the offense and express reactions and feelings to the offense.

Committing to forgiveness

Committing to forgiveness is another important step in the forgiveness journey. This might take the form of committing to work toward forgiveness, something a person who has been hurt could do as they embark on the forgiveness process. This can help to fortify them against the difficulties and setbacks that occur as people work toward forgiveness.

Later in the process, people can also commit to the forgiveness that they have already achieved. This helps to solidify or commemorate the progress one has made in the forgiveness process and can help remind people that they have forgiven if doubts occur. Effective strategies for committing to forgiveness that has already been achieved include writing the effects of the hurt on a piece of paper and then burning, burying, or destroying the paper as a sign that one has committed to forgiveness. These strategies are just a sampling of the kinds of activities and efforts that have been shown to effectively help people to move past their hurts and achieve forgiveness.

For more details on how to forgive, consider books authored by Ev Worthington’s Five Steps to Forgiveness: The Art and Science of Forgiving (2005) and Robert Enright’s The Forgiving Life: A Pathway to Overcoming Resentment and Creating a Legacy of Love (2012). These are excellent references for people seeking more detailed information about how to achieve emotional forgiveness following significant personal hurts.

A final thought

Forgiveness can be a complex and painful process, even when one’s motivations to forgive are high. Understanding the different types of forgiveness (e.g., decisional versus emotional) can help people to make sense of their moral obligations or spiritual callings to forgive others while respecting their emotional reactions. Integrating our virtue-driven desires, our will to make moral choices, and our natural emotional reactions is a valuable and psychologically and spiritually healthy outcome. Understanding the nuances of forgiveness, especially for the most hurtful experiences, can help us to achieve that.

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