What is Forgiveness?

A reader asked a very thoughtful question: What exactly is forgiveness? I’ll let you hear it in his own words:

A requirement of forgiveness is that the offender must ASK for forgiveness in some way or other first.

Forgiveness just doesn’t work without that initiator. It’s the reason why so many people wander around after they’ve done all their mantras and ‘forgiveness work’ still feeling unhealed and incomplete.

That’s not to say that you can’t work on healing yourself from the offender’s harm or deciding to move on or whatever makes you feel better.

But forgiveness is a specific and quite prescribed process. It’s one that’s been much abused over generations.

This reader hit the nail right on the head. Many of us confuse self healing with the restoration of relationship, and call both forgiveness. This creates confusion over what forgiveness is and how we can forgive ourselves and others.

Self healing

When we refuse to let go of a past hurt, we suffer more harm than the person we are angry with. We need to forgive for our own sake, to heal ourselves. Only then can we move on with our lives in joy and peace.

We can heal ourselves without any co-operation by the other person. Self healing can happen on its own, and must happen before the relationship can be restored. Even if the relationship is never restored, we can be heal ourselves and be independently whole again.

Restoration of relationship

Once we heal ourselves, we can turn our attention to the relationship. We are healed when we no longer resent the other person. The wound has closed and we don’t feel hurt anymore.

Restoring the relationship does require the co-operation of the other person. Co-operation involves three factors: contrition, compensation, and commitment.

Contrition: If someone has hurt you and is not sorry, then the hurt is likely to happen again. This is why you should walk away from an abuser who will not admit to doing anything wrong.

Compensation: If a person is truly contrite, he will want to right the worng. For example, if he has struck you in a rage and caused a black eye, he will show concern over having it treated. This will restore some balance to the relationship.

Commitment: Even is the person is contrite and takes steps to compensate, they may lapse hurt you again, sometimes repeatedly. The contrition was only temporary,  and they made no real commitment to make sure it does not happen again.

So what is forgiveness?

It is now clearer to me what I mean when I talk about forgiveness. In all cases of hurt, I can work on healing myself. Sometimes I can go on to restore the relationship. Otherwise I let go of the relationship, but have healed from the wounds it caused.

This is why it is possible to forgive the unforgiveable, in cases where the relationship remains broken. The forgiveness has happened inside us, regardless of the other person. We have healed ourselves by giving the gift of forgiveness.

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5 replies on “What is Forgiveness?”

hi daphne

i don’t know if you remember me. i was the one that posted a comment on your 8 defenses against nasty people. and you directed me to this post in your response.

yes, i think you are absolutely spot on in this post.

this post again reminded me the importance of self healing, which i am working on right now.

i apologise if i sounded a bit angry in my last comment.

it wasnt actually directed towards you.

to put a long story short.

i was involved in a vicious case of church bullying a few years ago.

the worst thing about the experience was not the fact the bullying was not a single incident but ongoing abuse.

the worst thing is not even about the fact there was no commitment not even contrition ( as you phrase it) on their part

the worst part was that they even go as far as wanting to shift the entire resp to me and abuse scriptures to force me into the position of being their doormat

for example, the pastor wife, one of those who abused me, afterwards instead giving me an apology, actually said to me something along the line that ” no one is perfect, and that incl she and her husband” and reminded me that i have the resp to bear with each other in Christ,and most imp, feeling angry is sigh of my spiritual immaturity.

so as can you see, she not only justified her own behaviour ie as imperfection, not “wrong”.

she actually shifted the entire resp to me by saying my resp of anger is unspiritual and the “only way” i can be spiritual is to bear with her ( ie turn the other cheek) and let her and others in that church do whatever they want to me. and of course, she and the others do not need to make any commitment to change, because they are ” just imperfect human beings who cant help themselves”.

and believe it or not, she actually said that in my own house.

unfortunately, in those days, i was as unassertive as they comes, and she knew that too.

if she said that to me today, i would have thrown her out

anyway,thankfully, i have since realized the problem actually do not lie in christianity, but in those so called christians who chose to abuse and take scriptures out of context to justify their own behaviours and serve their own purpose.

Of course I remember you Darren 🙂

And no worries, I knew your comments weren’t directed at me. In fact I’m glad you voiced them because it allows me to think through the issue in a detached way, rather than wait till something is directed at me 😉

So sorry to hear what you’ve been through. It certainly sounds like it is difficult to forgive in this situation when the other party isn’t meeting you halfway. Sometimes we need to know when to walk away. Glad to see that you’ve clearly regained your balance and moved on with your life. As my dear mother says, “Become better, not bitter.”

All the best Darren!


What’s wonderful about the online world is that two complete strangers, like you and me, can somehow connect and help each other increase our understanding about life and hopefully live better as a result of that growth.

So thank you for your comments. You have helped me too.

Thank you so much Daphne.

Your careful thoughtfulness has added much to my own understanding too. Like you, over several years now, I’ve had much cause to ponder ‘forgiveness’. The stock answers and glib exhortations to ‘forgive for your own sake and move on’ just don’t do the business I’ve found.

It’s just too easy for people to lob that sort of quick-fix at others!

So thank you for catching the rather spiky ball that I threw at you and then seriously considering its meaning and content. What you’ve written has clarified and explained so much. In fact, Daphne, I reckon you have the bones of a best selling self-help book there…. There’s just far too much of the quick-fix faux forgiveness out there. It doesn’t work. Self-care/self-healing and, where possible, mutual relationship restoration do. The distinction is vital.

Recently, I’ve been reading about self-compassion (cf e.g. http://www.self-compassion.org/what-is-self-compassion/definition-of-self-compassion.html). It’s posited as a more effective way of building self-esteem than, say, the quick-fixes of the love n light industry which tells us to repeat positive mantras about ourselves in private.

It seems to me that there’s a connection between your explanation of the use of self-healing and this.

Forgiveness? Well, as you so accurate point out, there’s an inescapable need for contrition before forgiveness can be given. It’s why most people of faith ask their God for forgiveness first before they can ask it of others and give it to others. There’s a sine qua non reciprocity – which is absolutely intrinsic to any relationship.

Anyway, I’m probably rambling now. I’ve only just read your great post and this is a response which is right off the top of my head! I’ve no doubt that I’ll want to come back and re-read and ‘weigh and consider’.

Thanks so much again.

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