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Defining Forgiveness : Psychological & Theological Perspectives

[Please note that all references in this document can be found at The Forgiveness Web bibliography by clicking here.]

To define forgiveness may be as difficult as it is to define a word like love. Like love, there is an aspect of the transcendent to it, something mysterious that, despite all efforts, cannot quite be grasped. Bråkenhielm (1993) notes that part of the difficulty in defining forgiveness is because it is ambiguous; there is no one single concept of forgiveness but many. He also states that to define what forgiveness is, apart from what it is not, is not easily done. Nevertheless, the following discussion provides an overview of how this complex construct may be understood from the perspectives of psychology and theology.

Psychological Perspectives

In the past fifteen years there has been a growing literature on interpersonal forgiveness from a variety of psychological perspectives. Bonar (1989) contends that the need for forgiveness can be explained within every major system of psychology. Psychological definitions of forgiveness tend to focus on forgiveness as an action or an attitude on the part of the forgiver, benefits of forgiving and the role of forgiveness in psychotherapy. This overview of psychological understandings of forgiveness begins with the work of Enright and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin in defining forgiveness from a cognitive developmental perspective. Their work on forgiveness provides the framework for this discussion because it appears to be the most comprehensively formulated and clearly articulated definition in the psychological literature. In addition, their definition has been operationalized in the Enright Forgiveness Inventory (Subkoviak, Enright et al., (1992) thus providing a means for quantitatively measuring levels of interpersonal forgiveness in the affective, behavioral and cognitive domains. Their definition of forgiveness will be considered in conjunction with other psychological understandings of forgiveness, particularly those that also include the spiritual dimension of forgiveness.

Enright and the Human Development Study Group propose that:

Forgiveness is the overcoming of negative affect and judgment toward the offender, not by denying ourselves the right to such affect and judgment, but by endeavoring to view the offender with benevolence, compassion, and even love, while recognizing that he or she   has abandoned the right to them. The important parts of this definition are as follows: a)  one who forgives has suffered a deep hurt, thus showing resentment; b) the offended person has a moral right to resentment but overcomes it nonetheless; c) a new response to the other accrues, including compassion and love; d) this loving response occurs despite the realization that there is no obligation to love the offender (Subkoviak, Enright, Wu, Gassin, Freedman, Olson, Sarinopoulos, 1992, p.3).

They elaborate further that forgiveness involves the affective, cognitive and behavioral systems, that is, how a person forgiving another feels, thinks and behaves toward him or her. The psychological response that is forgiveness includes the absence of negative affect, judgment, and behavior, toward the perpetrator and the presence of positive affect, judgment and behavior (Subkoviak, Enright, et. al., 1992).

Other definitions of forgiveness from a psychological perspective include aspects of the Enright definition. Gorsuch and Hao (1993) would add that a truly comprehensive definition of forgiveness would need to integrate not only the cognitive, affective and behavioral components, but also the volitional, motivational, spiritual, religious and interpersonal aspects of forgiveness. They do not specify what these additional components of forgiveness would look like and some of their categories overlap with the affective, behavioral and cognitive domains of the Enright definition.

Pingleton (1989) agrees that the spiritual dimension of forgiveness is an important component of forgiveness as well as the volitional element. Monbourquette (1992) adds that while the volitional dimension of forgiveness plays an important role, all of our faculties are mobilized in forgiving another person: compassion, heart, intellect, judgment, imagination and faith.

Gartner (1988) contends that mature forgiveness is definitively not the replacement of negative hateful feelings with loving feelings and thus would appear to be in disagreement with the affective dimension of the Enright definition of forgiveness. He defines mature forgiveness from an object relations perspective, as an integrated realistic view that contains both good and bad aspects of self and others. In the case of a survivor of sexual abuse, for instance, Gartner would contend that in being able to keep both the good and bad aspects of the perpetrator in view, forgiveness would allow the survivor to absorb the full evil of the abuse that was committed while not losing sight of the humanity of the perpetrator.

Canale (1990) views forgiveness as a therapeutic agent in psychotherapy and considers the cognitive dimension of forgiveness. He understands forgiveness in the context of the cognitive restructuring that complements the emotive aspects of dealing with hurt and resentment in therapy.

Studzinski (1986) defines forgiveness as a willful process in which the forgiver chooses not to retaliate but rather respond to the offender in a loving way. Walters (1984) also sees forgiveness as a voluntary process that usually requires courage and multiple acts of the will to complete. He views forgiveness as an essential process due to the destructiveness of not forgiving and asserts that to forgive is to give up all claim on the offender, including letting go of the emotional consequences of the hurt. In Walters' view, the person who has been hurt has two alternatives:  to be destroyed by resentment which leads to death, or to forgive which leads to healing and life.

Forgiveness is further described in the psychological literature as: a powerful therapeutic intervention and as an intellectual exercise in which the patient makes a decision to forgive (Fitzgibbons, 1986); a voluntary act and a decision and choice about how one deals with the past (Hope, 1987); a letting-go of a record of wrongs and a need for vengeance and releasing associated negative feelings such as bitterness and resentment (DiBlasio, 1992); the accomplishment of mastery over a wound and the process through which an injured person first fights off, then embraces, then conquers a situation that nearly destroyed him (Flanigan, 1992); both intrapsychic and interpersonal (Benson, 1992); and giving up one's right to hurt back (Pingleton, 1989).

In defining forgiveness, the psychological literature tends to focus on the benefits of forgiveness for the forgiver and the role of forgiveness in the therapeutic and healing process. Rowe, Halling, Davies, Leifer, Powers & van Bronkhorst (1989) are among the few researchers from a predominantly psychological perspective to acknowledge and emphasize, based on their research, that the experience of forgiveness is spiritual or transpersonal as well as interpersonal. In their view, because forgiveness has qualities that transcend one's relationship with the person being forgiven and opens the forgiver to herself and the world in new ways, it has more than a purely interpersonal quality.
In this regard, they speak of the experience of forgiving another in terms of its qualities of gift and grace. It may be because of this aspect of grace that is inherent to forgiveness that it has been described as a bridge between psychology and theology.

We turn now to an exploration of theological understandings of interpersonal forgiveness.

Theological Perspectives

Hannah Arendt, one of the foremost philosophers of the twentieth century, attributes the discovery of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs to Jesus of Nazareth (Arendt, 1958). The theological understandings of forgiveness discussed below are rooted in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, both of which provide numerous examples of interpersonal forgiveness (Gladson, 1992; Pingleton, 1989). As will be seen, interpersonal forgiveness is understood theologically within the context of divine forgiveness and in reference to the problem of sin and evil. From a pastoral theological perspective, forgiveness may be understood as something one discovers rather than
something one does or an attitude one has.

The predominant theological understanding of interpersonal forgiveness, as it is portrayed in the Christian Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus is that interpersonal and divine forgiveness are inextricably related. Theologically, one cannot consider the forgiveness of another person outside the context of God's forgiveness. Soares-Prabhu (1986) states that the reason the Christian Scriptures consistently relate our forgiveness to God's forgiveness is because our readiness to forgive others is not "just a happy trait of character or an acquired psychological disposition. It is a religious attitude rooted in the core Christian experience of an utterly forgiving God" (p.59). Rubio (1986) further emphasizes that every experience of forgiveness has God as its ultimate point
of reference, and can only be explained in reference to God. Thus to Rubio, God always plays the leading role in forgiveness.

A second predominant feature of understanding forgiveness from a theological perspective is placing it within the context of sin and evil. Sobrino (1986), in his analysis of Latin America as a place of sin and forgiveness, states that sin is a physical evil for the victim and a moral evil for the perpetrator. The role of forgiveness is to try to free the sinner (the perpetrator) from this evil and convert and re-create him. For Sobrino, the fundamental message regarding forgiveness is that for radical healing of the sinner to take place, no other mechanism has the power of love, of forgiveness. He compares this to how Jesus acted and how many Christians act: "forgiving with love in the hope that this love will transform the sinner" (p.51).

Dumortier (1993) describes forgiving as being able to envision a future that would not be a prolongation of the past and, at the same time, that the past exists and is a part of one's life. He sees the strength of the present and the strength of forgiveness as residing in the tension between an unerasable past and the promise of the future. In his view, forgiveness opens one to the promise of the future through a God of mercy and a God of forgiveness.

Hubaut (1992) wonders if perhaps forgiveness, understood as that revealed and incarnated by Jesus Christ, is impossible on a purely human plane. He reasons that forgiveness, as understood through the gospels, assumes that humans enter into a new dimension of human relations: the gratuitousness of God and the unselfish love of Christ.

Patton (1985), from a pastoral theological perspective, addresses this issue raised by Hubaut in his work Is Human Forgiveness Possible?  Patton describes human forgiveness as:

                  not doing something but discovering something - that I am
                  more like those who have hurt me than different from them.
                  I am able to forgive when I discover that I am in no position
                  to forgive. Although the experience of God's forgiveness
                  may involve confession of, and the sense of being forgiven for,
                  specific sins, at its heart it is the recognition of my reception
                  into the community of sinners - those affirmed by God as
                  his children. (p.16)

Thus for Patton's  forgiveness is something that one discovers. The view of forgiveness as discovery is different from traditional theological understandings of forgiveness (as well as some of the emerging psychological formulations), that focus on forgiveness being an act or an attitude, something that one does or has, reducing forgiveness "theologically into a work of achievement, and psychologically into a behavioral technique of reducing the pain of self-injury" (Patton, 1985, p.185).


From a psychological perspective, using the Enright definition of forgiveness as the primary framework, interpersonal forgiveness involves the affective, behavioral and cognitive systems of the forgiver, how one feels about the offender, behaves toward him and thinks about him. It is letting go of the negative feelings about the perpetrator and the emotional consequences of the hurt, especially the bitterness and resentment (Walters, 1984; DiBlasio, 1992). The negative behavior toward the perpetrator is replaced with positive behavior. The choice is not to retaliate but to respond in a loving way (Studzinski, 1986) and giving up the right to hurt back (Pingleton, 1989). The  negative thoughts regarding the offender are changed as the intellectual decision to forgive is made (Fitzgibbons, 1986) and the good and bad aspects of the perpetrator are integrated (Gartner, 1988).

Theologically, forgiveness cannot be understood outside of the context of God's forgiveness (Soares-Prabhu, 1986; Rubio, 1986) or without reference to sin and evil (Sobrino, 1986). Forgiveness of the offender may be understood from a pastoral theological perspective as something that is discovered in the process of her healing, an understanding of forgiveness that does not reduce it to something to be achieved or a behavioral technique to reduce pain (Patton, 1985).

Adapted from Wilson, H.P. (1994) Forgiveness and Childhood Sexual Abuse: Relationships Among Forgiveness of the Perpetrator, Spiritual Well-Being, Depression and Anxiety.







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