A man loves his enemies even while they are killing him. Would you want to be like that man? Forgiveness is perhaps the central virtue in a Christian's spiritual life. Yet it may be the most difficult response to consider after an unjust wrongdoing — whether that wrongdoing seems very large (abuse, bullying or infidelity) or seems somewhat smaller (such as disrespect in the home, church, or workplace).
All unjust wrongdoings target and seek to undermine our inherent worth: that we are precious human beings. This is very painful. And questions naturally arise: How can I recover from being disrespected on such a deep level. Shouldn’t one be angry about a cruel and unfair event or pattern of behavior? Isn’t the pursuit of justice more important than forgiveness? Wouldn’t I have to ignore very real feelings of pain and grief if I forgive? How can I forgive and set healthy limits if I am still in a relationship with the wrongdoer? Can I forgive if the healthy limits might mean curtailing the relationship until and unless the wrongdoer is ready to truly work on reconciliation? How do I forgive when there are larger institutional problems and practices?
But other questions arise also: How should I as a maturing person best respond to unjust suffering? Can I as an unfairly injured person become a stronger, better person by forgiving? Jesus Christ is that Man who amazingly forgave his enemies while they were killing him — and one of those enemies is me! How might Christ deepen my walk with him if I forgive? How might I share the victory of his forgiveness? How does forgiveness impact the possibilities of true reconciliation if that is possible?
These are very important questions and can have both psychological and more deeply spiritual answers. We will explore both the psychological and the spiritual dimensions of forgiveness based on research on the psychology of forgiveness done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and based on Christ's model of forgiveness for us. Christ's multifaceted gift of forgiveness is especially pertinent to Christians. Indeed, could it be possible that practicing forgiveness is the most profound and restorative way to follow Christ?
During a personal crisis regarding a serious ongoing wrongdoing pattern (domestic abuse and chronic infidelity) in my marriage, I came face to face with these questions myself. In sum these questions ask: As I respond to the impact of this wrongdoing, can I do good psychological practice and good spiritual practice?
Fortunately, as I went back to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin during this difficult time, my graduate advisor, Dr. Robert Enright, was much invested both in studying the psychological process of forgiveness and in devout Christian living. To my question, “Can good psychological practice be accompanied by good spiritual practice?” the answer I learned is, happily, yes. My graduate work on forgiveness with Dr. Enright provided a pathway for learning the answers to my own questions and preparing to help other women learn to forgive as a part of recovery from domestic abuse.
To look for some answers to our questions, let us take a look first at the psychology of forgiveness as proposed and tested in research by our University of Wisconsin-Madison Forgiveness Research Group.
What happens when people forgive?
Nearly twenty years of research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison demonstrates that people who choose to forgive do display improved psychological health. Numerous research studies have been conducted with participants who had various deep, unjust injuries to forgive such as parental neglect (Al-Mabuk, Enright, and Cardis, 1995), incest (Freedman and Enright, 1996), and spousal emotional abuse (Reed and Enright, 2006). These studies reveal significant improvements in depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, self-esteem, and positive coping skills. In working with clients in private practice, I have also seen deep spiritual transformation as the client brings faith in Christ to bear on the psychological process. I would say the deeper good news (spiritual transformation) is what truly brings about the psychological good news.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison forgiveness research programs are based on two key components: a solid definition of forgiveness and a clearly described process of forgiving. The forgiveness therapist helps the participant understand what forgiveness is and how to forgive. In the process, the therapist guides the participant to work on changes in thinking, feeling, and behaving toward the wrongdoer. These changes, then, are what have been found to be statistically significantly causal to the health improvements that we see.
Definition of Forgiveness
Forgiveness therapy begins with the definition of forgiveness. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we define forgiveness as a gift freely given in the face of a moral wrong, without denying the wrong itself. It is a relinquishing of resentment, which the wrongdoing incurs, and offering goodwill to the wrongdoer, which he or she has forgone as a result of the wrongdoing. Forgiveness recognizes the inherent human worth of the wrongdoer, welcomes the wrongdoer back into the "human community", and frees the injured party to pursue a process of healing as well as moral, spiritual, and psychological growth.
We have found that clarity in the definition of forgiveness helps participants overcome important barriers to forgiving, particularly in considering what forgiveness is not. For example, a person who mistakenly thinks that forgiveness is merely forgetting and “moving on” might be very resistant to forgiving a wrongdoer for a significant betrayal or injury.
We also clearly distinguish forgiveness from reconciliation. Forgiveness is the wronged person’s moral choice whereas reconciliation is the fully engaged choice of both the wronged person and the wrongdoer. This distinction allows participants to work on forgiving a wrongdoer who is not yet ready to reconcile or who might cause further injury. Thus, the forgiving person is not held captive by the readiness, willingness, or availability of the wrongdoer but can instead freely pursue his or her own personal growth and health while at the same time preparing to give the gifts of forgiveness to the wrongdoer as that becomes possible.
I know for me personally, as I worked through this definition of forgiveness and considered what it might mean to forgive an unfaithful, abusive spouse, it was a relief to know that I could give the love of forgiveness without reconciling with someone who was unwilling to change his destructive behaviors. I could love and do justice at the same time, with God helping me. I could desire the very best for the person who unfairly hurt me and still make healthy choices about my interactions with him
Forgiveness Process Model
The remainder of the forgiveness therapy is based on the Forgiveness Process Model developed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison by Dr. Robert Enright and our graduate research group. This process model has 20 processes that are grouped into four phases. This is a flexible model, which allows participants to spend the time they feel they need on each process and to alter the sequence of the processes where appropriate and helpful.
The first phase of the process model is called the Uncovering Phase and includes processes that allow the individual to become aware of the anger and emotional pain that has resulted from the unjust injury. Consequences of the injury such as psychological defenses, shame, cognitive rehearsal, and energy depletion are explored. Support is granted for exploring possible responses to unjust suffering. As the impact of the injury is revealed and validated, the choice of forgiveness can seem more possible.
Again, for me personally as for many of my participants, having someone validate the wrongdoing, the anger, and the pain was most helpful. I could choose forgiveness without denying what happened, how unfair it was, and how much it still hurt. I could be angry enough to fully acknowledge the wrongdoing but also did not need to stay stuck in the anger and resentment. This validation helped me stop playing the stories of the wrongdoing through my head over and over again. As I considered choosing forgiveness to write a "new ending" to those wrongdoing events, those old stories started to lose their power. It helped me ask the question more deeply: what does my Christian faith say about unfair suffering? What did Jesus do about unfair suffering? With his own unfair suffering?
The second phase is called the Decision Phase in which the participant can consider the possible continuing difficulties if he or she does not choose forgiveness and, by contrast, the possible positive outcomes of forgiving. This is a process where a person actively has a “change of heart” and chooses the virtue of forgiveness for moral and spiritual growth as well as psychological healing. The person also commits to the hard work of forgiveness over time.
As I worked to fully choose forgiveness, it helped me so much to know that it was not a one-time choice but a process I could embark upon. Not a choice at one moment, but ongoing choices as hurtful memories arose and as I slowly worked toward the deeper aspects of forgiving.
The third phase of the forgiveness process is called the Work Phase. This phase includes grieving the pain of the unjust injury, reframing the wrongdoer, and deciding to offer goodwill to the wrongdoer. The pain that is grieved includes the injury itself, the betrayal involved, and the subsequent losses (such as the loss of income after a divorce). The grieving includes choosing not to pass the pain back to the wrongdoer.
This process of purposefully grieving the pain, the injustices, the losses helped me to feel validated that it was a significant burden that I was carrying. It also helped me ask for help with that burden from other people (therapists, friends, prayer partners) and from Christ. It helped me come to the cross and receive the help he provided there. It also helped to know that Jesus understands and cares because of the even greater, unimaginable burden that he bore. The grieving then began to free me to consider the welfare of the person who hurt me more fully.
The wrongdoer is reframed in the person's larger context (the wrongdoer is more than the wrongdoing) and in terms of inherent human worth (nothing changes that person's preciousness). This is done without excusing or condoning the wrongdoing. So then, the wrongdoer is culpable but vulnerable and valuable. This new perspective lays the groundwork for empathy and the goodwill of forgiveness.
The balance of this step was important to me in my forgiveness journey. I could understand and value without excusing or condoning. I could hold the person responsible and so validate the injustice but still have empathy for the wrongdoer. I could reclaim my own inherent worth which was assaulted in some ways by the wrongdoings by granting the wrongdoer his. I could agree with God that we are both precious to Him and that the wrongdoing, while serious, does not invalidate that for either of us. This was a great relief to me, as I loved the person who hurt me. I still love that person.
This goodwill (mercy, generosity, and moral/agape love) may be offered while, at the same time, taking into consideration current issues of trust and safety in the relationship between the wronged person and the wrongdoer.
Being able to practice wise compassion and true goodwill meant much to me. I could offer kindness, respect, and even gifts of various kinds without taking back up the negative pattern of the broken relationship. I could love without denying justice. I could love and respect even though I was not loved or respected but in a healthy way. I find relief in choosing the virtues I value and possibly also joy. I could choose to be who I wanted to be.
The final phase is called the Deepening or Outcome Phase during which the forgiving person begins to realize that he or she is gaining emotional relief from forgiving the wrongdoer. This is also a time when a foundational aspect of forgiveness is discovered: finding meaning in suffering. Finding meaning in suffering involves responding to evil done by doing goodness/virtue. The person now realizes that choosing the virtue of forgiveness as a response to the undeserved pain from the wrongdoing has indeed led to remarkable personal growth. One can’t change the hurtful past but one can choose to be changed for the better. Thus, the forgiver discovers the paradox of forgiveness; as we give to another the gifts of mercy, generosity, and moral/agape love, we ourselves are changed deeply and healed.
This step was profoundly meaningful to me as I discovered how deeply Jesus wanted to help me become more like him and to have his peace. It changed and deepened my understanding of what his work on the cross actually might mean. Maybe following him in forgiving people who have hurt me unfairly might be the most fruitful path of spiritual growth and companionship with Jesus.
Many forgiveness therapy participants go on to consider how they might help others change and grow in a similar way.
I, myself, as you have already heard, have gone on to help other domestic abuse survivors and it has been a joy to do so.
We also see people work toward reconciliation with wrongdoers who are willing and able to engage in that process.
I am grateful to have a reconciliation of sorts established with my former husband that has resulted in successful efforts to mutually help our children through high school and college.
Responses to the Questions
As you read through the forgiveness process, did you see some of the answers to our beginning questions? Yes, you can set limits and forgive. Yes, you can pursue justice with the best interests of both yourself and the wrongdoer in mind. Yes, you can honestly acknowledge the wrongdoing itself and the pain caused by it as part of the forgiveness process. Yes, you both tell the truth about the wrongdoing and engage in the spiritual practice of moral/agape love. Yes, you can do this good psychological practice and ask for Christ's help with every step of that practice. Yes, as you grant the wrongdoer respect for his or her inherent human worth (God's precious image-bearer), you regain confidence in your own inherent human worth (God's precious image-bearer). Yes, you can go deeper still and ask how Christ might change you as one of his followers as you work through the psychological forgiveness process with his loving help.
The Gift of a Forgiving Life
Can you see Christ available to help at every step — bearing your pain, acknowledging the truth of the wrongdoing, restoring inherent human worth to both parties, granting the power to love? But now let us now take a look at a very key aspect of the forgiveness process just described. When you imagine finding meaning in suffering (in forgiving, I respond to evil done to me by doing goodness for them), who does that remind you of most deeply? Who did the most profound act of doing goodness when evil was being done (Colossians 2:9-15)?
This is the core of forgiveness. Jesus Christ died on the cross to bear our pain, heal our broken human state, and to forgive our sins (Isaiah 53). He did this in response to his created human beings refusing to follow him and in response to his created humanity killing him. Can such goodness even be imagined? It can only be embraced with great gratitude (Psalm 103) and a burning desire to learn more about how to honor and follow such a God as ours.
Perhaps a wrongdoing that you can forgive, while a true injustice that God would not want for you, is an opportunity to move close to Gods' heart and ask to become more like Christ (Romans 5:1-5). Perhaps loving our enemies is the most profound way to follow Christ, to practice becoming like Christ. Perhaps the atonement on the cross is even more wonderful than I had previously thought: not only my sins forgiven but the power for a forgiving life. Perhaps an opportunity to forgive might be an unexpectedly great gift to become more intimate with the Great Forgiver. I have found it so. I have found it joyfully so.
- Al-Mabuk, R.H., Enright, R.D., & Cardis, P.A. (1995). Forgiveness with parentally love-deprived college students. Journal of Moral Education, 24, 427-444.
- Enright, R.D. (2001). Forgiveness is a Choice. Washington, D.C: APA Books.
- Freedman, S.R., & Enright, R.D. (1996). Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64 (5), 983-992.
- Reed, G. L., & Enright, R. D. (2006). The effects of forgiveness therapy on depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress for women after spousal emotional abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74 (5), 920-929.