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Fisher Humphreys

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"Trends in Theology Today" Topics:
  Open Theism, Calvinism, Fundamentalism, Forgiveness

by Fisher Humphreys

Introduction: Forgiveness in Public Life

    It is natural to think of forgiveness as a private matter between two individuals, and often it is that, but it is becoming increasingly clear that forgiveness has a public dimension also. This was dramatized in 1974 when Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. It surfaced again in 1981 when Pope John Paul II was shot by M. A. Agca and then met with him and forgave him in 1984. During the 1990s Archbishop Desmond Tutu led the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa to offer complete pardon to those who violated human rights during apartheid provided they acknowledge their acts; he described this in his book, No Future without Forgiveness. The Dalai Lama speaks routinely of forgiving the Chinese for their treatment of Tibet.

      Marriage and family therapists now include forgiveness as one of the ways couples can deal with their conflicts in general and with marital infidelity in particular. Forgiveness studies are now being conducted in several American universities, with many millions of dollars in grants awarded to fund the studies. An International Forgiveness Institute (see <www.forgiveness-institute.org>) serves as a clearing house for much of this work. Forgiveness is important for relationships between individuals, within families, and among nations, and it is important for personal health.

Forgiveness in the Christian Faith

      Forgiveness occupies an important place in the Christian faith, so much so that it is possible to summarize most of the Christian faith in terms of forgiveness. Christianity teaches that Godís purpose in creating the world was to call together a community of persons to be Godís own, persons who freely choose to love God and one another. Human beings have failed to do this; their failure is called ďsin,Ē and forgiveness of sin is the way that God has chosen to continue to pursue Godís original purpose. Jesus preached a message of forgiveness, and he called his followers to forgive their enemies; he himself prayed for his enemies, ďFather, forgive them for they know not what they do.Ē The fundamental claim of the Christian gospel is that Jesus died for the forgiveness of the worldís sins, a subject to which we will return. Christians are persons who have heard the story of Jesus and have thereby come to trust God to forgive them of their sins. The Christian church is a forgiven community that is called by God to become a forgiving community.

What Forgiveness Is

      The best way to begin to speak about forgiveness is with a narrative rather than a definition. The narrative begins when someone hurts you. It may be an individual; sometimes it is a group. It may be someone in your family, or a friend. It may be someone you work with, or someone you work for, or someone who works for you.

      People hurt you for different reasons. Let us set aside for the moment the idea that they may be hitting back at you for something you did. Sometimes people deliberately hurt you; when you have done nothing at all to harm people, they do something because it will hurt you. Let us call that malicious behavior. I think it rarely happens in the church, though it does happen.

      Sometimes people want to do something and they know that, if they do it, you will be hurt, but they donít care; theyíre prepared to hurt you if thatís what it takes to get what they want. Letís call this selfish behavior.

      Sometimes people want to do something and they donít realize that, if they do it, they will hurt you; however, it is their responsibility to be aware of the consequences of their actions, so, when they proceed with it and hurt you, they should have known better. Letís call this irresponsible behavior.

      Sometimes people want to do something but there is no way for them to know that, if they do it, they will hurt you. Letís call this innocent behavior.

      So, we have four kinds of behavior: malicious, selfish, irresponsible, and innocent. But they all have this in common: they cause you pain that you do not deserve.

      You know, of course, that you are not perfect, but nothing you have done warrants this. In short, your pain is unfair, unjust.

      How do you respond to being hurt deeply and unfairly? One possibility is to forgive those who have hurt you. But what does that mean?

      Forgiveness means suffering in a special sense. In order to forgive, you have to accept two kinds of pain. First comes the pain of being hurt by someone. That is a kind of pain that all of us experience, and there is no way to avoid it all.

      There is another kind of pain also. When youíre treated unfairly, you become angry. No one has to learn to do this; it is a natural response.

      When you are angry, you instinctively want to retaliate. It is natural to want to hit back and to hurt those who hurt us. You are entitled to want to retaliate. Itís only fair. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Thatís justice.

      But itís not forgiveness. In forgiveness you voluntarily embrace the pain of your own anger rather than expressing your anger by retaliating. You could say that you absorb your anger. You donít repress or deny it; you live into it, and you live through it, in such a way as to drain the poison off it.

      Here is our definition: forgiveness is absorbing the pain caused by people who hurt you and also absorbing the anger you naturally feel because you have been hurt, in such a way as to neutralize your anger and so to end its destructive power in your life and in the lives of others.

      Now I want to tell you that this is not fair. You didnít hurt the other person; the other person hurt you. You shouldnít have to suffer; the person who hurt you should have to do that.

      But in the real world of moral relationships, it is the injured party alone who can forgive, and that means that it is the injured person who must suffer if forgiveness is to occur.

      Forgiveness is therefore very hard, but it is possible. After Nelson Mandela was released from prison, he paid a visit to India where he has many admirers. On one occasion an Indian official said to him, I pray for your health, Mr. Mandela. He replied, Thank you. Please pray for the health of Mr. de Klerk.

                                                                       What Forgiveness Is Not

      It is easy to misunderstand the nature of forgiveness.

      For example, we often hear the phrase, ďForgive and forget,Ē but, in fact, forgiveness is not forgetting. In order to forgive, you must remember that you were hurt and who hurt you.

      Forgiveness is not making excuses for the person who hurt you. In order to forgive you must not make excuses; you must be realistic about the fact that the other person hurt you.

      Forgiveness is not pretending that what happened to you doesnít matter. It does matter. Thatís why you have to deal with it in this costly way.

      Forgiveness is something we do about serious injustice and pain, not about trivial hurts; the right way to handle trivial hurts is to ignore them or to laugh about them.

      Finally, forgiveness is not always a single event. Often it is a process, and, if your pain is intense, it can be a long process.

Three Controversial Issues

      I want now to address three controversial issues. The first is whether, when we forgive, we should always forego punishment. Earlier I insisted that forgiveness means that we do not retaliate in anger. The question is, Do we nevertheless punish in justice?

      It seems to me that individuals probably should forego punishment in all cases where the wrongdoer expresses genuine repentance and regret, and probably in most other cases as well.

      However, within families there is sometimes a need for discipline and for the making of reparations, and within societies there is sometimes a need for protecting the public. Discipline, reparations, and protection are compatible with forgiveness.

      Another important, controversial issue concerns the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness and reconciliation are closely related, but they are not identical. Forgiveness is something you do in your own heart, and you can do it no matter what the other person does. Reconciliation is not something you can do on your own; it always takes two people. If the other person realizes that he has wronged you and asks for your forgiveness, then the two of you can be reconciled. The wronged person who has truly forgiven a wrongdoer will always welcome the prospect of authentic reconciliation.

      Sometimes we need to forgive people to whom we know weíll never be reconciled. For example, sometimes we need to forgive parents who wronged us when we were too young to defend ourselves, and by the time we are old enough to deal with the hurt they inflicted on us, they have died. We can never be reconciled to them, but we can forgive them, and we need to do that.

      Often we are hurt by people who will never admit that they were wrong and therefore never be open to authentic reconciliation, though they may want us to pretend that nothing was ever wrong; we need to forgive them even though genuine reconciliation is impossible.

      Even when we forgive and are reconciled to someone, this may not lead to a full restoration of the relationship we once had. For example, when a wife leaves her abusive husband and marries someone else, she may be reconciled to her first husband, but their marriage is a thing of the past.

      In this presentation I have treated being hurt and wronged as a single, discrete event. And, of course, there are many such events in our lives. However, there is also another way of being hurt which is not a single, discrete event but a continuing process, a pattern of being hurt. Today we have a word for this; we call it abuse.

      Many conscientious persons feel that the call to forgive is also a call to accept abuse rather than to attempt to evade it. Some Christians have found support for this idea in these words of Jesus:

You have heard that it was said, ĎAn eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.í But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (Matthew 5:38-41)

      It is certainly possible to understand Jesusí words to mean that his followers should accept whatever abuse they are given. That is not, however, how I understand them. I believe that this is one of those situations in which it is important to factor Jesusí historical context into our interpretation of his words. Jesus and his followers lived in a political situation in which they were unable to remove themselves from harmís way. Israel was occupied by Roman soldiers, and there was nothing the Jews could do to escape the abuse the soldiers heaped on them. Jesusí instructions to turn the other cheek and to go the second mile were appropriate in that situation. Sadly, some people today find themselves in the same situation; I believe that the non-violent resistance counseled by Jesus is the most positive and effective way to deal with abuse one cannot avoid.

      But often we can escape abuse, and when we can the appropriate thing is almost always to get out of harmís way. If a friend is abusing you, stop seeing him. If an employer is abusing you, change jobs. If a spouse is abusing you, move out.

      There may be occasions when you are able to avoid abuse but you decide not to take yourself out of harmís way, but these are, I believe, very rare, and you need to be very clear in your own mind about why they are exceptional enough that you will choose to continue to accept abuse. I think, for example, of a beautiful Jewish lady Caroline and I knew whose husband had Alzheimerís Disease. She loved him deeply and was determined to care for him as long as possible. Eventually he became violent and she had to arrange for people to stay with her in her home so they could protect her if his violence became physical. Mostly, though, he said terrible things to her. She accepted his abusive words, knowing that it was not his fault and that it would pass, and she waited for the moments when he was lucid and calm and they could visit and enjoy being together. In some of those times he expressed his gratitude to her for what she was doing.

      She had a lot of common sense. For example, she did not spend all her time with her husband, but several days a week she left him at home with persons from hospice or other care-givers. She went to lunch with friends or her daughters, she belonged to several social and charitable organizations, and she went to synagogue. Her outside activities helped her not to become depressed and gave her the energy and the clarity of vision she needed to be a wonderful wife and friend to her dying husband. She was able to care for him at home until he died.

      There was nothing masochistic about what she did. She accepted abuse and suffering that she could have avoided in order to achieve a goal that she believed in deeply. I think that she was a model of generous, self-sacrificing love and of great moral character.

What Helps You to Forgive

      Because genuine forgiveness is difficult, we need help in doing it. One thing that helps is simply to decide whether you really believe in forgiveness. Not everyone appreciates forgiveness; some movies by Clint Eastwood and some books by Robert Parker, including the most recent, Cold Service, make a case for revenge. We have to choose whether we think they are right or Jesus is right.

      The natural response to being hurt is to retaliate; forgiveness is a response we have to make intentionally, and it is a painful response. In The Fragile Bond August Napier said that he and his wife will attempt to help couples only if the couples are committed to their marriage. We have to commit ourselves to forgiveness.

      Another thing that helps is to belong to a community that supports you as you attempt to forgive. The community may be as informal as having friends who believe in forgiveness, who admire those who do it, and who support your commitment to do it. Or it may be as formal as a religious community which calls you to forgive your enemies and in whose common life you find the strength to forgive. The church is supposed to be a community that supports us in our efforts to forgive our enemies; unfortunately, sometimes it fails in this.

      A third thing that can help you to forgive is to attempt to understand the person who hurt you. Maybe you can see why she acted the way she did. Maybe sheís been hurt herself. Maybe sheís having a lot of problems right now. You donít excuse her, but you do try to understand her, to see her humanity, and not to demonize her. As long as you continue to demonize her, you wonít have any incentive to forgive her; you donít have to forgive the devil. In order to forgive, it helps to realize the humanity of the other person.

      Fourth, it helps to think about the future. Think about what will happen if you donít forgive and what will happen if you do.

      If you donít forgive, youíll continue to live with your anger, rage, and resentment. And you know what that will do. It will hurt you. It may make you physically ill; you can get hypertension, ulcers, headaches, and insomnia from bottling up your anger and from carrying resentment with you all the time. It will make you unhappy not to forgive.

      And not just youĖothers, too. Gandhi said that if the world lives by the principle of an eye for an eye, it will become a world full of blind people. We all pass along to others the hurts we have experienced.

       On the other hand, if you do forgive you will neutralize the pain that is destructive of your health and happiness. Then you can begin to experience healing. In this sense, forgiveness is something you need to do for yourself.

      Also, if you forgive, there is always a chance that you and the person who hurt you may become friends again instead of enemies. That doesnít happen every time, but at least there is a chance. In any case, you can do your part to make it happen.

      Finally, in order to forgive, it also helps to think about God. In one way or another we have all hurt God. We havenít respected God as God. We have been unkind to people whom God loves.

      Nevertheless, God has forgiven us. Christians believe that forgiveness is difficult for God just as it is for human beings. They think that in the passion of Jesus God absorbed and neutralized the pain that we have caused God. Forgiveness was costly for God just as it is for us. Thereís always a price to be paid.

      It is because God has forgiven us that God is in a position to call on us to forgive those who hurt us. Here we must be cautious. Timing is important; you can call too quickly for someone who has been deeply hurt to forgive. Our relationship with the injured party is also important; sometimes we are authorized to express a call for forgiveness, and sometimes we are not. As ministers, we are authorized to speak to our people about Godís call for us to forgive.

Steps toward Forgiveness

      I have been saying that forgiveness is difficult. Fortunately, there are some small, practical steps that will move you toward the great task of forgiveness. I will mention six of these. They should all be done in the context of participating in public worship where you pray and hear the Scripture read.

      First, you can name the person or group who hurt you, and you can name what that person did that was unfair and caused you pain. You cannot begin to forgive until you acknowledge honestly that you have enemies who have hurt you.

      Here in the South, this is difficult to do, because we Southerners like to imagine that we donít have an enemy in the world. But we do have enemies, and, if we are going to forgive them, we must begin by naming them and by naming the ways they have hurt us. We canít forgive generically.

      Second, you can live in such a way as to do your enemies no harm. You can refuse to be rude to them. You can refuse to believe the worse things about them. You can refuse to talk about them. Talking about our enemies is one of the principal ways we retaliate; another way is to withdraw and to be cool.

Third, you can refuse to stoke the fires of your anger. Don't mentally replay the events in which you were mistreated and hurt; don't mull them over; don't nurse your anger. If you find that you cannot stop thinking about those events and about the people who hurt you, you probably should talk to a counselor or at least to a wise friend who will understand you and help you move beyond being obsessed with those things.

Fourth, you can pray for God to help you to forgive them. Since God has called us to do this, I expect we can count on God helping us to do it when was pray for God's help.

Fifth, you can begin to pray for your enemies. At first you may want to pray that God will punish them, but that isn't what you ought to end up praying. Instead, you must pray for God to bless them. This is a small step you can take, but it is an important one. And, when you do, slowly you will find it possible to sincerely wish them well. That's the sure sign that you are on the way to forgiving them.

Sixth and finally, you can be patient. Sometimes it takes a long time to forgive. It can be a slow process. But it's worth waiting for and praying for.


Because we live in a world in which others sometimes hurt us, forgiveness is indispensable for a good life. We Christians are fortunate that Jesus has taught us to forgive and has given us an example of forgiveness, and we also are fortunate that God has forgiven us. Christians have the resources they need in order to forgive their enemies.



John Claypool, Mending the Heart (1999)

L. Gregory Jones, Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis (1995)

H. R. Mackintosh, The Christian Experience of Forgiveness (1927)

Lewis B. Smedes, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve (1984)

Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness (1999)



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