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Forgiveness & Faith: Psychology & Theology in Dialogue

By Liz Gulliford.

Psychology and Religion Research Programme, Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge

This paper is adapted from a lecture given at Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford on 5th November, 2003.


The forgiveness of sins is central to Christianity. When we say that "we believe in the forgiveness of sins", do we have in mind the forgiveness of our own sins, through Christ's atoning death? Or do we envisage an ethic, that we believe in the forgiveness of sins, and are ourselves committed, with Christ, to forgiving those who fall short and cause us to suffer injury and hurt?

While forgiveness is sometimes abused and may seem 'unjust' - because punishment is withheld, it can offer an important release to both victim and perpetrator and can be a means of setting relationships in a new, redeemed key.

Defining Forgiveness

Since it is often easier to define things negatively, let us set forgiveness against what it is not. Forgetting is quite distinct from forgiving, yet the taint of 'forgive and forget' skews the meaning of forgiveness. If a person forgets something, she or he has no need to forgive it; only remembered offences may call for forgiveness. Forgetting wrongdoing may be a sign that forgiveness has been reached, but we need not forget to forgive, especially where hurt runs deep. To suggest so is an unhelpful form of denial, likely to prove more painful in the long run.

Forgiveness is not excusing, pardoning, condoning or reconciling. A pardon is given by someone holding a special role over someone who has violated a specific law (or laws) over which the pardoner has jurisdiction (such as a judge). Forgiveness describes the overcoming of offence in an interpersonal relationship, rather than within a legal or social context, and it is the offended party who possesses the right to forgive.

When a person condones or excuses behaviour, he or she has dealt with the offence without forgiving it. When we condone something we attempt to explain why something occurred and how, within a certain situation, it was 'understandable'. But there is something inexplicable about forgiveness - wrong cannot be completely neutralised by the application of 'explanatory balm'. What is annulled is not guilt, blame or responsibility, but the negative effect wrongdoing has on those involved.

North (1987) defines forgiveness as:

"...the overcoming of negative affect and judgment toward the offender, not by denying ourselves the right to such affect and judgement but by endeavouring to view the offender with compassion, benevolence, and love while recognizing that he has abandoned his right to them." (North, 1987, p.502 ).

Enright, Freedman and Rique (1998, p.46-7) offer the following definition:

"a willingness to abandon one's right to resentment, negative judgement, and indifferent behaviour toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward him or her."

This definition includes cognitive, affective and behavioural components, emphasising that forgiveness is a free choice, and suggests, through its insistence on promoting compassion, that forgiveness cannot be practised from self-interest alone - a prominent issue in critiques of therapeutic forgiveness.

Forgiveness and Anger

Since forgiving does not deny guilt and responsibility, it does not entail that anger be suppressed. Christians, in particular, may believe they should never be angry, that anger is no part of forgiveness: "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." (Ephesians 4:31).

It is important to stress that anger is often appropriate (Jesus himself was angry on occasions). Anger can be a sign we have been wronged. It is adaptive, indicating that a situation has arisen which we would not like to see repeated. If we fail to address this anger when 'hot', it can calcify, and that is the kind of anger that is maladaptive, both for us and our relationships. If we allow anger to persist, we block attempts to improve the relationship, but if we do not let ourselves feel angry at all, because 'we're nice Christians who don't get angry', we risk denying things which have damaged us. Unless we face those situations, allowing ourselves to feel appropriate anger, there can be no forgiveness and no release.

Forgiveness and Psychology?

Can forgiveness benefit from psychological insights? Recent years have seen a surge of interest in forgiveness, particularly as a therapeutic goal. There has been some dissent about illuminating forgiveness from a secular angle, with many regarding the Christian understanding of forgiveness as incompatible with psychology.

Trepidation seems to have arisen following Smedes' Forgive and Forget (1984), which describes how not forgiving further compromises victims. It offers an approach to forgiveness which involves seeing the offence 'with magic eyes', by re-examining things from a more impartial perspective. Basically, it advocates forgiveness for the 'health's sake' of the forgiver.

Smedes' view that "unchecked hate will do you in" has some support. Resentment and bitterness give rise to depression, anxiety, raised blood pressure and, with that, increased risk of heart attacks. The social effects of anger are also serious; angry people are more likely to separate themselves from others. They become consumed with their own anger and are less able to empathise with other people. Resentment disfigures the healthy relationships they do have, leaving them even more embittered and lonely. Since anger can reach self-destructive levels, Smedes contends that forgiveness primarily 'for our own sakes' is entirely defensible.

This focus on the individual's release was criticised as egocentric. Some felt forgiveness was in danger of being irrevocably distorted and perceived as a 'feel-good' commodity leading to some suspicion of forgiveness in therapy.

A few books do have rather individualistic (arguably egocentric) overtones. Jampolsky (1999) writes: "Forgiveness releases us from so much. It stops our inner battles with ourselves. It allows us to stop recycling anger and blame." (p.xxiii). He also writes: "With a simple change of mind, we can release ourselves from the ego's conviction that to be safe we must believe in our victimhood and act defensively." (p.6).

This focus on our inner battles and the effects of resentment on our well-being has been criticised. Jones (1995) believes therapeutic forgiveness has sold out to the self-help culture. He claims it distorts and reduces the Christian meaning of forgiveness, and is motivated by making one "feel better about oneself" (p.45).

Similarly, Augsberger (2000) describes therapeutic forgiveness as a "product of the age of individualism" and calls for renewed attention to 'true' forgiveness: "the regaining of a sister or brother...that is the goal of faithful forgiving - not the personal release of letting go and healing yourself... but the reconstruction and transformation of relationships." (p.9). This view conflates forgiveness with reconciliation. Resuming a relationship may not always be possible (perhaps through death) or may be inadvisable. In situations of abuse or dependency, a person might forgive the wrong they had suffered, remaining aware that until the person had addressed the offending behaviour, a resumption of relationship would be unwise.

Equating forgiveness with reconciliation is also problematic when forgiveness is rebuffed. It is not inconceivable that wrongdoers may refuse to accept forgiveness, or see themselves as accountable for their actions in an attempt to frustrate the forgiveness process. Perhaps in the ideal, forgiveness involves the transformation of relationships, but it cannot always be guaranteed.

While it is true that there is a focus on letting go of one's own anger and negativity in therapeutic forgiveness, concentrating on the person forgiving does not mean we cease to care about the person who wronged us and our relationship with them, it simply addresses the person whose will we can change - our own - hoping our forgiveness instigates the regeneration of the relationship.

It is, in any case, appropriate that people who have suffered should be helped in diminishing negative feelings and experiencing release. Narcissism or egocentricity are not fitting words in the context of restoring those who have been seriously wronged, many of whom are likely to have a distorted self-concept that runs counter to that of inflation. Should we not help bind up the broken-hearted and seek release for the oppressed (Isaiah 61.1; Luke 4.18)?

Attention must be paid to context. Where the balance of power between forgiver and forgiven is about equal, we should be vigilant against pursuing forgiveness emptily and selfishly. However, where that balance has long run against the victim's well-being, forgiveness for one's own sake is surely appropriate, and in no way incompatible with Christian belief and practice.

'Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us'

Many Christians feel tension between the calling to 'forgive as we are forgiven' and their human limitations. One woman I knew felt unworthy to receive Communion since she could not forgive her abuser. Rather than offering release, the injunction to forgive further constrained her, making her feel she should be excluded from the Lord's Table. Another woman believed she would go to hell if she could not forgive her abuser.

Victims have surely suffered enough. To put the onus on them for forgiving those who may have ruined their lives adds to the burden. God is compassionate, suffering with us. As much as God forgives wrongdoers, God also takes the victim's side. To imagine God remonstrating victims, insisting on forgiveness (or they stand condemned) seems unthinkable.

Ultimately, forgiveness lies in God's hands. It can, perhaps, be some comfort, when we find it hard to forgive, to reframe forgiveness beyond the human sphere. We can pray that God will forgive what we cannot (yet) forgive ourselves, and this offers healing, without the sense that we are hopeless or beyond the scope of God's love because we cannot forgive. A willingness to forgive may take a while to reach fruition. I invoke the phrase in Mark 9.24: "I believe - help thou my unbelief". Our belief can grow - perhaps so can our forgiveness: "I forgive, help my unforgiveness".

Forgiveness should never be forced. If coercion is involved its gracious-ness is lost. One must reflect sensitively on how the command to forgive sits with pastoral experience and the extent to which we can forgive in the image of Christ crucified.

Means of Promoting Forgiveness within Therapy: Reframing

We turn now to ways therapists promote forgiveness. A number of approaches focus on 'reframing', 'reappraising' 'reattribution', or 'seeing the offence with magic eyes' (Smedes, 1984). Reattribution therapy has proved effective in treating various clinical disorders, such as depression and loneliness (Abramson, Seligman and Teasdale, 1978; Peplau, Russell and Heim, 1979), and many consider reattribution fruitful in forgiveness therapy.

Essentially, these techniques widen victims' perspectives so that wrongdoers' actions are located in a framework which expands the narrative of blame to see what led the offender to behave as they did. The process may take account of the offender's upbringing, for example. Alternatively, it may involve considering proximal factors, such as stress.

Of key significance is the question of whether events are attributed to personal (internal) or environmental (external) factors. Following Heider (1958), investigators have found that people are more likely to attribute others' behaviour to 'internal' dispositions, rather than 'external' or situational factors. If we 'rework' attributions, substituting internal attributions (offender's characteristics) with external ones (offender's upbringing, current stresses), we might find forgiveness easier.

Space will not permit a detailed foray into stage theories that have incorporated reframing. By way of example, Enright and colleagues have proposed the following model (see: Enright and Fitzgibbons (2000) for more detailed exposition of the twenty stage model). The four main phases are:

1. Uncovering phase

2. Decision phase

3. Work phase

4. Deepening phase

The overall goal of Uncovering is for the client to gain insight into whether and how the injustice and subsequent injury have compromised his or her life. Having uncovered the offence, addressed defence mechanisms, and become aware of the implications of the wrongdoing, the client enters the 'Decision Phase'. Here, he or she examines their forgiveness construct, so that distortions may be addressed and the possibility of committing to forgiving (on the basis of an accurate understanding of its meaning) may be proposed.

In the 'Work Phase' there are four units whose collective goal is to gain a new understanding of the perpetrator, resulting in positive affective change towards the offender, the self and the relationship. This phase begins with 'reframing'. The client is posed questions about the offender to help put him or her into a wider 'frame' (sub-stage 12 of the 'Work Phase'). In the final five units of the 'Deepening Phase', clients find meaning in their suffering and deepen positive affect toward the wrongdoer.

There may be cases where putting things into a larger 'reframed' perspective may reinforce the evilness of the transgression. We call to mind serious violations such as rape, child abuse and massacre. In these cases, forgiveness, even initiated by reframing, may be impossible. How can one understand (even partially) what motivated such atrocities? In such cases, one might 'reframe' forgiveness beyond the human realm; what might seem humanly impossible may not be divinely so, and people may experience some release knowing that forgiveness does not, in the last analysis, rest with them.

Reframing has limitations and may not always represent a 'first step' towards forgiving particularly heinous violations. It may constitute an overly 'intellectual' approach to forgiveness which assumes that once faulty cognitions concerning blame have been reappraised, affective and behavioural change will necessarily occur. Another problem is that it may engender repeated rumination of the events which led to the offence. In reframing, distortions in our thinking are still in evidence - we can never be totally 'objective'. Moreover, reframing certain offences may, in practice, reduce forgiveness to condoning behaviour on account of 'mitigating factors'. This may be further complicated by the fact that even when the process is felt to be more than condoning by the forgiver, it may not be perceived as such by onlookers or the person who has caused offence. This could have serious implications for the future of the relationship.

Means of Promoting Forgiveness Within Therapy: Empathy

In addition to approaches to forgiveness that envisage cognitive reframing as the step which leads to forgiveness, another model regards empathy as the crucial factor. Worthington (1998) suggests that:

"Forgiveness is a motivation to reduce avoidance of and withdrawal from a person who has hurt us, as well as the anger, desire for revenge and urge to retaliate against that person. Forgiveness also increases the pursuit of conciliation toward that person if moral norms can be established that are as good as, or even better than, they were before the hurt." (p.108).

He proposes that the state of unforgiveness is maintained by "fear-conditioning", and provides a neurobiological account of the forgiveness process on the basis of this assumption (see: Worthington, 1998, p.108f.). The model has five stages:

1. Recall the hurt

2. Empathise with the one who hurt you

3. Altruistic gift

4. Commitment to forgive

5. Holding onto forgiveness

In the first stage the client recalls hurts in a supportive environment, exposing them imaginatively to the 'conditioned stimulus' (the offender), which will gradually lessen the impact of thoughts of the perpetrator. At stage two, clients are encouraged to empathise with the offender. The rationale behind this is that because fear-conditioning is an emotional response, it needs to be addressed by a procedure which addresses the emotions - fighting fire with fire. Clients put themselves in their offender's shoes: what was the other person thinking during the event? Participants might be encouraged to write a letter of explanation as if they were the offender, or to recall good times with the person who hurt them. It is interesting to note the similarity of these empathy-generating procedures to cognitive reframing.

At the third stage, humility moves clients on from empathy to forgiveness. Clients reflect on their guilt, the gratitude they experienced when forgiven and offer the 'altruistic gift' of forgiveness. In Worthington's model, commitment to forgive (which preceded the Work phase in Enright's model) follows the work part of forgiveness. Worthington believes this commitment should be public, or lingering traces of 'fear conditioning' might cause the client to distrust their forgiveness. He suggests people talk about forgiveness with others, perhaps sign and date a certificate of their commitment to forgive to make forgiveness more concrete. The final stage recognises that the complete silencing of fear conditioned responses is impossible and suggests ways people can strengthen themselves when they feel some erosion of forgiveness.

The premise behind theories of forgiveness based on empathy is that when we imagine how wretched a person who did us wrong feels in the wake of offence, we arrive at a point where the salience of empathy for the offender overshadows the salience of the offending person's actions towards us. "The person identifies with the experience of the offender (through empathy) and sees the other as needy." (Worthington, 1998, p.125).

However, if one assumes the priority of empathy, there may be huge obstacles in the way of identification with the offender, especially if that person has behaved in an 'inhuman' or 'unfeeling' way. As with reframing, however, this technique has offered an avenue through which people have been helped to forgive (see: Enright and Fitzgibbons, 2000, for a detailed review).

Concluding Remarks

Forgiveness has become increasingly prominent within secular therapy. It is interesting that it has taken so long for it to take this place, since most family therapy seeks to restore relationships, and many individuals who seek professional therapeutic help have someone to forgive. Part of the reason, perhaps, for this slow adoption of forgiveness is that secular therapy has often been squeamish about guilt, since it can create scapegoats, especially in the family setting.

On the other hand, there is something real about guilt - we do all fall short. It is not healthy to pretend others do not miss the mark. In forgiveness, guilt is not sidestepped. It is dealt with without minimising the wrong done. In this sense it offers something distinctive: what is negated in forgiveness is not the wrong itself, but the effect this has on relationships. It offers the means through which relationships can survive the inevitable upsets of life.

Despite what some critics have said, I do not consider forgiveness within therapy as in conflict with Christianity, or necessarily egocentric. I believe whatever approaches enrich forgiveness, offering new strategies that help us to become more forgiving, should be welcomed. If we believe God is truly at work in the world God has created, healing inevitably takes place within the realm of 'secular' therapy, for individuals, in our relationships and within our communities.

Fraser Watts and Liz Gulliford have co-edited, 'Forgiveness in Context: Theology and Psychology in Creative Dialogue' (Continuum, in press) which enlarges on themes presented here.


Abramson L Y, Seligman, M. and Teasdale, J, 1978: 'Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation', Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87, 49-74.

Augsberger, D (2000), The New Freedom of Forgiveness, Chicago, Moody Press.

Enright, R.D. Freedman, S. and Rique, J. (1998), 'The psychology of interpersonal forgiveness', in R.D. Enright and J. North (eds), Exploring Forgiveness, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, pp.46-62.

Enright, R D and Fitzgibbons, R P (2000), Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, Washington DC, APA.

Heider, F (1958), The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: Wiley.

Jampolsky, G G (1999), Forgiveness: The Greatest Healer of All, Hillsboro. Oregon: Beyond Words Publishing, Inc..

Jones, L G (1995), Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B Eerdmans.

North J (1987), 'Wrongdoing and forgiving', Philosophy, 62, pp.499-508.

Peplau, L, Russell and Heim, 1979, 'The experience of loneliness' in I H Frieze, D Bar-Tal and J S Caroll (eds), New Approaches to Social Problems. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp.53-78.

Smedes, L B (1984), Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts we Don't Deserve. New York: Harper and Row.

Worthington, E L (1998), Dimensions of Forgiveness, Radnor, Pennsylvania: Templeton Foundation Press.

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