What Interpersonal Forgiving

Is and Isn't   lighthouse

It is important to note some distinctions in the definition of forgiving.

I define forgiving as the elimination of all desire for revenge and personal ill will toward those who deeply wrong or betray us. This elimination usually brings an inner peace of heart and the freedom of not having our lives defined by the injuries we have suffered.

Forgiving is reserved for serious betrayals and wrongs. It is distinguished from excusing, which applies to less serious injuries or irritations. It is also distinguished from pardoning, which simply releases the injurer from punishment. Forgiving is not the same as accepting or understanding. Forgiving is reserved for acts which, in the view of the one injured, are not acceptable and not justifiable.

I assume that forgiving is a concern for most human beings. But Christian forgiving is forgiving which emanates from Christian understandings and/or motivations.

The following is my personal model of interpersonal Christian forgiving:

My model of interpersonal Christian forgiving is a blend of biblical, psychotherapeutic, and personal insights. I believe my model of forgiving can be called Christian, because it is largely grounded in Christian scripture, and otherwise not incompatible with it.

In the following, I will list the elements of my model in six sections. In each section, I will identify the primary source(s) for these elements--biblical, psychotherapeutic, or personal. Also, I will comment briefly on key points. Though not always noted, my personal insights have ultimately guided my selection of appropriate biblical and psychotherapeutic insights.


1. In my model, God is all loving and forgiving. It is appropriate for Christians to forgive, because God has forgiven us. As we forgive others, our ability to appreciate God's forgiveness of us is deepened. We also witness to our own need of God's forgiveness for injuries we inflict on others, wittingly or unwittingly. In forgiving, we begin to rediscover the basic humanity of the person who injured us. Because of every individual's basic humanity and relationship to our loving God, no one is inherently beyond our ability to forgive.


2. In order to forgive, it is essential that we decide we want to forgive the one who injured us. Without this decision, forgiving is not usually possible.


3. We cannot forgive through sheer will alone. Rather, our forgiving is ultimately a gift of grace from God. God prompts us to receive this divine gift, so we can forgive those who have seriously wronged or betrayed us.

After deciding we want to forgive, we can then set out on a personal journey of the heart with God, to forgive. It is during this journey that God's gift of forgiving usually comes to us. We know we have forgiven when we feel peace in our hearts concerning our injury; we no longer bear any ill will toward the one who injured us. Journeys of forgiving can sometimes take years.

Forgive each other just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.


4. I believe forgiving is a legitimate and complete act for an individual, whether or not it leads to reconciliation. Forgiving happens inside the person who does it. Forgiving welcomes but does not depend upon the repentance of the injurer.

We can forgive in our hearts before we ever verbalize the words "I forgive." We may or may not choose to express our forgiveness directly to the one who injured us, depending on our sense of the situation between that person and ourselves.

According to Christian scripture, full reconciliation is the ideal in human relationships. But practically speaking, that ideal can only be reached through the mutual commitment and cooperation of both victim and injurer. An individual's act of forgiving opens the way for reconciliation, at least for the one who forgives. Reconciliation can, but does not necessarily, lead to actual reunion (i.e. divorced couples who later are reconciled, but choose not to be reunited).


5. Forgiving usually involves a process of inner healing. I believe it is entirely valid for Christians to forgive for the sake of their own well-being and inner healing, as well as for these three traditional, biblically supported reasons: God has forgiven us; Jesus has told us to forgive; to be reconciled with the injurer. See Modern Views.


6. Forgiving does not necessarily involve: (a) the exemption of the injurer from the demands of justice, (b) our restoration of the injurer to his or her pre-injury position or status, or (c) a complete forgetting of the injury. Forgiving does not mean we condone the injury or that we can make things exactly the same as they were before the injury.


Lewis B. Smedes is the author whose published works best exemplify my views. See Select Annotated Bibliography.

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Last Updated on December 19, 1997 by mailboxRev. Dr. Douglas K. Showalter