The subject of forgiveness has attracted some interest on the part of persons in the helping professions. Since the American Psychological Association published the book, Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope by Enright and Fitzgibbons (2015), there has been increasing interest in the subject of forgiveness as it relates to wellbeing. While this concept may be trendy and helped by positive psychology and positive counseling, the notion that forgiveness is related to hope and health has been around for a long time. In religion, a large amount has been written about this topic. There one discovers many quotations, the most famous of which, at least in the Western world, is “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke: 23:24). But choosing to love over hatred is not unique to Christianity. In the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu) one finds the following: “If you want to see the brave, look to those who can return love for hatred. If you want to see the heroic, look to those who can forgive.” Jews, in their bed time prayer, traditionally say, “I forgive all who have hurt me, all who have done me wrong, either deliberately or by accident, whether by word, deed or thought…”
These sayings and hundreds more like them from world religions encourage forgiveness, not for the sake of heaven but for our own good. Nevertheless, there are several problems when it comes to bringing the words to life. For many people forgiveness phrases are so familiar that they became platitudes. Others think the love implied is so lofty that it is unattainable or unsustainable. Also, in religion, forgiveness is often associated with sin and is thus removed from the area of science and/or psychology, and clinical treatment.
Although not concerned with atonement, clinicians are concerned with at-one-ment with self and with others, and this is where forgiveness therapy plays a part. To define what is meant by forgiveness, and to turn words into beneficial and attainable action, it is best to make clear what forgiveness is not. It is not forgetting, and it is not excusing. It is not something that weakens us and makes us vulnerable to future attack. Furthermore, it does not occur in one fell swoop. Rather forgiveness is a process that can occur when one first recognizes and names the wrongful behaviors directed to the self by the self or by others, or done to others by the self or others. More than just recognizing them, one must name them, own them, and then desire to free body and spirit of their burden.
Forgiveness is a process, something we move toward, something we grow into, often as slowly as day by day, minute by minute. It is an acknowledgement of old, harmful thoughts, feelings, intentions and behaviors toward self or others and a turning away from them. While religious leaders preach forgiveness, our job is to help people through the process of forgiving. We help clients name the offending person (self or other) and name the offense(s). Then we begin the process of helping the client re- tell the story from a frame of reference that allows turning from self-righteousness on the one hand or self-castigation on the other. In brief, it is a process of letting go of frustration or anger, sadness or blame; a process of beginning to see things from a different vantage point and in a new light. As counselors, we do not claim that this new light is more than a laying down of defenses, which frees up the energy formerly spent on the resentment. The resentment prevents one from treating oneself and others with gentle kindness at least, and at best with love. Repairing what has been broken in relationships with self and others is the work of forgiveness. Helping clients take the practical steps toward reconciliation is our counseling work.
There are three levels of forgiveness. The mind operates at the first level when the wrongdoing is acknowledged and named. Clients who reach this level have a recognition of the roots of their anger and frustration and a growing desire to find ways of alleviating the pain of it. At the second level, the level of the heart, clients seek some sort of reconciliation with the offender, whether the offender is self or other. In this area progress may be very slow because one must first accept the notion that it is usually possible to reconcile with self but may not be possible to reconcile with another. If, after thorough investigation, reconciliation with the other is deemed impossible, or, for special reason not desired, the client must reconcile the impossibility or undesirability with self, accept his or her new clarity of thought, and move on. The spirit is involved at the third level where action takes place. This is the level of reparation, when the client does what it takes to fix things. Counseling helps clients at every level by bringing clarity to their deep concerns, listening compassionately to the acknowledging of wrongdoing, reflecting changes of heart, and supporting new ways of living.