Free to Forgive


Course Description

E39 Free to Forgive: Healing Conflicts, 3 CE hours

Description: Forgiveness is the dealing with another person’s offense in a helpful manner. One definition of therapeutic forgiveness is then the handling of another person’s inappropriate and harmful deeds in such a way so that it helps the forgiver find healing and wellness.

Objective: At the end of this course, you will 1. define healing forgiveness, 2. describe forgiveness in various relationships,  3. differentiate forgiveness from related activities, and  4. recognize the cognitive, emotional and spiritual levels of forgiveness.

Course Exam


1. Healing Forgiveness

Forgiveness is dealing with another person’s offense in a helpful manner. One definition of therapeutic forgiveness is then the handling of another person’s inappropriate and harmful deeds in such a way so that it helps the forgiver (the person who forgives, the injured party)  find healing and wellness. What is your definition?

Paul Coleman defines forgiveness as the decision to offer love to someone who has betrayed that love. Robert D.  Enright and Joanna North define forgiveness as giving up resentment and vengeance and fostering compassion on the inflictor of pain. Claire Frazier-Yzaguirre wrote:  “When we forgive, we free ourselves from the bitter ties that bind us to the one who hurt us.”

“Forgiveness is the key that can unshackle us from a past that will not rest in the grave of things over and done with. As long as our minds are captive to the memory of having been wronged, they are not free to wish for reconciliation with the one who wronged us.” Lewis B. Smedes

Forgiveness is something nearly all Americans want — 94% surveyed in a nationwide Gallup poll said it was important to forgive — but only 48% said they usually tried to forgive others.


2. Forgiving Individuals

The five steps in granting the gift of forgiveness to others (according to R. Klimes, PhD) are:

  1. Acknowledge the anger and hurt caused by the clearly identified specific offense(s).
  2. Bar revenge and any thought of inflicting harm as repayment or punishment to the offender.
  3. Consider the offender’s perspective. Try to understand his/her attitude and behavior.
  4. Decide to accept the hurt without unloading it on the offender. Passing it back and forth magnifies it.
  5. Extend compassion and good will to the offender. That releases the offended from the offense.

The rejection of forgiveness: A. Anger, the deep displeasure caused by a sense of injury or wrong, if not checked, can lead to sickness, conflicts or violence. B. Revenge or a defensive attitude on the part of the wrong-doer makes forgiveness very difficult. Thus the process never goes beyond the 2nd step. Some people who have been deeply hurt in life develop a negative addiction, a chronic negative attitude expressed in frequent anger, rejection and suspicion.


3. Forgiving Groups

Group forgiveness can deal with nations, enemies, harming groups, prejudice or quarrels. The above five steps apply but need to be applied to groups rather than individuals.

The following research projects deal with group forgiveness:

“Is There a Role for Forgiveness & Spirituality in Coping with Combat Trauma?”
Ming Tsuang, M.D., Ph.D., at the Harvard Institute for Psychiatric Epidemiology and Genetics, proposes to describe an empirical investigation of the role of forgiveness in coping with trauma associated with military service in Vietnam. The overall objective is to use unique methodology to draw general conclusions regarding the actual and potential roles of forgiveness for coping with combat and other traumatic, life-threatening experiences. This study will utilize the VET Registry to identify and interview 170 pairs of identical twins, one of which will have had combat exposure while the other twin will not have served in Vietnam.

“Truth & Forgiveness in South Africa: A Multidisciplinary Approach”
Audrey Chapman, Ph.D., representative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, will work with members of the government of South Africa to analyze the transcripts of the testimonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the grand political experiment of our time. President Mandela, instead of seeking to purge the country of people who embraced apartheid (literally apartness of the races), sought to heal the wounds of the people through setting up a political process that encouraged confession of political crimes and the granting of amnesty in return for speaking the truth. As hundreds of people in South Africa have testified in TRC hearings, tales of horrible wrongdoings and responses of moving forgiveness have come forth. Chapman hopes to discover some of the qualities of the human spirit that can promote forgiveness in the face of grief, loss, and horror through analyzing transcripts of testimonies.

“Forgiveness & the Reduction of Intergroup Conflict”
Ed Cairns, Ph.D., at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, in the Centre for the Study of Conflict, seeks to provide the first extensive theoretical and empirical study of inter-group forgiveness within Northern Ireland. One of this study’s ideas is that much of our social behavior is determined by our social group. Thus we are more likely to forgive acts of violence committed by one of our own group than by someone with whom we did not associate. Utilizing eight studies, Cairns proposes to show that under appropriate conditions the differences between any two groups will not be perceived, and this will bring about a reconciliation.

“Forgiveness from Evolutionary & Cross-cultural Perspective”
David Sloan Wilson, Ph.D., in the Department of Biological Sciences at Binghamton University, proposes to study whether forgiveness is essential to adaptive moral systems in cultures around the world. Morality will be explained as an evolved set of traits that causes whole groups to function as adaptive units, and the way tendencies to forgive are used as building blocks to preserve order within and between smaller societies throughout human history. The ability of people to form into functionally integrated social groups is a broad development in evolutionary biology that provides the foundation for the research.



4. Forgiving God

“Forgive God? How absurd! The very idea may seem ridiculous, even offensive to some people. However, Jeremiah and other prophets can be cited as examples of powerful spiritual personalities who have held a temporary resentment toward God for the judgments He brought down because of the sins and evils committed by His chosen people, Israel and Judah. The punishments often seemed worse than the crime, in their eyes.

 Truly, forgiving God is never necessary, and yet … have you had some residue, deep inside, of a secret resentment, even a hatred against God for the situations you find yourself in throughout your life? Or perhaps a loved one or an innocent stranger, perhaps a child, has suffered horribly, all because God did not rescue them or prevent evil from happening. Even after we understand God’s message that Christ has saved us from the foundation of the world, there is often some lingering resentment about evil in the world, evil we have suffered, evil our loved ones have suffered, evil our neighbors have suffered, evil from nature (that we label as “acts of God”) and the evils that the innocent in the world suffer. There are billions of such people who endure lives of constant suffering without cause. They suffer — every hour — of every day — without relief — for their entire lives.

Should we forgive God? Perhaps. Must we forgive God? No. But if it helps reconcile you to God and gives you peace, then feel free to do so. That is what Paul meant. We should be willing to forgive God for the evil He is responsible for allowing.

God desires your love now. God’s love is unconditional and patient. If necessary He will wait for your love later when you understand the full knowledge of God and the full scope of His love and provision for you and all creation.”




5. Forgiving Self

We often blame ourselves for things we have done or have experiences. We feel guilty and need forgiveness.

The four steps in forgiving yourself (according to J. Messina, are:

  • A. Define your problem: Ask whose problem it is, if it is real, who is responsible, if it deals with preventing harm to others.

  • B. Give the problem back if it is belong to someone else.

  • C. Find out what real or imaginary fears stop you from dealing with your problem.

  • D. Affirm yourself that you can solve the problem and that you need to be good to yourself and others.



6. Asking for Forgiveness

The offender’s five steps in asking for the gift of forgiveness (according to R. Klimes, PhD) are:

  • A. Acknowledge your guilt in contributing to the clearly identified specific offense(s).

  • B. Bar repetition of the offense. Declare that you will not do it again.

  • C. Consider the offended person’s perspective. Try to understand his/her attitude and behavior.

  • D. Declare your apology and sorrow for the hurt you caused. Say “I am sorry for…”

  • E. Extend compassion and good acts to the offended person. Make it up, if you can.

Without these steps, there usually cannot be forgiveness and reconciliation. The results of a broken relationship that has not been healed are often bitterness, blaming, continuation of harm and vengeance, increasing insensitivity, estrangement, hating and acts of violence.  

The offender, that is the person who has caused the hurt, may not have a direct part in the initial forgiveness that the forgiver experiences. His part comes in the next level which is reconciliation. Reconciliation is not always possible.


7. Being Forgiven

One of the greatest freedoms that we can gain is the freedom from harm and guilt. We cannot escape the harm around us and the guilt for contributing in a small or large way to that harm. But we can be forgiven and that forgiveness can free us from some of the consequences of that harm.  In many cases, when we offend, we can contact that person or group and seek their forgiveness. But there are many cases where that is not possible or where the offended individuals or group refuses to forgive.

All our offenses and harmful actions are not only against individuals or groups, but also against God. In harming, we violate relationships with others and with God. God forgives those that sincerely seek his forgiveness and turn from their harmful ways.


8. Forgiveness in Context

Forgiveness is best understood in the context of related activities. Sometimes forgiveness may be associated with one or more of the below activities, but it is a separate act.

  • 1. Forgiveness is not necessarily reconciliation, it can be a gift that the other either accepts or rejects or does nor even know about. It is in the heart of the forgiver. For reconciliation, two people are needed and then the relationship between them needs to be restored. For reconciliation, forgiveness is needed.

  • 2. Forgiveness is not pardoning, for pardoning is a transaction, often a legal one, that releases the injuring person from the consequences of his or her injurious actions. In pardoning, the pardoner takes on or blots out the loss caused by the damaging situation. In many publications, the term forgiveness is used when pardoning may be more accurate.

  • 3. Forgiveness is not condoning, for it does not excuse harmful behavior. It just deals with it.

  • 4. Forgiveness is not forgetting, for deep hurts usually cannot be wiped out of one’s memory.

For many, forgiveness and reconciliation are fully interwoven. Michelle Nelson in Beverly Flanigan’s Exploring Forgiveness suggests three degrees of forgiveness, namely 1. Detached Forgiveness (a reduction of negative feelings), 2. Limited Forgiveness (with a partial restoration of relationship), and 3. Full Forgiveness (with full reconciliation).

Another way to categorize forgiveness, suggested by Klimes is with the ABCs of Forgiveness as A) Attitude of Forgiveness that deals mainly with the attitude of the forgiver (love without revenge), not the actions of the offender, B) Basic Forgiveness that includes reconciliation, and C) Consequential Forgiveness or pardoning that deals with the offender making restitution or the forgiver paying for or erasing the consequences of the damaging behavior (Not all forgiveness is consequential: a forgiven alcoholic may still die of cirrhosis of the liver). There cannot be Consequential Forgiveness without Basic Forgiveness. This website deals with Basic Forgiveness.

Explore case studies in forgiveness:

Go to and further explore the subject of forgiveness.


9.Cognitive, Emotional and Spiritual Forgiveness

The following is based on a chapter by Richard Fitzgibbons, MD, in Exploring Forgiveness, (ISBN 0-299-15770-9), pp 65-67, Some individuals will go through all 3 levels, others only through some of them.

A. In cognitive forgiveness, victims study their pain and make a conscious decision to forgive. They may follow the 5 Steps of Forgiveness in order to continue a relationship.

B. In emotional forgiveness, the victims feels with the offender’s struggle and develops some empathy for him or her. This often takes time. They may follow the 5 Steps of Forgiveness because they feel the offenders pain.

C. Spiritual forgiveness utilizes an approach similar to that used in the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Victims may follow the 5 Steps of Forgiveness because they cannot let go on their own. They may utilize phrases such as:

  • “I am powerless over my anger and cannot forgive, thus I want to turn it over to God.”
  • “Justice and revenge belong to God.”
  • “God forgive him or her, I can’t.”
  • “God free me from my anger and help me forgive.”

The 5 Steps in Forgiveness according to Ephesians 4:31-32:
Acknowledge anger and bar revenge:

  1. Let all bitterness, wrath and anger
  2. and clamor and slander (and thought of revenge) be put away from you, along with all malice.
    Consider the offender’s perspective, accept the hurt, extend compassion:
  3. Be kind to one another, (while considering the other’s perspective),
  4. gentle and tender-hearted (and accepting the hurt),
  5. forgiving each other just as God in Christ has forgiven you (with compassion).

Thoughts from Nancy Miller:

True forgiveness isn’t me self-righteously looking down at you and saying “I forgive you” while I’m thinking “you can’t help being the jerk or stupid idiot that you are.”  It is letting God deal with the problem and the person.  It is saying “I forgive you and I will always forgive you for it is not for me to stress over.  I love you because God has given me this love and I will not let resentment damage my relationship with you or God.”  Forgiveness is an outgrowth of unconditional love.  

 Donald Barnhouse writes:

To see God in all things, both good and evil, enables us to forgive those who injure us. It does not incline us to condone their fault, for they act as freely as if God had no part at all. But we can forgive and pray for them, as slaves to their own passions, enemies to their own welfare and real, though unwitting, benefactors to our souls.

Karl Menninger, the famed psychiatrist, once said that if he could convince the patients in psychiatric hospitals that their sins were forgiven, 75 percent of them could walk out the next day!

One of the best studies on spiritual forgiveness concerns the Prodigal Son, found in Luke 15:11-32. In accepting God’s love humbly, the father in the story also took on God’s forgiveness and then just naturally reflected that attitude of forgiveness to his prodigal son.


10. Forgiveness Research

A Model of Forgiveness

A Model of Forgiveness: Theory Formulations and Research Implications. By  Johnson, Karen Alexandria, 1986


A literature review revealed little empirical research on forgiveness, suggesting the need for a model of forgiveness. The work of both E. M. Pattison and L. B. Smedes was used as a foundation upon which a model was developed involving a four-stage decision making process.

The four stages of forgiveness are awareness, change, interaction, and reconciliation. Movement through the stages is made by four consecutive decisions and can be viewed from either the victim’s or the offender’s perspective. The four decisions relate to judgment, vulnerability, intimacy, and trust-building. The first stage of awareness requires a decision of judgment about the violation that occurred. In the second stage, the person who is aware of the violation and its effects on the relationship decides whether to take steps to change the relationship. If the decision is made to undo negative effects, the person can move on to stage three where internal processes become dyadic processes. The decision to be intimate is the basis of this interaction stage. After all three decisions have been made constructively for forgiveness, the decision of trust-building can be made and the fourth stage, reconciliation, can occur. If, at stage two, a decision is made not to acknowledge or deal with the violation, a course of false forgiveness is taken, involving the four stages of denial, superficial acceptance, continued hurt, and deterioration of the relationship.

Receiving Forgiveness as an Exercise in Moral Education

Receiving Forgiveness as an Exercise in Moral Education. By Gassin, Elizabeth A., 1997


Research on interpersonal forgiveness has blossomed in counseling and moral education. The impact of receiving interpersonal forgiveness from another–the foreswearing of revenge and resentment toward a person who has hurt us–is examined here. Most theory and research in developmental, counseling, and educational psychology suggest that the experience of receiving forgiveness should have positive benefits, while research in the related area of social psychology tempers such optimism.

 To test the effects of forgiveness, 205 college students from a small, church-affiliated four-year liberal arts college completed instruments that measured forgiveness, self-esteem, social desirability, and religious style. Results indicate that correlations between forgiveness outcomes and demographic variables were weak. The most interesting correlation between forgiveness outcomes and relationship variables involved the perceived quality of forgiveness offered, the nature of the relationship before the offense, and the degree of pain caused, suggesting that offering forgiveness in a manner that is loving and un-coercive is important if one wants to induce positive change in the offender and the relationship.

Forgiveness as a Psychological Antecedent of Perceived Parental Nurturance

Forgiveness as a Psychological Antecedent of Perceived Parental Nurturance. By Buri, John R; And Others, 1989


While forgiveness has long been a crucial concept in the churches’ formulations for the establishment and the preservation of spiritual, social, and emotional health, consideration of forgiveness by psychology pales in comparison. Research is needed to identify the psychological factors in mothers and fathers which serve as antecedents of the nurturance which they provide their children.

In this study, college students (N=111) were asked to assess the nurturance they had received from their mothers and their fathers using a Likert scale. Scale items included “I am an important person in my mother’s eyes;” “My mother expresses her warmth and affection for me;” and “My mother is generally cold and removed when I am with her.” The parents of the student participants responded to a forced-choice forgiveness scale with items such as “I am a very forgiving person, ready and willing to forgive anyone who has wronged me.” The results suggest a strong relationship between self-reported forgiveness by parents and the degree of parental nurturance reported by their adolescent children. Mothers and fathers who reported the least level of forgiveness were appraised as having rendered significantly less nurturance than other parents.

(Source for all abstracts )

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