- What is the real nature of forgiveness?
- Can animals forgive?
- Is forgiveness difficult because people think it is weakness to forgive?
- Is forgiveness only good for society or does it bring healing and mental wellbeing to us when we forgive?
- Does behavioural science research support this?
- Less stress and hostility
- Lower blood pressure
- Fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety and chronic pain
- Lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse
The Meaning of Forgiveness
What does forgiveness mean? Typically it means ceasing to demand restorative justice. If I forgive, I stop demanding a tit for tat punishment for the person, who has “wronged” me (as I perceive it). If I get an apology and witness visible signs of repentance, the task of forgiveness becomes easier. In fact, then I am socially and morally obligated to forgive the other person.
Is forgiveness a part of the order of nature?
Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the copyright of humans.
They are very common among animals, especially dogs, birds, monkeys, chimpanzees and other primates. It is common to see animals forgiving humans after being treated badly. The human track record against animals is not so lofty overall. Many religions have the concept of animal sacrifice, where humans take animals, slaughter them ritually and sacrifice them to their deity to atone for sins, hoping for boons or protection etc. (for the humans).
In Christianity, Jesus sets a personal example of forgiving by praying for his crucifiers "And Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.'" Luke 23: 34.
In Islam, the Holy Quran defines true believers or Muslims as persons who avoid gross sins and vice, and when angered they forgive (Qur’an 42:37).
Judaism is more precise in the matter of forgiveness. Not God but humans forgive us our transgressions against them. In the Tefila Zaka prayer just before Yom Kippur, humans pray for God to influence others to forgive us and not directly wipe the slate clean “…so may You grant me grace in the eyes of others, that they too forgive me absolutely."
In Buddhism, Avalokiteshwara is the embodiment of compassion. Buddhism goes directly to the mechanism of how forgiveness is a release of negative thoughts, seen as impediments to spiritual growth, harmony, peace and our own wellbeing.
The ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata echoes this sentiment.
"There is one only defect in forgiving persons; that defect is that people take a forgiving person to be weak. That defect, however, should not be taken into consideration, for forgiveness is a great power. Forgiveness is a virtue of the weak, and an ornament of the strong… What can a wicked person do unto him who carries the sabre of forgiveness in his hand? Fire falling on the grassless ground is extinguished of itself. And unforgiving individual defiles himself with many enormities.” (From the Mahabharata, Udyoga Parva Section XXXIII).
The four phases of forgiveness are
- Uncovering – Awareness of the pain resulting from deep and unjust injury.
- Decision – Realization that focussing on the injury and injurer prolongs misery. A change of heart happens and giving up intention of revenge is vital here.
- Work – New way of seeing how things transpired. Though not thinking as deserving the “injury” but understanding how the “injurer’s” actions are human failings. Can maintain goodwill to the “injurer” without reconciliation.
- Outcome/Deepening phase – Finding meaning in own suffering and seeing how forgiveness has brought emotional relief and healing.
Is this the same mechanism of forgiveness that Jesus addresses in Mathew 18:21 and 18:22?
“Then Peter came up and asked him, "Lord, how many times may my brother sin against me and I have to forgive him? Seven times?"Jesus said to him, "I tell you, not just seven times, but 77 times!
If 20 steps are too daunting for you, here is a 9-step forgiveness programme.
The Lighter Side of Forgiveness - Quotes
- “It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” Grace Hopper, in "Only the Limits of Our Imagination", interview by Diane Hamblen in U.S. Navy's Chips Ahoy magazine (July 1986)
- “Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much” Oscar Wilde