Forgive? Yes. Reconcile? Maybe.
A TODAY story by Rebecca Ruiz has a headline that reads, “How do you forgive a killer? A mother moves past tragedy?” A powerful photo shows Mary Johnson hugging Oshea Israel—the man who murdered her son. The story includes other examples of people who suffered major hurts but found their way to forgiveness.
Last week I referred to the CNNblog about the Piers Morgan interview with Rick and Kay Warren. I wrote about attributions and coping with loss. But there’s more. There’s a story about forgiveness. But not reconciliation.
Rick “One of the hard things was forgiving the person who sold him the gun... Because I didn't want to forgive him.”
Kay “I don't want to be tied to that person emotionally for the rest of my life”
FORGIVENESS AND RELIGION
Most religions include guidance about relationships and a part of that guidance includes the repair of damaged relationships. In the Christian tradition, forgiveness comes from God. And people are expected to draw upon that love-motivated forgiveness to forgive others. Indeed, Christians view forgiveness as a mandate (Matthew 18: 21-22).
FORGIVENESS IS LETTING GO
Christian and secular psychologists have conducted numerous studies and offer guidance to the general public as well as counselors. Forgiveness is letting go of the painful, anger-inducing memories that motivate thoughts or even plans for revenge. Hurt people not only avoid the people who hurt them but also avoid dealing with their painful memories. As a consequence, a grudge state ensues and traps the unforgiving person in their past. They are bound to the hurtful person. They are not free. The goal --help people let go of the past—let go of the memories—the feelings, thoughts, and avoidance so they can be free to focus on the present and the future.
Unforgiveness binds people to their offender.
FORGIVENESS IS NOT…
Researchers like Ev Worthington and Robert Enright have made the point that forgiveness is not condoning, denying, excusing, forgetting or pardoning an offender. When researchers offer such guidance it is because they hope to straighten out confused thinking that can become barriers to forgiveness. It is so easy to hold on to the past and so hard to let go. We naturally demand justice. Some think we “let a person off the hook” with forgiveness. But that’s not what forgiveness means.
When victims forgive, they receive release from the pain.
And the power the offender had over them.
QUICK FORGIVENESS MAY BITE BACK
But now I wonder if psychologists have done too good of a job of convincing people to let go. Here’s what I mean. If we brush off the past too quickly and move ahead, we can buy trouble. What kind of trouble? A quick assessment that does not dig deeply to identify the hurts can leave some ugly diseased memories that will come back the next time some story or other trigger causes the emotional pain to flare up. Avoid the setback caused by quick and surface forgiveness. We need to take time to assess the damage in detail and be sure we have released the anger. People need to get their "pound of flesh," says my friend, psychologist, Grant Jones. I’m not saying people have to see a psychotherapist— people just need to be sure to get at the heart of the pain and truly let it go. Indeed, some psychotherapy sessions get pretty intense following a major hurt. Powerful emotions can appear when therapists help clients express deep seated anger as if talking to the offender or writing a letter-- a letter that one should never mail. But hurtful experiences are different and people respond in different ways. Some people are more sensitive than others. So a major hurt for one person may be less for another. Assessing the hurt is an individual thing.
FORGIVE AND MAKE UP RIGHT?
The confusion over forgiveness and reconciliation continues. Psychologists insist forgiveness happens inside a person. Forgiveness is for our health and well-being. It frees us up. It is personal and does not involve the person who hurt us. That works well when the offender is dead but when the offender is part of our family or workplace then what? If you are a religious person—do you really think your faith teaches you to just forgive and not interact with that person ever again? I admit that it makes good sense to work on forgiveness—letting go of that horrid set of thoughts and feelings that are disturbing. But a lot of people believe forgiveness means you have to interact with the offender—at least tell the person you forgave them. I think this is a big part of the problem for a lot of people. The problem is the confusion over forgiving and reconciling.
FORGIVENESS MEANS RECONCILING—to some
In 2000, a researcher, Jason Kanz, reported that most of his college student sample thought forgiveness included reconciliation.
I have some more data. I admit it isn’t much but two graduate students, Jaimée Allman and Jennifer Krause helped me get some answers. One of the questions we asked two groups of people was:
“I think true forgiveness means you also reconcile with the person who offended you.”
We asked people to indicate their agreement or disagreement. And here are the numbers. In one sample (Christian university),72.2% agreed with the statement. In the other sample (community college), 81.9% agreed.
So, in the minds of a lot of people forgiveness is bound up with reconciliation. My take is it will be hard for people to forgive abusers and murderers if they believe they must also reconcile with the offender. And when many people write about forgiveness, they often report on acts of reconciliation and do not separate the acts of forgiveness and reconciliation.
LIFE AND DEATH
Reconciliation can be a matter of life and death. Forgiving an abusive person is a good idea. Let go of the past and move on. But reconciling with a person who has not changed and will likely continue on a path of violence is dangerous. This is the common sense behind the idea of separating the two concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation. Let go of the hurt. But assess the risk of harm before reconciling with an offender. Sometimes we need someone else to help us be objective.
VICTIMS OF LOVE
So most scholars agree, Christians are expected to forgive others—even multiple times. There is no similar mandate to reconcile. But I suspect the common belief many hold that forgiveness entails reconciliation has to do with the command to love others. Love motivates forgiveness. Love of others motivates a movement toward others. Love leads to reconciliation. Now love can bind people to others in a faith community for the good of all. I get that. In communities where’s there’s good faith and plenty of trust, it is a good idea to forgive inwardly and look at the offender in a new way. But wisdom surely sets boundaries. Those who seek to abuse and destroy others cannot be in the same community as long as they remain bent on destruction. It seems so obvious—until you see people working to love and forgive and being re-victimized by those who prey upon the vulnerable. So I write,
Forgive? Yes! Reconcile? Maybe.
Mary Johnson hugging Oshea Israel, beautiful.
But not all stories end that way.
A book for a general audience by Robert Enright Forgiveness is a Choice
A book for Christians by Ev Worthington, Forgiving and Reconciling.
[Disclosure: Ev Worthington is a friend. I do not know Robert Enright. I do not receive funds for these recommendations.]
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SourcesKanz, J. E. (2000). How do people conceptualize and use forgiveness? The forgiveness attitudes questionnaire. Counseling & Values, 44, 174-189.
Sutton, G. W. (2010). The Psychology of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration: Integrating Traditional and Pentecostal Theological Perspectives with Psychology. In M. Mittelstadt & G. W. Sutton (eds). Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration: Multidisciplinary studies from a Pentecostal perspective. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications. http://wipfandstock.com/pickwick_publications
Sutton, G. W. & Mittelstadt, M. W. (2012). Loving God and loving others: Learning about love from psychological science and Pentecostal perspectives. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 31, 157-166.
Worthington, E. L. (2006). Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and application. New York, NY: Routledge.