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Letters on Forgiveness

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Headlined to H3 8/24/09

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My dear friend, Lucy, has been corresponding with me on the nature of forgiveness. One might reasonably ask what there is to talk about. You either forgive someone or don't. You either get forgiven or you don't.

And that is true on the most concrete level. But there are other levels, ones which we have been debating for a couple of weeks, now. What is forgiveness? What does it depend on? What impact does it have on Justice and vice versa? And what about Truth? How does that affect both the nature of forgiveness and our ability to extend or receive it?

She has said that forgiveness is a phenomenon that by definition must be relegated to the personal. I have implied that it may be offered on a larger scale, e.g., nation to nation. Thus far, we have agreed to disagree.

Recently she sent me this excerpt from an article by Father Schall:

"But it all depends on the willingness of the one who caused the injustices to repent and ask forgiveness. This is the divine limit. God cannot create man free and then take it away and leave the same being in existence. If this forgiveness is not in some way asked, even God can do nothing but pursue justice""

So, I wrote back explaining my sense that there is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation although the latter cannot happen without the former. In order to reconcile with another person, or nation-to-nation, there must be a formal humbling, a repentance, a request for forgiveness. This is basic common sense. You can't reconcile with someone who's still intent upon harming you. And you can't "make nice" (diplomatic reconciliation) with a nation-state whose mission it is to annhilate your nation-state.

However"forgiveness is another matter. It does not need the reconciliation to take place. Forgiveness, as I have come to define it (mostly by virtue of my work as a psychotherapist with victims of trauma) is a letting go, a release of hatred, resentment, hurt, and rage. And it can occur without any hope of reconciliation with the perpetrator. Indeed, where there is recovery (of any kind--abuse, alcoholism, abandonment, etc"), there is forgiveness. I told her that we can exact justice (as opposed to revenge) or set limits or hold people accountable for their behavior and still forgive them.

In fact, if we are to remain sane and attempt to grow in some relationship with God, it is absolutely necessary.

She is absolutely right when she says that someone who is to be forgiven must ask for forgiveness and mean it sincerely. Recently Michael Vick, the sociopath who beat and brutalized and killed puppies for entertainment and money, had a press conference and publicly "apologized." He smiled and glittered throughout the entire scandalous waste of our time. He adored the attention, delighted in every camera turned his way. The reporter interviewing him at some time during the mini-documentary nodded his head with a solemnity that was either pure show or pure stupidity. I've been a holisticpsychotherapist and crisis counselorfor more than twenty years and I've learned to read faces fairly well. There was no doubt that the man neither wanted forgiveness nor felt in any way repentant. There was no doubt that he merited serious consequences for his behavior. (Far more, in my opinion, than he got.) And there was no doubt that justic was poorly served. Can we be reconciled with a man like that? No. Is he trustworthy? No. Would I leave a full-grown dog in his presence, no less a puppy? Never. Ultimately, should I forgive him even if he never asks for it and never deserves it?

I think so.


Because it heals us. Because it keeps us just and prevents us from taking out our rage on someone like him and calling it "justice" instead of the vengeance that it really is. Because it brings us just one step closer to what God has called us to do, to love more like Him.

I have a hard time with it, especially with sociopaths like Vick. I'd like to see people like that shipped off to the farthest asteroid and left there. But I also know that wishing him ejected into the vacuum of space is a dark part of me speaking, clamoring for some way to let off steam and pain. It never helps. It doesn't bring back anything or anyone that was lost and chips away at our own souls in a way so subtle we don't recognize the damage until it is too late.

I want to state clearly that I am not a pascifist. I wish I were that evolved, but truly I love being alive and I would be willing to fight to stay that way. And God help the brute who tried to hurt my dogs. I know I would be hard to restrain. I believe strongly, though, that forgiveness does not necessitate the laying down of arms or the passive submission to a bully.

What it might mean, what I hope it means, is that we can be pure of heart even when we do what is necessary in this world. And if that means removing an imminent threat so lives are saved, so be it.


Judith Acosta is a licensed psychotherapist, author, and speaker. She is also a classical homeopath based in New Mexico. She is the author of The Next Osama (2010), co-author of The Worst is Over (2002), the newly released Verbal First Aid (more...)
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means you first have to forgive thyself. - I did ... by Mark Sashine on Tuesday, Aug 25, 2009 at 8:52:34 AM
Dear Mark, that was well said. That is the definit... by Judith Acosta on Tuesday, Aug 25, 2009 at 8:55:44 AM
People who have earned hatred deserve to be forgot... by John Hanks on Tuesday, Aug 25, 2009 at 1:17:36 PM
I thought that statement was right on. At the very... by Judith Acosta on Tuesday, Aug 25, 2009 at 1:22:35 PM
It reminds me of Joseph J. Adamson's discussion on... by Ruth on Tuesday, Aug 25, 2009 at 8:17:47 PM
Dear Ruth,That was beautifully said. This was the ... by Judith Acosta on Wednesday, Aug 26, 2009 at 9:39:46 AM
This "forgiveness" BS smacks of some kind of "mora... by Bryan Emmel on Wednesday, Aug 26, 2009 at 2:18:05 AM
I much prefer Judith's views, and Joseph's views (... by Sarah Morgan on Wednesday, Aug 26, 2009 at 6:35:27 PM