What is true forgiveness?

We evaluate violations of psychological or physical boundaries in terms of the the amount of injustice perceived. Usually, there is a difference between the way we would like to see the violation resolved (e.g., “I’d like to see him admit to his wrongdoing and ask for my forgiveness”) and what we expect to actually happen (e.g., “He’s uncaring and has no remorse. I expect him to hurt me again”).

More serious violations are the hardest to accept and generally produce an inability to forgive in the wounded party. Unforgiveness is a feeling that encompasses a constellation of negative emotions, such as resentment, bitterness, hostility, hatred, anger, and fear. Over time, and as long as the violation remains unresolved or unforgiven, this feeling attacks a person’s well-being and may end up being more harmful to the wounded party than to the offender. Only true forgiveness can make these emotions go away.

The simplest definition of forgiveness is a mindset that recognizes the violation but chooses to no longer hold it against the offender. This mindset may inspire certain behaviors: in the offender, who may be moved to ask for forgiveness; in the wounded party, who may be communicate forgiveness to the offender; in either party, who may be able to talk to each other about the violation and its forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Whereas forgiveness is a mindset that changes the wounded party’s feelings, reconciliation is the restoration of trust between the two parties. Forgiveness can occur without reconciliation ever taking place.

Researchers distinguish between two types of forgiveness: decisional and emotional. Decisional forgiveness consists of making the decision to change one’s feelings from negative to positive. This decision is made even if the person desires revenge but intentionally chooses to handle the matter in a positive way. Accordingly, decisional forgiveness is not a process: it is a deliberate, conscious, intentional decision to adopt a different mindset. The wounded party may hesitate and even resist making the decision to forgive, for minutes or even for years. When the decision to forgive is made, however, it is final and complete.

Emotional forgiveness may occur at the same time as decisional forgiveness, but generally it does not. The wounded party may forgive decisionally but fail to experience emotional forgiveness. Conversely, the wounded party may try and forgive emotionally without ever making the conscious decision to forgive. Emotional forgiveness is a process that unfolds over time and which generally begins by identifying feelings of unforgiveness and gradually reducing them by replacing them with positive feelings. Emotional forgiveness is not a behavior, inasmuch as it is an intentional replacing of negative unforgiving emotions with positive emotions toward the offender. The most common positive emotions that are involved in this process are understanding, acceptance, empathy, sympathy, compassion, and love.

True forgiveness includes arriving to a point when decisional forgiveness has taken place and the process of emotional forgiveness has been completed.

Forgiveness is at the core of the Christian faith. Jesus’ sacrifice paid the full cost of the injustices against God. God compassionately and lovingly forgives any person who accepts His forgiveness. Jesus tied God’s forgiveness of individual sins to a person’s forgiveness of others (“Forgive our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”) In others words, God commands us decisional forgiveness, but also highly desires our ability to achieve emotional forgiveness.