What Forgiveness Is

August 4th, 2015 / 6 Comments

In my previous essay, I talked about what forgiveness is not. Now let me talk about what it is.

As I write this, I’m aware that I can’t cover all topics related to forgiveness. And I’m aware that I speak primarily from my own experience, aided by my interpretation of the wisdom found in Scripture, religious and moral traditions, and scientific research, especially in psychology. I definitely have much to learn. But I want to share what I have found helpful.

What Forgiveness Is Not

Let me begin by recapping some ideas from my previous essay, “What Forgiveness is Not.”

In that essay, I said that forgiveness does not require that we forget the harm done. I reject the idea that we must forgive and forget.

Forgiveness does not mean that we must feel warm fuzzy feelings toward those who have hurt us. Forgiveness does not mean excusing the wrongdoing. We who have been hurt also do not need to believe our pain is part of God’s plan.

I also said that forgiveness does not mean complacency or passivity. Instead, forgivers are activists. They repay evil with good. We can be angry at the harm done and yet still forgive the harm doers.

Forgiveness is not reconciliation either, because reconciliation requires that all estranged parties be united. We can forgive even when those who have harmed us think their actions were justified.

Finally, I said that forgivers don’t need to wait for those who have harmed them to express regret. If such waiting were required, those harmed would remain at the mercy of the harm doers.

Love is the Heart of ForgivenessIMG_6087 (2)

There is no common definition of forgiveness in the scholarly literature. But there are a number of characteristic aspects of how definition is discussed, and those can help us understand what it means to forgive.

As I see it, forgiveness is a form of love. At its core, love involves promoting well-being. It encourages flourishing, positivity, and abundant life. Love advances the efforts of healing, health, and wholeness. Simply put: Love does good.[1]

While love takes many forms, forgiveness is a form of love that means intentionally acting to do good to those who have harmed us. Forgiveness usually involves a pardoning statement of some kind and subsequent actions that treat well or wish wellness to those who have treated us poorly. It also typically involves a change from negative attitudes or emotions to positive ones.

Jesus said love does not repay evil with evil. Instead, those who love repay evil with good. That’s what forgiveness does: it expresses goodness in response to evil or harm.

Incidentally, I define agape as a kind of love that promotes well-being in response to actions that promote ill-being. Agape love chooses not to retaliate against those who have done injury. In other words, agape repays evil with good.[2]

As I see it, agape and forgiveness are closely related.

The Ability to Forgive Comes from God

I believe the power to forgive comes from God, whether we believe in deity or not. God not only calls us all to forgive, I believe God empowers us all to forgive. Just as we love because God first loved us, I think we can forgive because God first forgives us. I think some people love and forgive without consciously being aware that their ability to do so comes from God.

In recent days, I have repeatedly asked God to empower me to forgive those who have harmed my family, my colleagues, my friends, and me. Many have asked me for advice on forgiveness. My wife and I have talked much about what forgiveness requires. “Forgiveness” is a frequent topic of discussion in my house right now!

I believe that God calls me to forgive in the manner God has forgiven others and me. God is in the goodness business. And forgiveness brings the goodness of healing, wholeness, and health – in a variety of ways – to a world of hurt, pain, and suffering.[3]

Give gives us the ability to forgive. And forgiving as God forgives allows us to live life to the fullest.

How Do We Forgive?

So… what does it take forgive those who harm us?

Often the first step in forgiving is simply deciding to forgive. Deciding to forgive means acting for the good of those who have been bad to us. It means wishing them well in our thoughts and actions.

Forgiveness does not seek revenge. It does not harbor bitterness or resentment, but it deals with those negative feelings when they arise. Forgiveness is not vindictive. It consciously chooses to do right to those who have done us wrong.

Saying, “I forgive,” just once is seldom sufficient. Our thoughts and emotions often bring us back to the hurt. We must frequently say, “I forgive,” to deal with painful thoughts and emotions.

I repeatedly decide to forgive. I often say to myself and to others than I forgive those who harm me. Like an athlete who practices her sport so that the sport becomes second nature, I practice forgiveness in the hope that it becomes second nature to me.

Fortunately, the more times we decide to forgive, the more we talk about forgiveness, and when we participate in communities that promote forgiveness, the likelier we will be to choose to forgive when we are hurt. Strong habits of forgiveness make us the kind of people who find forgiveness normal.

The Emotions of Forgiveness

Deciding to forgive, in a moment or in a long series of instances, is usually also accompanied by a second step. This second step is sometimes more difficult and often not entirely within our ability to control.[4] The second step involves transforming our emotions.

Transforming our emotions rarely occurs overnight. Transformation takes time. But forgiveness research and various religious and moral traditions tell us how to replace the negative emotions we experience when hurt with positive emotions of health and healing.

Interestingly, those who forgive typically reap greater benefits – e.g., improved physical health, improved psychological health, and improved social/relational health – than the perpetrators of harm they forgive. Bitterness, cynicism, and hatred plague those who choose unforgiveness. Unforgiving people live wearisome and anemic lives. Forgiving people can live life fully.


We can deal with negative emotions and thereby have a change of heart when we empathize with the perpetrator of our pain.[5] To empathize is to feel the feelings of others. Empathizing involves identifying with the other person’s basic humanity.

Empathizing often involves placing ourselves in that person’s shoes, thinking about that person’s own history and motivations. When we empathize, we see those who have hurt us as broken, insecure, and injured persons themselves. We also try to see the world from their perspective. This helps us understand their motivations a little, without requiring us to justify or condone when they have done.

This point is so important I want to emphasize it: When we empathize with perpetrators of evil, we need not approve or endorse the evils done. We can feel repelled, repulsed, and angry at the pain they have caused. But in empathy, our “hearts go out” to those who have been hurtful. We seek to understand them and their lives in some redemptive way.

The process of empathizing with those who perpetrate evil often involves admitting that we too have harmed others. We have also sinned. We should humbly admit that at times in our lives we have caused harm to others.

Perhaps our sins have not been as awful as the sins of others. Perhaps our victims are less hurt than we have been. But we also need to be forgiven. We all sometimes hurt others.

Helping Others Who Hurt

Finally, countless examples suggest that those who forgive well often work to help others who are hurting. Turning inward and becoming entirely self-focused often leads to depression. But reaching out to others is a powerful act that helps us and those we want to help.

I’ve been moved in powerful ways by the stories found in the book/film, Half the Sky. In fact, I have often shown the DVD in my NNU classes on love.

Half the Sky addresses the evils done to women around the world. One episode features Somaly Mam, a woman sold as a sex slave at a very young age. Mam escaped her hell on earth, however, and now rescues other young girls from the sex trade. She speaks about the pain she endured, her work, and forgiveness:

“This pain never leaves me,” says Mam, “I have lived my life day by day, with love and forgiveness, and the belief that helping others could give them voice and choice and create change.”[6]

The old saying “It is better to give than to receive” has a portion of truth in it. We can and should work toward our self-help and self-healing. But often the best way to find help and healing for ourselves is to seek help and healing for others.


Forgiveness most often occurs in community. This community can come in the form of a wise friend or professional counselor. It can come in the form of a small accountability group or caring friendship. Books and other literature can channel this community that encourages forgiveness.

Some of the most powerful communities seek not just to help their own people deal with evil and pain. They help those outside their communities. They seek to cooperate with God to heal themselves and the world.

At its best, the Church are a people who forgive. They foster an environment that promotes forgiveness. At its best, the Church helps those outside it to discover the benefit of living lives of forgiveness.


In my own situation, I am choosing to forgive. I choose to forgive various people who have hurt me in the past weeks, months, and years.

My choice to forgive is one I repeat often. I repeat in my mind or aloud my commitment to forgive. I repeat my commitment to forgive when additional harm is done. I repeat my commitment when hurtful memories invade my mind or negative emotions press upon me.

I also try to empathize with those who have hurt others and me. I accept their humanity, complete with its ignorance and limitations. I remember the harm I have done to others. This helps dissipate some of the negative emotions I feel toward those who hurt me.

In my forgiving, I also seek to be active in helpful ways. I try to help others who have also been hurt. Forgiveness combats injustice and tries to change structures that do harm. It repays evil with good.

To forgive is to love. Among other reasons, I forgive because I want to imitate a forgiving God by my living a life of love that resembles the loving life Jesus lived. (Eph. 5:1).

I chose to forgive. And I am continuing to choose forgiveness as I seek to live a life of love.



[1] Love is defined in various ways. In this blog, I will not take the time to defend my understanding of love. I offer my defense and definition of love in many books, but I especially recommend my book, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2010).

[2] I explore in depth the meaning of agape in Defining Love and in The Nature of Love: A Theology (St. Louis, Mo.: Chalice, 2010).

[3] See my book, The Nature of Love, for more on this issue.

[4] I am grateful to my NNU colleague, Joseph Bankard, for teaching me about the relative lack of control we have over our emotions when forgiving. See his current work titled, “Forgiveness as Process and Virtue: How to Overcome Feelings of Anger and Resentment.”

[5] For a very helpful book on forgiveness research and on how to forgive and seek reconciliation, see Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope, by Everett L. Worthington, Jr. This is a revised edition of his previous book, Five Steps to Forgiveness.

[6] Simon Marks, “Somaly Mam: The Holy Saint (and Sinner) of Sex Trafficking,” Newsweek  5/21/2014. http://www.newsweek.com/2014/05/30/somaly-mam-holy-saint-and-sinner-sex-trafficking-251642.html Accessed 8/1/15

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Gerald D. Moran

I really find it helpful to empathize, to remind my to choose to forgive, and to choose to forgive over time. Thank you, Prof. Oord.

Todd Holden

You previously stated that when we forgive, we do not simply forget the wrong. It is good and necessary to remember the wrong so as not to repeat it ourselves in the future.

Here you say that, “We who have been hurt also do not need to believe our pain is part of God’s plan.” My question is what are we to do with the hurt? I think of this especially in regard to the professional hurt that has been done to me and my own family.

When I was ordained a General stood before me and told me that because of my position as an ordained elder in the Church the Nazarene more was required and expected of me. I do not disagree with this in the slightest. BUT, when a leader has perpetrated the harm the hurt, for me at least, is even greater. What do I do with the hurt? How do I explain it to my family? How do I reckon it with the mantle of responsibility that was laid upon me, since I believe that at least, and I think even more, of a burden of responsibility is upon the shoulders who are in leadership over us?

The pat answers of, “Trust God” “Just believe” “Give it to God” do not seem enough in this instance. Even thinking that God will work it all out in the end does not seem as if it is enough in light of what was demanded of me as an ordained elder of the Church of the Nazarene. I expected more from myself, demanding it of myself even. Should there not be something more here?


I do not think there is a person in this world, if they live long enough, at some point in their life will have to ask for forgiveness or ask to be forgiven. Rarely is anyone completely innocent in what prompted the situation calling for an apology. This is an unpleasant fact. How one deal’s with it is another matter? One can become bitter, or look for the good that might come out of it. The latter is without doubt the hardest; it can lead to defeat or make one a stronger person, the choice is theirs to make.

No doubt most of us have an unpleasant situation to tell that was unexpected, especially from whom it came from as Todd mentioned. However, thank God the final chapter has not been written on what the future holds to those who Trust God. I am reminded the story of Job and what Job went through especially the end of how God blessed him for his faithfulness despite his circumstances. The Apostle Paul gave us some good advice when we encounter difficult issues of forgiveness (1 Corinthians 13: 1-11). I wish you the best.


One of the most beautiful (and life-giving) books I’ve read on forgiveness is “The Book of Forgiveness” by Desmond and Mpho Tutu. I find it tremendously helpful as a practical guide for acknowledging and transforming emotions/attitudes in an experiential way that honors our humanity.

I stumbled upon your work as I study and search in a process of faith deconstruction. Thinkers/writers/teachers like you have helped me hold on to faith even when my religious scaffolding falls apart.

Jim McReynolds

Good word on forgiveness.


Thanks for your good post, Todd. A good answer would required thousands of words! Here are a few words instead…

In my view, dealing with the hurt takes time. Emotional healing is rarely if ever an overnight phenomenon. But there are things we can do to expedite the healing, including counseling.

When those in leadership act wrongly, we must consider how best to respond. Often, the appropriate response is to ask such leaders to step out of their leadership roles. Unfortunately, I have found that those with the ability to ask such leaders to step down often are afraid to do so.

I hope these brief words help in some way!

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