Illuminating Forgiveness: Opportunities to Learn and Reflect - Part 1

By Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D
March 31, 2022
A member of Templeton’s Forgiveness Scientific Advisory Council shares why it's important to know what it means to forgive and contexts appropriate for forgiveness.
Illuminating Forgiveness

Discover Forgiveness is a joint initiative of the Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) and the John Templeton Foundation (JTF), supported by a Forgiveness Scientific Advisory Council. This council includes representatives from around the world with interdisciplinary expertise in the science of forgiveness and related fields. With the goal of sharing how forgiveness science is interwoven across cultures, contexts, geographies, and traditions, the council has carefully curated the Discover Forgiveness library to make forgiveness research accessible and actionable for people and institutions around the world. In this series of articles, council members offer insight into select pieces of research from the Discover Forgiveness collection.


Illuminating Forgiveness

I was speaking with a friend the other day when she mentioned how forgiving and forgetting are so difficult. I had to quickly jump in and clarify that forgiveness is not the same as forgetting, and forgiving, although healing, does not often lead to forgetting. Although society encourages forgiveness, it does not often share with us what forgiveness looks like, the path to achieve forgiveness, or the benefits of forgiving. As a result, there are many misconceptions surrounding forgiveness and what exactly is involved in the forgiveness process (Freedman & Chang, 2010). These aspects of interpersonal forgiveness are critical and must be included in conservations about forgiving and forgiveness education. As research illustrates, forgiveness has been proven largely advantageous in not only bridging conflicts in society, but also providing the injured with peace, freeing them from the burden of the harm done to them (Akhtar & Barlow, 2016; Wade, Hoyt, Kidwell, & Worthington, 2013). Specifically, if accurately understood and practiced, forgiveness can be healing, leading to increased physical and emotional well-being, for those who have experienced deep hurt (Freedman & Zarifkar, 2015; Worthington & Wade, 2019). 

Discover Forgiveness

A major goal of Templeton’s Forgiveness Scientific Advisory Council is to help make forgiveness more accessible and understandable to individuals in the general population. Our recent focus is to educate frontline workers, those who work directly with individuals who may benefit from learning more about forgiveness, using DiscoverForgiveness.orgThis website was developed with the purpose of sharing resources and information about forgiveness and the scientific study of forgiveness in relation to four specific questions: What is forgiveness?; How does forgiveness happen?; What can forgiveness do?; and How is forgiveness measured? Researchers have been investigating these questions with various populations and cultures throughout the world (Worthington & Wade, 2019). The Discover Forgiveness website shares articles focused on these four questions and the findings reported in the studies.

This brief 2-part blog post focuses on the questions, “What is forgiveness? and “How does forgiveness happen?  Several of the articles included in the Discover Forgiveness website and other resources are referenced to highlight some of the most critical points regarding what forgiveness means and looks like from a psychological perspective; the process of forgiveness as outlined in one popular model of forgiveness; and the benefits of forgiving.

Knowledge about forgiveness can go a long way in helping individuals make the choice to forgive as well as help them in their forgiveness journey, ultimately creating healthier and more peaceful individuals and societies (Lee & Enright, 2019; Toussaint, Peddle, Cheadle, Sellu, & Luskin, 2010).

As stated by a college student in my interpersonal forgiveness class:

I think I am surprised that to this day, I actually haven't had a therapist help me with the forgiveness process--which is why I personally want to help others start the process. I believe that forgiveness does help the one who does the forgiving. I personally have seen how my attitude towards the offender that caused me pain has shifted now that I have worked through accepting the pain. For example, I see the person in a different light. I know the difference because I am no longer seeking subtle revenge against the person, and I am beginning to wish the person well.” (Personal communication, March 2022).

Common Misconceptions about Forgiveness

Common misconceptions about forgiveness that may prevent individuals from choosing to forgive include the ideas that one cannot forgive unless they receive an apology from the offender and that forgiveness automatically leads to reconciliation (Freedman & Zarifkar, 2015; North, 1987). An apology and admittance of wrongdoing may be an important requirement for reconciliation, but forgiveness is something one can do all on their own, for their own well-being, without any response from the offender.

Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting, and forgiving, although healing, does not often lead to forgetting.

 

Forgiveness can lead to reconciliation between the injured party and the offender, but it does not have to (Hughes & Warmke, 2010). Requiring an apology before one can forgive places one’s healing in the hands of the offender. Apologies make forgiving easier, but they are not necessary, and they don’t always occur. We are only in control of our own actions, not the offender’s. Reconciliation is not always possible or wise. In contrast to forgiveness, reconciliation is dependent on some action from the offender (Freedman & Chang, 2010). One can still forgive for their own healing, even if reconciliation is not possible.

Defining Forgiveness

For individuals to choose to forgive, they first need to know what it means to forgive and contexts appropriate for forgiveness. (Freedman & Zarifkar, 2015). Forgiveness occurs in the context of deep, personal and unfair hurt, in contrast to everyday annoyances (Smedes, 1996). Forgiveness is accomplished when one experiences a decrease in negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward an offender, and perhaps, over time, a gradual increase in positive thoughts, feelings, and sometimes behaviors may occur (Freedman & Zarifkar, 2015; Záhorcová, Enright, & Halama, 2021). However, forgiveness is more than just letting go of anger, hatred, and revengeful thoughts and/or behaviors, it also includes accepting the offender’s humanity and value as a person, despite their hurtful actions (Freedman & Enright, 2017).  Roberts (Roberts, 1995) discusses forgiveness as a moral virtue, in contrast to a self-help strategy, as forgiveness encourages one to recognize the inherent worth of all human beings, including one’s offender. Viewing the offender and offense in context helps one develop empathy and compassion and the understanding that the offender is more than their worst action. This process often takes time, and forgiveness is not a shortcut to healing (Wade, Hoyt, Kidwell, & Worthington, 2013). One of the most popular models of forgiveness was developed by Enright & the Human Development Study Group (1991).

In Part 2 of this piece (forthcoming) we’ll take a look at Enright’s four-phase process model of forgiveness, and will also reflect on the benefits of forgiveness.


Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D is a Professor of Human Development in the Educational Psychology, Foundations, and Leadership Studies department at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She was the recipient of the APA Dissertation Award in 1993 for her groundbreaking research on forgiveness and incest survivors, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. She has been studying the topic of forgiveness for over 30 years and her publications focus on the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness and forgiveness education with children, adolescents, and adults. Suzanne Freedman also teaches a class on The Psychology of Interpersonal Forgiveness at UNI and is the recent author of the curriculum, The Courage to Forgive: Educating Elementary School Children About Forgiveness.

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