Forgiveness Therapy: The Healing of the Self

By Fr. Divya Paul –

1. Therapeutic Forgiveness

Forgiveness is the dealing with another person’s offense in a helpful manner. One definition of therapeutic forgiveness is then the handling of another person’s inappropriate and harmful deeds in such a way so that it helps the forgiver (the person who forgives, the injured party) find healing and wellness.

Paul Coleman defines forgiveness as the decision to offer love to someone who has betrayed that love. Robert D. Enright and Joanna North define forgiveness as giving up resentment and vengeance and fostering compassion on the inflictor of pain. Claire Frazier-Yzaguirre wrote: “When we forgive, we free ourselves from the bitter ties that bind us to the one who hurt us.”

“Forgiveness is the key that can unshackle us from a past that will not rest in the grave of things over and done with. As long as our minds are captive to the memory of having been wronged, they are not free to wish for reconciliation with the one who wronged us.” Lewis B. Smedes

2. Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Forgiveness is best understood in the context of related activities. Sometimes forgiveness may be associated with one or more of the below activities, but it is a separate act.

1. Forgiveness is not necessarily reconciliation, it can be a gift that the other either accepts or rejects or does nor even know about. It is in the heart of the forgiver. For reconciliation, two people are needed and then the relationship between them needs to be restored. For reconciliation, forgiveness is needed.

2. Forgiveness is not pardoning, for pardoning is a transaction, often a legal one, that releases the injuring person from the consequences of his or her injurious actions. In pardoning, the pardoner takes on or blots out the loss caused by the damaging situation. In many publications, the term forgiveness is used when pardoning may be more accurate.

3. Forgiveness is not condoning, for it does not excuse harmful behavior. It just deals with it.

4. Forgiveness is not forgetting, for deep hurts usually cannot be wiped out of one’s memory.

For many, forgiveness and reconciliation are fully interwoven. Michelle Nelson in Beverly Flanigan’s Exploring Forgiveness suggests three degrees of forgiveness, namely 1. Detached Forgiveness (a reduction of negative feelings), 2. Limited Forgiveness (with a partial restoration of relationship), and 3. Full Forgiveness (with full reconciliation).

Another way to categorize forgiveness, suggested by Klimes is with the ABCs of Forgiveness as A) Attitude of Forgiveness, that deals mainly with the attitude of the forgiver (love without revenge), not the actions of the offender, B) Basic Forgiveness that includes reconciliation, and C) Consequential Forgiveness or pardoning that deals with the offender making restitution or the forgiver paying for or erasing the consequences of the damaging behavior (Not all forgiveness is consequential: a forgiven alcoholic may still die of cirrhosis of the liver). There cannot be Consequential Forgiveness without Basic Forgiveness.

3. Five Steps in Forgiveness (A-E)

The five steps in granting the gift of forgiveness (according to R. Klimes, PhD) are:

A. Acknowledge the anger and hurt caused by the clearly identified specific offenses.

B. Bar revenge and any thought of inflicting harm as repayment or punishment to the offender.

C. Consider the offender’s perspective. Try to understand his/her attitude and behavior.

D. Decide to accept the hurt without unloading it on the offender. Passing it back and forth magnifies it.

E. Extend compassion and good will to the offender. That releases the offended from the offense.

The rejection of forgiveness: A. Anger, the deep displeasure caused by a sense of injury or wrong, if not checked, can lead to sickness, conflicts or violence. B. Revenge or a defensive attitude on the part of the wrong-doer makes forgiveness very difficult. Thus the process never goes beyond the 2nd step. Some people who have been deeply hurt in life develop a negative addiction, a chronic negative attitude expressed in frequent anger, rejection and suspicion.

4.Cognitive, Emotional and Spiritual Forgiveness

The following is based on a chapter by Richard Fitzgibbons, MD, in Exploring Forgiveness, Some individuals will go through all 3 levels, others only through some of them.

A. In cognitive forgiveness, victims study their pain and make a conscious decision to forgive. They may follow the 5 Steps of Forgiveness in order to continue a relationship.

B. In emotional forgiveness, the victims feels with the offender’s struggle and develops some empathy for him or her. This often takes time. They may follow the 5 Steps of Forgiveness because they feel the offenders pain.

C. Spiritual forgiveness utilizes an approach similar to that used in the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Victims may follow the 5 Steps of Forgiveness because they cannot let go on their own. They may utilize phrases such as:
“I am powerless over my anger and cannot forgive, thus I want to turn it over to God.”
“Justice and revenge belong to God.”
“God forgive him or her, I can’t.”
“God free me from my anger and help me forgive.”

Thoughts from Nancy Miller: True forgiveness isn’t me self-righteously looking down at you and saying “I forgive you” while I’m thinking “you can’t help being the jerk or stupid idiot that you are.” It is letting God deal with the problem and the person. It is saying “I forgive you and I will always forgive you for it is not for me to stress over. I love you because God has given me this love and I will not let resentment damage my relationship with you or God.” Forgiveness is an outgrowth of unconditional love.

Donald Barnhouse writes: “To see God in all things, both good and evil, enables us to forgive those who injure us. It does not incline us to condone their fault, for they act as freely as if God had no part at all. But we can forgive and pray for them, as slaves to their own passions, enemies to their own welfare and real, though unwitting, benefactors to our souls.” Karl Menninger, the famed psychiatrist, once said that if he could convince the patients in psychiatric hospitals that their sins were forgiven, 75 percent of them could walk out the next day!

One of the best studies on spiritual forgiveness concerns the Prodigal Son, found in Luke 15:11-32. In accepting God’s love humbly, the father in the story also took on God’s forgiveness and then just naturally reflected that attitude of forgiveness to his prodigal son.

5. Five Steps in Asking for Reconciliation

The offender, that is the person who has caused the hurt, has no direct part in the initial forgiveness that the forgiver experiences. His part comes in the next level which is reconciliation. Reconciliation is not always possible. The offender’s five steps in asking for the gift of forgiveness (according to R. Klimes, PhD) are:

A. Acknowledge your guilt in contributing to the clearly identified specific offenses.

B. Bar repetition of the offense. Declare that you will not do it again.

C. Consider the offended person’s perspective. Try to understand his/her attitude and behavior.

D. Declare your apology and sorrow for the hurt you caused. Say “I am sorry for…”

E. Extend compassion and good acts to the offended person. Make it up, if you can.

Without these steps, there usually cannot be forgiveness and reconciliation. The results of a broken relationship that has not been healed are often bitterness, blaming, continuation of harm and vengeance, increasing insensitivity, estrangement, hating and acts of violence.


Fr. Divya Paul is a priest of the Archdiocese of Bangalore and currently the Parish Priest of St. Anthony’s Church, Kavalbyrasandra. He is also the Archdiocesan Youth Director and Editor of Tabor Kirana. He is a practicing psychotherapist and Visiting Professor of Psychology and Psychotherapy at many higher educational Institutions and Seminaries with a PhD in Counselling Psychology.

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