Psychological health is significantly affected by our ability to understand and navigate forgiveness. We generally regard forgiveness as a good thing. With it we have more peace and tranquility; without it we have more anxiety and depression. So why is it so hard to give and to accept?

What do we mean by ‘forgiveness’?

Sometimes forgiveness is a gift, something we give to another. We may believe that the person deserves the gift or that it’s just the proper and healthy thing to do. Sometimes forgiveness is a psychological or spiritual destination: ”I’ve reached a place of forgiveness.”“I’ve accepted what happened and I’ve let go of the resentment.” Sometimes forgiveness refers to an ongoing process: “I’m not quite there yet, but I’m working on forgiving.”

In its simplest terms, maybe “I forgive you” means “I’ve decided not to hold it against you anymore.” This is a decision to no longer harbor ill feelings towards another who has violated us. Maybe it’s giving up the right to be angry.

Choosing to accept forgiveness and forgiving ourselves is key. When we don’t do this we are more likely to have a non-forgiving attitude towards others. If we notice that we have a real hard time forgiving others, that’s a good sign that maybe we’ve not forgiven ourselves for something.

Judging the sin, not the sinner

Sometimes we object, “Why should I forgive? Why should I let him get away with that?” The mistake here is that we’re blending two different things, forgiveness and accountability. If you get caught speeding, forgive yourself for the mistake, but hold yourself accountable and pay the ticket. There’s no need to punish yourself for being a bad person.

To forgive does not mean that a violation did not occur. Sometimes people do things that are wrong no matter which way you look at it—ethically, morally, legally and/or spiritually. We don’t have to change our position on the right- or wrong-ness of the thing that was done. We can say “I still think what you (or I) did was wrong, but I forgive you (or myself).” We can choose to judge the sin, but not the sinner. Understanding the difference between the two is important.

You can’t make me!

We’re always asking for trouble when we try to get others to do something that is not in our power to get them to do. In this case, we can’t make others apologize for their mistakes and we can’t make them forgive us for ours. Fortunately, although these are reasonable things for us to want, they are not things we need.

It’s certainly a lot easier to forgive when the offender is sincerely apologetic, but it is possible to say “Although I wish that person would apologize, I can choose to forgive even without it.”

Similarly, when we’ve offended someone else we may want to feel forgiven and want it to come from that person. If that person is not ready or able to forgive there are still at least two other options. We can try to give the forgiveness to ourselves, or we can ask for it from up above if we are so inclined.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of Ambro /