Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Why Forgive?

Moving Beyond Therapeutic Forgiveness

In answering the question, "Why forgive?", many today contend that we should forgive others because it is good for us, the ones doing the forgiving. Some conceive of forgiveness solely as a process to help one emotionally recover from a harm done to them by another person.

For example, in his book Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness, Fred Luskin states that forgiveness is "taking back your power," "about your healing", and is "for you and not the offender" (see p. vii). Let's call this the therapeutic model of forgiveness.*

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There is much truth in the therapeutic model. Forgiveness is good for the forgiver; it can contribute to her healing from the damage done by the offender. Feelings of anger, resentment, and bitterness can be alleviated by forgiving others who have harmed us. However, there are some problems with thinking of forgiveness merely as therapy.

Some would argue that forgiveness is conditional upon the offender changing his or her ways, or at least expressing regret and admitting the wrongdoing as well as the damage it caused. But I think the therapeutic model of forgiveness falls short in another way. It fails to consider that forgiveness is also potentially good for the offender.

Forgiving an offender can be in his interest. It can lead him to acknowledge the wrong he has done, and perhaps seek to change his ways because forgiveness is extended to him. Forgiveness can also bring restoration to a relationship. Forgiveness between spouses can help restore harmony and trust. When parents forgive their children, or children forgive their parents, the same is true. And such forgiveness can motivate the one who is forgiven to seek to become a better person. The offender may respond to forgiveness by seeking moral growth, and become better for it.

It is true that forgiveness has therapeutic value for the forgiver. But it can have great value for the forgiven as well.

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*See R. Douglas Geivett, "Forgiveness," in the book he and I co-edited, Being Good (Eerdmans, 2012).

Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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