“Forgiveness is both real and right precisely because the harm done is both real and wrong. This is also why forgiveness, for most of us, involves a difficult yet daring journey over time.”
– Ted Lewis
Forgiveness is Relational
The relation between forgiveness and restorative justice is somewhat paradoxical. Forgiveness should never be proscribed or expected, and yet restorative dialogue often creates a conducive space where forgiveness can be experienced. Forgiveness can also be spoken or unspoken; the language of forgiveness is less important than the deep, bridge-building experience people have that helps them to release mistrust and negative sentiments.
Forgiveness can certainly be experienced alone for the harmed person who walks the journey toward peace of mind. But when it happens dyadically, that is, between two people who have a heart-to-heart talk, forgiveness results from the verbal gift exchange between them. Just as an apology is a gift freely given, freeing up both offending and victimized persons, so forgiveness can be a gift that brings healing for all involved.
One author who captured the relational dimension of forgiveness is David Augsburger. Can you guess the dates of these early editions of The Freedom of Forgiveness, originally titled Seventy Times Seven?
…that’s right, 1970 and 1973! Wow.
At that time, Augsburger saw how forgiveness studies, often in clinical settings, focused more on psychological factors within the forgiver than on relational dynamics between people.
“In modern Western thought, writing on forgiveness is almost exclusively focused on the process within, the virtues of the freedom found by the forgiver. It is common for teaching on forgiveness to never get to what Jesus spoke of and to deal only with the prerequisite steps of seeing the other person as having worth again and restoring perceptions of love.”
Augsburger shows how forgiveness in the New Testament context is always relational. And, as the cross of Christ demonstrates, forgiveness is never an easy thing to do. He references the wisdom of 17th century George Herbert: (pronouns changed from ‘he’ to plural)
“Those who cannot forgive others, break the bridge over which they themselves must pass if they would ever reach heaven; for everyone has need to be forgiven.”
In the ongoing discovery of the forgiveness journey, Augsburger identifies 5 steps:
- Restoring the attitude of love
- Releasing the painful past
- Reconstructing the relationship
- Reopening the future
- Reaffirming the relationship (pages 42-44 in the 1983 revised edition)
While lifting up the relation dimension of forgiveness, Augsburger still addresses the profound, experiential dimensions for the forgiving person. “Forgiveness is something we discover, more than something we do; it is something we gratefully receive, more than something we faithfully give.” (p. 9, preface to the 1983 revised edition)
Augsburger’s fullest treatment of relational forgiveness can be found in his book Helping People Forgive (1996). New Freedom of Forgiveness (2000), the latest revision of his original book continues to sell well within the church world.
Other Pioneers in Forgiveness Studies
During the 1980s, other scholars and writers advanced the study of forgiveness with faith-based perspectives:
Founder of the International Forgiveness Institute
A scholar in forgiveness research and virtues
Author of the book, Forgive & Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve (1984)
“Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.” ― Lewis b. Smedes
South Africa Merges Zulu Traditions with Restorative Justice
When Desmond Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, he had already been a leading prophetic voice against Apartheid, naming the seamless intersectionality of social justice, racial justice and criminal justice. By 1995 he was in a prime position to lead a transitional justice process through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That experience helped him to sharpen and deepen his insights on forgiveness, captured well in his 1999 book, No Future Without Forgiveness.
“Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering – remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.”
Watch a 4-minute video on forgiveness with Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “What do you do to forgive someone?”
Read quotes from Tutu’s more recent book, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World
Other Forgiveness Resources
Forgiveness Project If you want a source of stories on forgiveness from all over the world, go to this London-based website and plan to be inspired by the courage of offending and victimized people.
For the health benefits of forgiveness, the Mayo Clinic webpage offers good info.
View Christianity Today’s 5 top picks regarding faith-based books on forgiveness.
For a deeper theological approach to forgiveness that is still grounded in human experience, read The Faces of Forgiveness: Searching for Wholeness and Salvation by F. Leron Shults and Steven J. Sandage
(from synopsis) At a deeper level, the face can serve as a metaphor for integrating forgiveness, wholeness, and salvation. The authors argue that forgiveness should take a central role in our understanding of salvation because it is warranted by the Bible and engages our postmodern context.
“We have long needed a terrific book such as this that draws on theological insights and pyschological insights with equal seriousness and significance.” – Gregory Jones, Duke University Divinity School
Discovering Forgiveness: Pathways Through Injury, Apology and Healing (2014) by Larry A. Dunn
“Dunn offers a stream of provocative stories–of real people in honest conversations. For me, these stories create a deep grounding in both the potential and the complexity, the challenges and the actual examples, of how forgiveness emerges and finds expression.” -John Paul Lederach (foreword)
Authentic Forgiveness: A Biblical Approach (2020) by John C. W. Tran
Authentic Forgiveness calls us to examine our own cultural traditions and points us towards the search for true reconciliation, where people risk to communicate, extend trust, and work through anger and pain. Combining biblical and theological understanding with practical strategies for local church ministry, Tran offers an inspiring paradigm of action for Christians in urban Asian contexts and beyond.
Apologies: Miniature Deaths That Give New Life
There is no Hebrew or Greek word for our modern concept of apology in the Bible, however, the constellation of concepts involving honesty, confession, reconciliation and reparation all affirm the importance of a spoken or written apology. One can imagine Philemon and Onesimus finally meeting in Colossea, and each of them, in the strength of new-found humility, offering a verbal apology to the other for past choices they each regretted.
A real apology (which is sorrow for owned behavior rather than sorrow for a general situation) is hard to give because it involves the sacrifice of our ego-pride that resists full ownership of a past choice. But when honesty and empathy give us the courage to own such a choice, and admit it to the harmed person, this swallowing of pride (which has a physiological counterpart in our throats) becomes a miniature death that gives new life. Not only is the apology-receiver freed up of negative sentiments, but the apology-giver is also freed up. New life spreads in all directions!
From a restorative perspective, full apologies have at least three components that represent the shifting from past to future. One can find this in the grammar tenses of apology language: I did…. I am…. I will…
Ownership for hurtful choices – PAST
Empathy for the person hurt – PRESENT
Assurance to make things right – FUTURE
Returning to the story of Philemon and Onesimus… We can understand how Paul’s letter is part of setting up a “constructive space” in which people alienated from each other can have a hard but healing conversation. Paul essentially plays the role of a bridge-building mediator to raise the odds of relational reconciliation. He packs his letter with positivity and heart-based affection, all to the end of normalizing the needed experience for apology and forgiveness.
Incidentally, have you ever thought that Onesimus himself carried the reconciliation letter to Philemon, travelling some 800 miles from Rome to Colossae? That’s a lot of time to think about what you want to say to someone you left on bad terms.
Read a five-part blog series on “Philemon and Forgiveness” by Ted Lewis.
Read a short article about an Alabama pastor who apologized to his church for ‘liking’ controversial media posts. He realized that his actions were hurtful to church members who did not share the sentiment of debunking white privilege.
Finally, applying both forgiveness and apology within congregational settings, view a outline for an workshop based on Matthew 18, “Where Two or Three Gather.
Saying ‘I’m sorry’ not only aids in another’s healing but our own as well, and begins the journey of healing the world at large. – Desmond Tutu
Listen to a short video by D. Tutu on “The Power of Apology.”