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the power of forgiveness

What is forgiveness? A simple explanation

Forgiveness is a powerful idea that is often misunderstood. In this post, I clear up misunderstandings and better help you able to understand how to forgive.

Ed Latimore
Ed Latimore
Writer, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

When people think of forgiveness, they usually imagine no longer being angry at someone for how they hurt them. They see it as the act of letting go of any anger, resentment or need for vengeance against the offending person.

Generally speaking, this is correct. You aren’t condoning, endorsing, or excusing any harm you suffered at the hands of the offender, but you’re also not holding a grudge or letting your emotional and mental health be destroyed with negative feelings and thoughts.

Forgiveness doesn’t grant clemency or even mercy to offenders. The offending person still has to answer for what they’ve done and make things right. All forgiveness does is give you the peace of mind that justice, retribution, or revenge can’t.

Forgiveness does not change the world. Only how you see it.

Many people want to forgive, but they have no idea how to start the process of forgiveness. But before we can discuss the process of forgiveness, we first need a clear idea of what forgiveness means and what forgiving others looks like.

What does forgiveness mean?

The etymology of the word “forgive” gives us valuable insights into what forgiveness looks like. According to etymonline.com, “forgive” is from the Old English “forgiefan” which means “give, grant, allow; remit (a debt), pardon (an offense).”

The prefix “for” typically means “away, opposite, completely,” from Old English, indicating loss or destruction. “Give” comes Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to give or receive.” The verb “to hold,” captures both the act of giving or receiving or offering.

When we combine “for” and “give”, we come up with the idea of “Completely losing or destroying what you’re holding on to.” In both the general and specific use of the word “forgive”, this makes sense.

For example, consider a commonly used, easily observable use of the word “forgive”. When a creditor forgives a debt, they are completely destroying the debtor’s obligation to them. The debtor is no longer owes anything. The books have been wiped clean.

The person who owes money no longer holds the debt, but the debtor no longer holds it either. It has vanished. In fact, on your credit report, forgiven debt is often treated as if you had never taken it out in the first place, for better or worse.

When we forgive something or someone, we let go of the expectation of being repaid a debt that the thing we are forgiving owes us. How does this relate to the forgiveness of others?

When someone takes away from your peace and well-being, they owe you a debt. This is not an exaggeration. After you receive an insult or attack, you immediately feel like you need to retaliate.

Even if you didn’t know this from observation, anecdote, and experience, this has been demonstrated in several experiments.

  • Kevin Carlsmith, Ph.D., Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., and Timothy Wilson, Ph.D. ran an experiment that shows we if we feel taken advantage of, we want to punish the person who did it. (Read here)
  • Mario Gollwitzer showed that we want to get revenge when we feel cheated. (Read here)
  • A metastudy by Limor Goldner, Rachel Lev-Wiesel, and Guy Simon demonstrated that across all of history, men and women of all ages have harbored revenge fantasies for people who have done them wrong. (Read here)

When someone hurts you, you instinctively feel the desire to hurt them back. The bigger the injustice or pain you suffer, the more powerful you burn for revenge.

“A small debt produces a debtor; a large one, an enemy.”

**-Publilius Syrus **

They have taken your peace and safety so now you have to “get them back” or “get even”. Even our language for taking revenge implies that you are there is a loan taking place.

When you say that you’re getting “payback” for an offense, what you’re really saying—almost literally—is that this person owes you back pay for the distress they caused you and you’re coming to collect it.

Read more of my articles about forgiveness

What does an act of forgiveness accomplish?

When you forgive someone, you’re no longer interested in getting paid back what they owe you in emotional distress. Like when a creditor forgives a monetary debt, the victim forgives an emotional debt.

You’re no longer interested in making the person feel the same pain they inflicted on you, so you’re emotionally even. An act of forgiveness is the only way to peace. If you doubt this, consider the other two routes you can take instead of forgiving: hold a grudge and take revenge.

Hold a grudge

What is holding a grudge?

Holding a grudge is when you harbor anger, bitterness, resentment, or other negative feelings towards someone after you believe they’ve hurt you. I say “believe”, because while it’s usually in response to something directed towards you, sometimes people hold grudges because they merely think you have bad intentions towards them.

There is an old saying: “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Another popular variation is “Holding a grudge is like holding something hot and expecting the other person to get burned.

I’m sure other variations exist, but the idea remains the same in all of them: harboring ill-will towards someone has no effect on them and only hurts you.

Still, people hold grudges for the same reason banks require collateral on a loan: the bank needs to get something in case you default.

In the case of taking someone’s emotional peace, we hold a grudge to ensure that we get something if the offender defaults on the “loan.” Put another way, it’s our way of making sure that the perpetrator doesn’t get away with hurting us without somehow suffering. But of course, they only suffer in our imagination, as a grudge inflicts no pain externally.

Holding grudges also wreaks havoc on your immune system, blood pressure, mental health, and physical health. Holding a grudge really is like drinking poison because of the mind-body connection that governs so much of our health.

Take revenge

What is revenge?

Revenge (n): the action of inflicting hurt or harm on someone for an injury or wrong suffered at their hands; the desire to inflict retribution.

If holding a grudge is drinking poison and expecting someone else to die, taking revenge is forcing the poison down their throat. We take revenge because we genuinely believe it will make us feel better. However, there are several problems with taking revenge:

  • For the type of actions that tend to motivate a desire to take revenge, the only way to match them is by doing something illegal. The law either stops you from taking revenge, relegating you to holding a grudge, or you do it anyway and hope you don’t get caught.
  • Revenge has been proven only to be satisfying in the short term (Read why). That wouldn’t be a problem, except that it’s been proven to make you feel much worse long-term than if you had done nothing.
  • When you take revenge on a human being, rarely do they feel like the conflict is over now that things are even. Rather, they now feel like they’re obliged to get revenge on you. This creates a never-ending cycle perpetuated by acts that are supposed to be payback but ironically leave everyone deeper in debt to one another.

Considering these three points, you can easily see the problem with revenge. This is why the old saying is, “Before you seek revenge with someone, be sure and dig two graves.”

This holds for both revenge and grudges. When you pursue either course of action, you will do at least as much damage to yourself as you will to the object of your malice and ill content—but usually more.

Why is forgiveness important?

There are various health benefits associated with forgiveness. Your mental and physical health improves dramatically as you no longer carry the debt of negative emotions. Those are great, but those are not the main reasons forgiveness is important.

The power of forgiveness is that one act of forgiveness can eliminate years of therapy, anger, and confusion.

By letting go of the obligation to receive payback for the damage another person’s actions caused to your well-being, you create a world where the offense technically didn’t even happen. This does not mean you forget what happened or somehow change the past. It simply means that you longer view the perpetrator as offensive or the event as traumatic.

The value of forgiveness is that it keeps you from burying yourself.

The unfortunate part of living in this world is that terrible things will happen to you, sometimes for no other reason than you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you seek revenge or hold a grudge against every trespass you suffer, you will be enveloped and consumed by anger towards everyone—even people who are kind to you and want nothing but the best for you.

Forgiveness is important because it’s the only tool to fix the world.

The research, empirical, and anecdotal evidence all show that the desire for revenge seems to be built into us. In other words, we don’t have a choice to want to retaliate when there is a perceived wrong done to us. It’s a destructive instinct that often has a cost that exceeds its value.

However, forgiveness is a choice. No one can make you forgive, and forgiveness doesn’t just happen over time. There is a process of forgiveness that you go through to make a brighter future for yourself and everyone involved with you.

Forgiveness doesn’t guarantee that you’ll never have a problem again. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll never have a problem again with the person you forgive.

Forgiveness gives you a set of tools to keep each problem self-contained and solvable. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to keep associating with the person who hurt you. It just means that your future interactions with others and yourself will not be tainted by past pain.

What forgiveness is not

Forgiveness is not a substitute for justice. Justice is for the physical world and is carried out as a punitive and preventative measure. Just because we can forgive problems doesn’t mean we invite them to harm us or others. The purpose of justice is to dissuade people from committing the most severe injustices and keep them from harming others if they’ve proven they’ll do it anyway.

Forgiveness is not passivity. Forgiveness is not an excuse to avoid confronting problems. You still have to operate effectively in the physical world, a world that is inhabited by people who will try to impose their selfish designs on you. You’ll still need to confront the world and the problems in it.

Forgiveness is not an emotion. Forgiveness is a deliberate act of willpower. It is unnatural and non-instinctive. You do not feel forgiveness. You merely feel the absence of it. This is the main difference between “forgiving” and “forgetting.”

Forgiveness is not forgetting. If you can’t remember what negatively affected you, it has lost power only until you remember it. And some things are so heinous and offensive that you can’t forget them, so you’ll need forgiveness to move past them. 

Forgiveness is not weakness. True forgiveness is one of the most challenging things a person will do. It’s easy to give in to your base nature and instincts to seek revenge and hold a grudge. Going against a part of your biological programming when everything is pulling you in the opposite direction is perhaps the most difficult thing for a person to do. Forgiveness is not something that a weak person is even capable of.

Further articles on forgiveness

How to forgive your parents: Many of us have trouble understanding how our parents could have hurt us or treated us the way they did. Forgiving our parents is difficult because we have a different relationship with them than most other people we have to forgive. This article gives you a method for forgiving those who raised you.

How to forgive yourself: The hardest person to forgive is the person you see when you look in the mirror. It’s hard to imagine that you deserve it because you have the strongest memory of what you did. This is why I caution that forgiveness isn’t forgetting. This article gives you a step-by-step method for forgiving yourself.

How to forgive someone who hurt you: You don’t have to forgive someone, but you gain so many benefits if you do. This article is a general overview of the process of forgiveness and how to specifically apply it to other people.

How to let go of the past: Letting go of the past is a valuable skill you need to master. It’s vital to forgiveness and healthy life, in general. When you’re shackled to the past, you can’t live fully in the present, which means you can’t create a better future.

37 Quotes about forgiveness: These are original quotes I’ve written about forgiveness. They will help you let go of the painful past, live better in the present, and approach the future without trauma and guilt.

Read more of my articles about forgiveness

Ed Latimore
About the author

Ed Latimore

I’m a writer, competitive chess player, Army veteran, physicist, and former professional heavyweight boxer. My work focuses on self-development, realizing your potential, and sobriety—speaking from personal experience, having overcome both poverty and addiction.

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