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What Is Forgiveness?

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Based on Philosophical, Traditional (Hebrew, Christian, Islamic, Confucian, and Buddhist traditions, among others), Psychological and Developmental principles. Gleaned from a large survey of readings, professional dialogue, and stories of forgiveness written by volunteers.

1.    What it is:

  • Moral
    It is a response to an injustice (a moral wrong).
    It is a turning to the "good" in the face of this wrongdoing.

  • Goodwill
    Merciful restraint from pursuing resentment or revenge.
    Generosity or offering good things such as: attention, time, remembrances on holidays.
    Moral Love or contributing to the betterment of the other.
  • Paradoxical
    It is the foregoing of resentment or revenge when the wrongdoer's actions deserve it and giving the gifts of mercy, generosity and love when the wrongdoer does not deserve them.
    As we give the gift of forgiveness we ourselves are healed.
  • Beyond duty
    A freely chosen gift (rather than a grim obligation).
    The overcoming of wrongdoing with good.

2. What it is not:

  • Forgetting/Denial
    Time passing/ignoring the effects of the wrongdoing.
  • Condoning
    Nothing that bad happened. It was only this one time. It won't happen again.
  • Excusing
    The person did this wasn't really their responsibility.

  • Condemning
    deserves to know they have wronged me.
    "Forgiving" with a sense of moral superiority.

  • Seeking Justice or Compensation
    Forgiveness is not a quid pro quo deal--it doesn't demand compensation first.

3. Important Distinction:

  • Forgiveness: One person's moral response to another's injustice
  • Reconciliation: Two parties coming together in mutual respect


Robert Enright and Gayle Reed
Department of Educational Psychology
University of Wisconsin -Madison 

Forgiveness research has been ongoing at the University of Wisconsin for over thirteen years. The psychiatrist, Richard Fitzgibbons, MD recently said this about our research: "The research on forgiveness by Robert Enright and his colleagues may be as important to the treatment of emotional and mental disorders as the discovery of sulfa drugs and penicillin were to the treatment of infectious diseases."

Our experience and dedication to the teaching of forgiveness as a psychological health intervention have led to the development of a process model of interpersonal forgiving. This model has a series of 20 steps which are organized into four distinct phases. This is our best estimate of the general pathway that people follow when they forgive someone who has unjustly injured them. This process is not a rigid sequence and individuals may experience all or only some of the steps. The following is a brief description of the four phases of forgiveness.

Uncovering Phase

During this phase the individual becomes aware of the emotional pain that has resulted from a deep, unjust injury. Characteristic feelings of anger or even hatred may be present. As these negative emotions are confronted and the injury is honestly understood, individuals may experience considerable emotional distress. Deciding on the appropriate amount of energy to process this pain and still function effectively is an important consideration during this phase. However, as the anger and other negative emotions are brought out into the open healing can begin to occur.

Decision Phase

The individual now realizes that to continue to focus on the injury and the injurer may cause more unnecessary suffering. The individual begins to understand that a change must occur to go ahead in the healing process. The individual may then experience a " heart conversion" or, in other words, a life change in a positive direction. The individual entertains the idea of forgiveness as a healing strategy. The individual, then, commits to forgiving the injurer who has caused him/her such pain. Complete forgiveness is not yet realized but the injured individual has decided to explore forgiveness and to take initial steps in the direction of full forgiveness. An important first step at this point is to forego any thoughts, feelings or intentions of revenge toward the injurer.

Work Phase

Here the forgiving individual begins the active work of forgiving the injurer.   This phase may include new ways of thinking about the injurer. The injured individual may strive to understand the injurer's childhood or put the injurious event in context by understanding the pressures the injurer was under at the time of the offense. This new way of thinking is undertaken not to excuse the injurer of his/her responsibility for the offense, but rather to better understand him/her and to see the injurer as a member of the human community. Often, this new understanding may be accompanied by a willingness to experience empathy and compassion toward the offender. The work phase also includes the heart of forgiveness which is the acceptance of the pain that resulted from the actions of the injurer. This must not be confused with any sense of deserving the pain but rather a bearing of pain that has been unjustly given. As the individual bears the pain, he/she chooses not to pass it on to others,including the injurer. This is often where the challenge of a "quest for the good" is most evident. Indeed, the individual may now become ready to begin to offer goodwill toward the injurer in the form of merciful restraint, generosity, and moral love. This may or may not include a reconciliation. The goodwill may be offered while at the same time taking into consideration current issues of trust and safety in the relationship between the individual and the injurer.

Outcome/Deepening Phase

In this phase the forgiving individual begins to realize that he/she is gaining emotional relief from the process of forgiving his/her injurer. The forgiving individual may find meaning in the suffering that he/she has faced.  The emotional relief and new found meaning may lead to increased compassion for self and others. The individual may discover a new purpose in life and an active concern for his/her community.  Thus, the forgiver discovers the paradox of forgiveness:  as we give to others the gifts of mercy, generosity, and moral love, we ourselves are healed.

Forgiveness Institute - What is Forgiveness?


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Last updated: 07/11/09

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