In the psychological literature on forgiveness, a few terms have been defined that are helpful as we explore this rich topic. Researchers offer us these definitions:
-“Decisional Forgiveness” is when you decide to forgive a person. It’s a mental process and happens in a discrete moment in time.
-“Emotional Forgiveness” happens when there is a release of emotions of bitterness and anger.
-“State Forgiveness” is the term researchers use to account for the emotional fluctuations people experience in the process of forgiving. One day you might feel free from any bitterness towards someone who has hurt you, but the next day the bitterness may return. This fluctuation can continue for years. Scientists who try to measure forgiveness look for the current level of forgiveness or the “state” of forgiveness.
-“Trait Forgiveness” defines the general disposition towards being forgiving. Some people find it easier to forgive than others do so researchers identify this personality trait. *
Anyone who has attempted to forgive someone of a significant hurt knows that forgiving isn’t a one-and-done proposition. Deciding to forgive is crucial, but it must be repeated on the road to emotional forgiveness where the personal health benefits reside. Science notes this is an important, repetitive pursuit, as Jesus noted long ago in his famous advice to forgive an offender 70 times 7 (Matthew 18:22).
I often listen to people who are struggling with this process. They tend to feel stuck because of the repetitive nature of the experience, thinking they are failing because they have to repeat this decision over and over, as their feelings fluctuate from day to day or even hour to hour. In these conversations, my goal is often simply to help the person notice the internal assumption/demand that motivates their self-condemnation. The assumption is that to truly forgive means that all feelings of bitterness or anger disappear and never return. That assumption and the demand to do so simply aren’t true and they don’t lead us toward emotional forgiveness. These internal assumptions/demands actually can prevent our development of trait forgiveness. We would do better to stay close to Jesus’ recommendation: give yourself a rule to forgive those who have hurt you 70 times before you consider yourself a “forgiveness failure.”
More next time on the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation.
*See Mark McMinn’s, 2017 book, “The Science of Virtue”, for a further discussion in his wonderful chapter on forgiveness.