Personal Reflections

On Forgiveness:

One of the most often evoked messages in recovery is the need to forgive.  Resentments are heralded as the chief offender, and carrying around unresolved emotional pains, real or imagined slights, and angry or mournful disappointments are seen as sure paths to relapse.  Forgiveness is seen as the antidote for these “spiritual ailments” and a sure and necessary component of serenity.  I submit, however, that forgiveness must be abandoned as a goal and as a way of life.

Forgiveness and Debt

I visited a Christian blog recently (Ginzo Talk) which offered the following definition of forgiveness:

Forgiveness – a : to give up resentment of or claim to requital for b : to grant relief from payment of

While this blogger expressed a preference for the second definition, I feel that they both have the same failing. That is they are each based on seeing human relations as essentially a series of fundamentally commercial relations.  As such, based on one persons behavior they either “owe” something to another, or are “owed” something from the other..

In the case of the second of these two definitions this is obvious: “to grant relief from payment of”.  Thus, if I forgive you, I am relieving you an obligation you have to me.  The assumption of a sort of commercial activity between people is explicit.  You did X and as such you owe me Y.  You can either pay Y or I can “forgive” that debt.  This I would term “restorative debt”, and thus “restorative debt forgiveness/”

The second part of the first definition, “giving up a claim to requital for”, is slightly more subtle, but amounts to the same thing.  A “claim to requital for” is just a fancy way of saying I gave you X and as such you owe me X in return. This often takes the form of “I love you so you should love me.”  Again, a sort of commercial transaction.  This then constitutes what I’ll term “reciprocal debt” and “reciprocal debt forgiveness.”

Next, lets consider the first part of the first definition: “give up resentment of “.  Now to those in 12 Step recovery the term “resentment” has a special and sinister meaning.  Resentments are described as the chief offender, certain to lead one to drink again. As such, understanding what a resentment is is doubly important because it helps us understand both that part of the “program” as well as forgiveness.

A simple definition of resentment is “the feeling of displeasure or indignation at some act, remark, person, etc regarded as causing injury or insult” ( In short, we might say its a feeling caused by another, seen as causing injury or insult.

Now at first glance this definition of forgiveness does not seem to follow the debt model laid out above. One might say that since I’m just giving up my own “feeling” there is no debt at issue. However, this ignores the most basic reason for this “feeling.”  That is, we each have a basic belief that we are entitled to NOT feel that displeasure.  Thus, If you caused my displeasure X then you have harmed me.   This I would term “rehabilitative debt.”

Now, If it is simply a matter of giving up the feeling of displeasure then the question must be asked “Who are we forgiving?”  The answer is that we are forgiving ourselves for feeling that way, or the other for causing the feeling.  If we conceive of it as forgiving the other the commercial nature of forgiveness is again obvious.  What if we are forgiving our selves?  Again, this is a commercial relation, we are feeling X; we see that we inappropriately are causing in ourselves X (we resent ourselves); and so we owe ourselves some sort of relief.

Another Model

If one encounters an injured animal, one that’s scared, one is not surprised if one gets bitten.  In this instance we understand that the animal’s action of biting (or clawing or scratching) us is not a malicious act.  We also understand that when we come across an injured animal, and we are injured by it, the animal owes us nothing.  We have no claim against the animal for requital (we don’t expect it to love us for any aid we offer, or if we do it is easy to see the foolishness of this attitude), we have no claim of repayment from the animal, and we recognize the foolishness of resenting the animal.  This is all true because we recognize that the animal’s action arise from it’s own suffering.

Thus, when we recognize that the animal’s action is from it’s own suffering, and that it owes us nothing, not even for any aid we render, we see that we have no need to forgive that animal.  Neither restorative, reciprocal, nor rehabilitative debt is owed.  The same is true of other people.  When we see that their actions are merely their reactions to their own suffering we can feel compassion for that person.  Part of that compassion is the understanding that since it was born of their suffering, and they owe us nothing, forgiveness is not necessary.

Living the Model

Living this model means that one need never forgive, because there is nothing to forgive.  The benefits of this approach is twofold.  First, in specific relationships, one need not spend time, energy, and emotion in the constant economy of emotional debt.  One does not focus energy on “you owe me this” or “you owe me for that”, or even “I’m in debt to you for this or that”.  One escapes the overlay this crude economy places on relationships, and concern for how and when these debts get paid, whether our payment is accepted or theirs is acceptable.  We escape all of this emotional bookkeeping.

Secondly, and more importantly, we escape the more general attitude of seeing people merely as economic actors.  By learning to see their slights and injuries to us as manifestations of their own suffering we no longer are centered on ourselves.  We are now are able to focus on their pain, their suffering and thus how to serve and assist them.  We move away from an ego-centric way of being in the world and become other-centric.  If one must, one can see that such a shift does in fact aid us because if their injuries to us arise from their suffering, then alleviating their suffering will dismiss these slights.

In Sum – A Prayer

Forgiveness is unnecessary because no debt is owed.  I will endeavor not to forgive you, or myself, because all the “wrongs” I experience are nothing more than evidence of your, or my, pain.  I will endeavor not forgive what is not owed.  Instead, I will endeavor to see instead the suffering that gives rise to these slights, and work always to aid those who suffer, whether myself or others.



20 thoughts on “On Forgiveness:

  1. Thank you for linking to my blog post, although I believe the link is not working. While I am honored to have inspired your post, I have to of course disagree…

    >> As such, based on one persons behavior they either “owe” something to another, or are “owed” something from the other..

    Maybe you misunderstood my post, and the concept of forgiveness with regard to Christianity. The debt we owe is not to another human, but to God. God’s gift of salvation is offered to us as a gift. When we come to acknowledge our sin, and we ask for God’s forgiveness, we are granted eternal life. We forgive others not because we owe them but because we are doing what Jesus is expecting us. He expects this of us not because of a debt to our fellow man, but because it is how we recognize that none of us are perfect. Being a buddist you obviously do not agree. However, the only debt we owe with regard to forgiveness is with God.

    Being “Christ-like” is a concept that means behaving more like Christ, and that means forgiving others as He has forgiven us.

    “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” — Colossians 3:13

    God Bless…

    Posted by It's just a web site man! | June 17, 2011, 1:56 pm
    • thank you for a thoughtful response… btw, I fixed the link

      Of course we disagree, but I do appreciate the dialog.

      Regarding my “misunderstanding” your post, I think it’s less of a misunderstanding, and more of a difference in focus. I was looking at a person’s act of foregiveness for another. The goal of your post concerned the ASKING of forgiveness (from God). I admit that my post really didn’t (nor was it meant to) address ASKING for foregiveness.

      I do acknowledge that in Christianity the debt is owed to God, and not another person. As such we are in a sort of commercial (or system of exchange) with God – I pay the debt with faith (for lack of a better term) and in exchange receive salvation.

      Thank you again for your post, comment, and this dialog. i hope we can continue it in the future.

      Posted by The Habituated Buddhist | June 17, 2011, 2:14 pm
      • Edited to remove typos and insert missing words (I’m visually challenged.)

        It’s ego that’s at the crux of the inability to forgive and being christ-like means slaying one’s ego. There’s no need to obfuscate and don the guilt-tripping fetters those who embrace religions like christianity choose to wearr. Any mature person can clearly examine their own inner workings and extract the fact that it’s their ego is what prevents them from choosing to forgive.

        Posted by timethief | June 18, 2011, 1:01 am
  2. I have to tell you that the more I study Christianity the more I realize how much we simply do not know about God. He is more than we can ever really comprehend, and as such we need to realize that we won’t know everything until we get to Heaven. But He does reveal himself to us through His word, and that is my focus.

    Rather than an exchange system, it is thought of more like the relationship of father and son. The father because of his unconditional love grants us salvation as a gift. We are asked to trust Him(faith). When you were young and you made a mistake, after you realized you made that mistake you may have apologized to your parents, asking for forgiveness. This is part of your relationship with your parents. It is not simply an exchange system, but a recognition of your mistakes, your imperfect nature. It is a way for you to grow as a human being, not a barter system. This is no different with our father in Heaven. We ask for forgiveness as a result of recognizing our sin and as a result, we grow in faith.

    Reducing forgiveness to a system of barter makes it sound like this is just a trade. In reality it is much more than that.

    Thanks for the opportunity to discuss this topic.

    Posted by It's just a web site man! | June 17, 2011, 2:30 pm
  3. HB,

    I always enjoy your logical thought processes.

    compassion towards ourselves and others seems better to me than forgiveness.
    thank you and keep posting 🙂

    be well, Debra

    Posted by Debra | June 17, 2011, 10:56 pm
  4. “Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies” ~ Nelson Mandela

    When I was younger my ego got in the way of forgiving others. I did not comprehend then that when we forgive, the wrong is released from its emotional stranglehold on us so that we can learn from it and become more authentic and compassionate people.

    Truth be told it takes just as much energy to offend as it does to choose to be offended. And the greatest beneficiary of forgiveness is the party who does the granting of forgiveness. By choosing to forgive anyone who we chose to give the power to offend us in the first place, we remove ourself from the role of being a victim. We release the control and power that we gave to the offending person, and situation, and that continually manifests in our memory.

    Choosing forgiveness is one of the most empowering things we can ever do. There is never satisfaction in revenge. Learning to forgive does not mean accepting offensive or destructive behavior. It means we acknowledge the suffering that comes from ill deeds perpetrated by both by others and ourselves before we can truly move on.

    Choosing forgiveness means agreeing not to yield to actions driven by bitterness. When we let go of bitterness and grudges, we no longer define our life by how we have been hurt, we no longer judge, and we are able to find compassion and understanding for the person(s) who we chose to allow to offend us, as well as, for ourselves.

    Posted by timethief | June 18, 2011, 12:51 am
    • Wow, so much to process and respond to. TT, I always love when you comment here…

      Because I respect you so much I am concerned that I have failed to adequately express myself in this post, and that you think I’m saying something other than I am. I am not advocating either “unforgiveness” or a “choosing not to forgive”. You stated:

      “By choosing to forgive anyone who we chose to give the power to offend us in the first place, we remove ourself from the role of being a victim. We release the control and power that we gave to the offending person, and situation, and that continually manifests in our memory.”

      I agree with this idea, but express it not as “forgiving”, but in recognizing that there is no reason to be offended in the first place. Thus, with no offense there is no victim. Therefore, there is no control and no power (given to the offending person) to release. As I attempted to express, I do not believe that one should “forgive” because that assumes there is something to forgive. I think we need to move beyond “forgiveness” to a direct recognition of the other, and not concern ourselves with our injuries.

      You further stated:

      “It means we acknowledge the suffering that comes from ill deeds perpetrated by both by others and ourselves before we can truly move on.”

      If you mean that what you call forgiveness is this acknowledgement, I accept the same principle. I think I’m advocating moving directly to a moving beyond, without mediating it by moving on through forgiveness (which I believe assumes a social economy of debt).

      It’s funny but I don’t exactly disagree with the sentiment you put forward, but simply with the manner of reaching it.

      Being “unforgiving”, in the sense of feeling a debt is owed to you, and not releasing it is like drinking poison. I’d add that being forgiving, in the sense of feeling a debt is owed to you and releasing it is like drinking poison, and then spitting it out. The poison is the conception of the other as debtor, and not as a fellow suffering person – don’t even let it pass your lips!

      Posted by The Habituated Buddhist | June 18, 2011, 1:27 am
      • I’m sure you will not be surprised to find that my comment above comes from a post on my own blog. 🙂 Thanks for your response to it above. I did understand what you were stating and I’m moving in that direction but I haven’t reached there as yet.

        Posted by timethief | June 18, 2011, 6:19 pm
  5. TT… I did not realize it was from a post… you always write so well that its hard to tell.

    Although I wrote what i wrote, I too am not there yet… I can see that it’s true, in practice I know it’s true, but it often eludes me. Writing it is just another attempt to get nearer. Your comments have help in that journey.

    Posted by The Habituated Buddhist | June 18, 2011, 9:17 pm
  6. Ahhh, to make that shift. To take the concept of forgiveness out of the picture. To understand that the harm that has been caused by ourselves and others comes from our suffering…. It’s really so deep that I can’t hold it in my brain for long. I love your analogy using an injured dog. That made these concepts easier to grasp — if even for a few moments.

    Posted by Julie | June 19, 2011, 3:26 pm
  7. It’s hard to imagine, and harder yet to practice. Especially for someone like me who’s had difficulty forgiving in the first place, to then try to move beyond it. Yet It is what I try daily to move closer towards – “if even for moments” – Thank you!

    Posted by The Habituated Buddhist | June 19, 2011, 3:33 pm
  8. I have heard far too many times, people tell me, I have the patience of a saint and they also say, “I dont know how you are able to forgive so and so.” In this respect I feel your analogies are spot on. This model of thinking, and recognition of and avoidance of the debt mentality, puts the responsibility back on self where it belongs. And thereby also empowers us to choose the emotional reality in which we live. regret and sadness versus peace and acceptance. I can testify that your model works!

    I don’t follow it 100% of the time: If an injured animal gets up off the road, hops my fence, then bites me… That animal just declared war. 🙂 But I recognize this as my own lack of enlightenment even as I still do it.

    I dont think this post is at odds with the christian teaching as it might at first seem. Oswald Chambers the famous Historical preacher taught much very similar principals.

    Posted by midaevalmaiden | June 21, 2011, 11:36 am
    • Thank you for commenting.

      I also agree that the model I present may be compatible with much of Christian teaching. I do, however, think there is an issue when one considers God’s forgiveness of sin. But, that really is outside the scope of my post.

      I should add that within Buddhism, there is also a focus on forgiveness, and some Buddhist would disagree with my characterization. Currently I’m reading Noah Levine’s new boof in which he focuses very much on forgiveness in a way that blends it with compassion. A good read.

      thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

      Posted by The Habituated Buddhist | June 21, 2011, 11:53 am
      • Ahh, Noah Levine Ill check him out. You did’t name the book but it shouldnt be to hard find. 🙂

        Posted by midaevalmaiden | June 21, 2011, 1:54 pm
  9. Oops… Forgot to give the title. Reading Noah Levine’s “The Heart of The Revolution”. He also wrote “Dharma Punx” and “Against the Stream”. Excellent writer in the… new american buddhism.

    Posted by The Habituated Buddhist | June 21, 2011, 5:22 pm
  10. I can appreciate how carefully you have thought out and laid out your answer here. I respect that. But – I would imagine that this ‘there is nothing to forgive’ model of yours would fall incredibly flat to the victim of child abuse. There is nothing to forgive if a child has been deeply damaged? Is the harm all in his head? My view is that your model will work very well where there is no serious harm or threat involved. Just a thought!

    Posted by melodylowes | May 8, 2012, 9:34 pm
    • Thank you for you comment and kind words.

      I do understand your idea that where one is “deeply damaged” my approach may not work. However, probably obviously, Idisagree.

      With the contemporary idea of forgiveness the injured child faces the twin option of either forgiving the bad person or living with anger at the victimizer.

      What I suggest is that the “deeply damaged” person is in fact enriched by discovering that they are capable of compassion and compassion that can extend even to the abuser.

      Further by extending that compassion they they also learn compassion for themselves.

      Thank you again…

      Posted by The Habituated Buddhist | May 8, 2012, 10:00 pm
      • That sounds remarkably similar to forgiveness… 🙂 It is a subject worthy of a lot of deep thought, and also one which will evolve with us as we change and grow. Thanks for getting back to me!

        Posted by melodylowes | May 8, 2012, 10:07 pm

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