Last night I had a very interesting discussion with my wife about forgiveness. She was watching an Oprah Winfrey story about a family of abused children, and apparently the abusive father was – from his jail cell, luckily – begging his victims for forgiveness. It struck me that I had no clear idea about what forgiveness actually meant in that context.

The definition of forgiveness that is easiest to understand is the financial one: forgiveness of debt is a very definite, well understood process. But what does it mean to forgive someone for hurting you?

In the TV show, Oprah Winfrey offered up this interesting definition: forgiveness is the realization that the past could not have been any different.  This first struck me as quite sensible, but then it occurred to me that this was closer to a definition of “resignation” than forgiveness. Also, it seemed to me that forgiveness must,  in some way, involve both the victim and the perpetrator.

This is where the discussion with my wife got interesting. She suggested that forgiveness is a personal process that the victim might go through without the perpetrator’s knowledge. A sort of acceptance of the situation – a process of moving on.  I think there is a lot of merit in these ideas, but they still leave me feeling a little dissatisfied.

When one looks at dictionary definitions of “forgiveness”, the basic idea encapsulated by the financial theme comes up again. For instance, one definition reads “the act of excusing a mistake or offense”. Practically, this might mean “forgiving” punishment for a misdeed.

In the case of Oprah Winfrey’s show, with an abuser serving a jail sentence, forgiveness obviously does not involve the commutation of the perpetrator’s sentence (and I doubt if anyone would consider that to be a good idea anyway).  Forgiveness in this case must therefore describe a change in attitude of the victim but, in keeping with the above definition, must also bestow some sort of change in the emotional state of the perpetrator, perhaps greater peace of mind.

I’m not completely happy with any of these ideas, but I thought it interesting to discover such vagueness in a term that is used so often, with such confidence.


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