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Is There a Limit to Forgiveness? Yes

Are we in the wrong if we withhold forgiveness from someone who sincerely requests it? Not necessarily.
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Do we always have to forgive people?

I've thought quite a bit about this question lately, especially as I have been writing a lot about mistakes and apologies over the past few years.

I once more started pondering this question after the recent confession by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich on The Christian Broadcasting Network. He confided that he was seeking forgiveness from God for his past actions, which included marital infidelity.

He says that "there is no question that at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate."

I'm not going to parse that particular apology; plenty of other people have already done so. What intrigues me is that Newt then goes on to say, "I found that I felt compelled to seek God's forgiveness, not God's understanding, but God's forgiveness. I do believe in a forgiving God.''

He seems to assume God will forgive him and that we mere mortals will fall right into line. And while I don't think Newt is waiting to hear from me personally (and I'm not lying awake at night weighing the pros and cons of forgiving him), his interview got me thinking in a more general way about forgiveness.

Especially in a Judeo-Christian culture, forgiveness seems to be the default position for all but the most heinous of crimes. We appear somehow churlish or petty to fail to forgive.

So are we in the wrong if we withhold forgiveness from someone who sincerely requests it?

Not necessarily.

"The issue of forgiveness is too complicated for a simple slogan or a universal prescription," says Jeffrie Murphy, a professor of law, philosophy and religious studies at Arizona State University. Too often, he adds, the concept has been reduced to pop psychology: to be a good person and mentally healthy, you must always forgive.

In fact, he says, "resenting injuries done to ourselves is a way we show we have self-respect and respect for the moral order."

While "forgiveness is sometimes a wonderful thing, hasty forgiveness can be a weakness," says Murphy, who wrote the book "Getting Even: Forgiveness and its Limits."

If we agree to forgive someone too quickly and uncritically in an effort to repair a relationship, without discussing and acknowledging the injury, then we are not necessarily doing it for the right reasons, and the issue will probably still fester.

And too often, the concept of forgiveness has been jumbled up with other ideas, Murphy says.

For instance, we can excuse someone's conduct by deciding that the person who did us wrong simply couldn't help him- or herself. That is not forgiveness

Forgiveness also isn't the same as mercy. Showing mercy means reducing or eliminating the punishment completely, while being willing to forgive doesn't necessarily negate retribution. For example, there are programs where victims meet and forgive the criminals who injured them -- but still believe they should be punished. Murphy puts it this way: "Forgiveness is a change of heart toward someone -- overcoming the feelings of anger and resentment that typically come from being wronged by another."

We can also choose to forgive someone who has injured us but nonetheless decide not to reconcile. For example, a battered wife can decide that she bears her husband no ill will but will never allow him in the house again. Similarly, we can forgive someone who gave us a bad business deal without ever wanting to have a business relationship again.

Jonathan Cohen, a law professor at the University of Florida, talks about the role of power in hurting someone and then seeking forgiveness: "When you injure others, you create power over them. When you apologize, they reassert their power. But that power remains unbalanced when forgiveness is demanded."

Many people, in public and private, seem to think that by simply asserting that they made mistakes -- or, even worse, that "mistakes were made" -- and then uttering the words "I'm sorry," forgiveness should be as automatic as putting a quarter in a machine and receiving a brightly colored gum ball.

I am not against forgiveness; in fact, I am for it. We all screw up, and we will all need forgiveness multiple times over our lives. So yes, I would like people to be as understanding as possible of the wrongs we do. And I do believe that hanging on to bitterness and anger isn't healthy for anyone.

I just don't think forgiveness should be automatically conferred, nor should it be expected. As Cohen says, asking for forgiveness shouldn't be a claim but a hope.


Alina Tugend writes the "ShortCuts" column for The New York Times. Her book "Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong" (Riverhead) has just been released. She can be found on Twitter.