Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Interpersonal Forgiveness as an Example of Loving One's Enemies

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Interpersonal Forgiveness as an Example of Loving One's Enemies

Article excerpt

We suggest that altruistically-motivated forgiveness is an ideal we rarely achieve. In fact, we often think such forgiveness is impossible. Our contribution is to identify ways that God promotes forgiveness--specifically the ideal forgiveness that demonstrates altruistic love for our enemies. We see God at work in the human psychological processes of forgiving with altruistic motives. We thus address four questions: (1) How do motives shape forgiveness? (2) How do virtues shape forgiveness? (3) How are motives transformed? (4) How do Scripture and God contribute to transforming motivations from justice-oriented motives to forgiveness-oriented motives? Compared with previous writings on forgiveness, we focus more on how transformations of motives and emotions occur.


Loving others often requires that we forgive them for transgressions against us. When Christians forgive--both decide to grant forgiveness and experience emotional forgiveness (Exline, Worthington, Hill, & McCullough, 2003)--they usually believe that they should forgive from the pure motive of love toward the neighbor. That neighbor has (temporarily, we hope) made himself or herself an enemy through transgressing against us. People do not always forgive from the pure motive of altruistic love. In fact, people often think such altruistic forgiveness is difficult, if not impossible. Scriptures clearly tell us to forgive, but offer little specific guidance about how to accomplish this. We contend that altruistic forgiveness is possible. In the following article, we describe the emotions and motivations that help bring about such altruistic forgiveness.


Transgressions will be inflicted upon us. They are part of the Fall. As early as the book of Genesis, we see blame-shifting (Gen 3:12, 14). Cain killed Abel soon after God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (Gen 4:8b). Fallen people will inevitably perpetrate offenses, hurt feelings, place blame, betray trust, and engage in unjust acts against each other.

Moreover, human victims are also fallen. We provoke others to perpetrate injustices. We have self-enhancing motives (Myers & Jeeves, 2003). We are reluctant to admit our role in troubled relationships--to others and even to ourselves. We perceive transgressions even when none might be intended or when others would not have interpreted the act as a transgression.


Because transgressions are inevitable, Scripture has made it plain what we are to do about them. Jesus' teaching is clear. We are to forgive--unilaterally. In Scripture, Jesus admonishes us to "Love [our] enemies" (Matthew 5:44) and "pray for those who persecute [us]" (Matthew 5:44). The Hebrew Scriptures affirm the idea of not holding onto negative attitudes toward an offender. They argue that people should "not seek revenge or bear a grudge" (Leviticus 19:18; see also Proverbs 20:22; 24:29; 25:21, 22; Deuteronomy 32:35; Genesis 50:19-21). In addition, we are told not only to tolerate those who have vowed our destruction and who might have transgressed against us seeking to harm us, but also to love those persons (Matthew 5:44).

Jesus' life serves as a model. Although tempted in all the ways we are tempted, Jesus forgave. His prayer on the cross, "Father, forgive them. They know not what they do" (Luke 23:34a), is the supreme example of forgiveness as an altruistic example of loving his enemies, who were literally in the process of killing him as he forgave them (see also Stephen; Acts 7:60). Paul reaffirmed Jesus' teaching (Romans 12:17-19). In Romans, he admonished his readers, "Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse" (Romans 12:20).

Jesus' direct teaching on forgiveness links Divine forgiveness with human forgiveness of others who have offended us (Matthew 6:12, 14, 15; 18:21, 27; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:37; 11:4, 25; 17:3-4; 2 Corinthians 2:7, 10; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:12-15). …

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