Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach

Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach

by Bryan Maier

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Bringing practicality back to the work of forgiveness for counselors and pastors

Much work in both academic and clinical counseling has focused on forgiveness and what, precisely, it means. We now know forgiveness offers both physical and psychological benefits. Yet despite all this exploration, most Christians are far from having a clear, consistent, theologically informed definition.

Bryan Maier wants this conceptual ambiguity to end, especially for the pastor or counselor sitting across from a hurting person seeking immediate, practical help. The Christian counselor needs to be able to walk the client through the question, "Can forgiveness coexist with justice?"

To this end, Maier examines current popular models of forgiveness, considering where they merge and diverge, and what merits each type of forgiveness has. He then delves directly into Scripture to discover the original model of God's forgiveness to humankind. From there, he builds a new construct of human forgiveness with practical guidance to help those in counseling understand the concept theologically. In doing so, he demonstrates that our understanding that forgiveness leads to healing is inverted; being whole leads to true forgiveness, not the other way around.

Forgiveness and Justice is extremely useful for any practitioner needing to form a useful, theologically sound understanding of forgiveness for those who come for help.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780825486661
Publisher: Kregel Publications
Publication date: 05/27/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 438,934
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Bryan Maier is a counselor, former pastor, and associate professor of counseling and psychology at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. Maier holds a doctorate of psychology from Wheaton College.

Read an Excerpt

Forgiveness And Justice

A Christian Approach

By Bryan Maier

Kregel Publications

Copyright © 2017 Bryan Maier
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8254-4405-0



The concept of forgiveness carries a heavy weight — more than it can bear. It means so many things to so many people who consider it from different frames of reference — from academicians influenced by grand theological teachings to secular researchers trying to reduce abstruse concepts into manageable, bite-size units that can be studied in laboratory settings. What has evolved is a mishmash of concepts that often do nothing more than confuse and pressure those who are seeking relief from suffering. What is missing is a concrete, down-to-earth vision of forgiveness — one that is human and attainable.

— Janis Abrahms Spring

Through angry tears, Ellen reported that she had caught George in yet another extramarital affair — his fourth in their six-year marriage. She had asked him to leave and would not take him back unless he agreed to counseling. George proudly justified his own behavior in light of the fact that Ellen herself had actually taken their three-year-old son and moved in with an old boyfriend the year prior. After finding her and talking her into moving back in with him, George soon had his next affair to pay her back. At this point, Ellen interrupted to defend herself: "But I only moved in with Frank to get back at you for all of your affairs." George shot back with, "Having an affair is one thing, but taking my son away from me — this is going too far!" Needless to say, the session ended with a heavy feeling that we were just beginning a long and painful journey together.

A week later, it was as if I were dealing with a completely different couple. Both were smiling (although Ellen's smile was a bit more contrived) and George's posture and gait exuded confidence. When I remarked on the change, George proudly proclaimed, "We talked this week and Ellen has forgiven me for all of my affairs and now we are back living together." To my amazement, Ellen confirmed this was true. "Yes," she replied, "I have to forgive him. After all, I did have an affair, too, and I did take his son away and even though I don't go to church very often, I know God wants me to forgive." Turning to George, I asked if he had truly forgiven Ellen. He paused for a couple of seconds, as if he were deciding, and then said, "Sure, why not, as long as she promises never to do it again."

This exchange reveals several assumptions about forgiveness not unique to George and Ellen. The first and most salient assumption is the belief that forgiveness is something that can happen rather quickly, that the effects of years of cruel and demeaning behavior can be reduced as a result of one or two discussions. For Ellen and George, forgiveness is apparently a discrete act in time (not a process) that forever resolves an offense.

Another assumption of Ellen's is that personal wrongdoing on the part of the victim modifies or cancels out the sin of the perpetrator. Through her one affair, Ellen has forever forfeited her right to be upset with George for his many affairs. We might argue that four (affairs) to one hardly seems equal, but the fact remains that vows of faithfulness were broken on both sides. Perhaps George's point about Ellen taking their son away helps to even the score. The formula might be something like "one affair + taking the son = four (or more) affairs without taking the son." For George, however, the scales are still not quite balanced. Ellen still owes him somehow for the severity of her betrayal and thus he can postpone his forgiveness of her.

Finally, Ellen recognizes that God probably has something to do with forgiveness. She remembers her religious upbringing that stressed forgiveness as a response to a command of God. As painful as her life has turned out, she cannot afford to face the anger of whatever God might exist. So she tries to forgive George as best she knows how and hopes that one day he will forgive her and they can live with a little less pain.

Do George and Ellen's assumptions about forgiveness reflect anything close to what forgiveness really is ? By what criteria should I, as a counselor, judge their views on forgiveness? Moreover, as a Christian, should I allow my faith to influence my professional views on forgiveness ? Is there a distinctly Christian view of forgiveness or is all forgiveness the same ? These questions and many more consistently emerge in my encounters with people who seek to forgive and be forgiven.

Four Conclusions of Forgiveness Literature

Contemporary research in the area of counseling and psychology points to a renewed interest in the topic of forgiveness. What was once viewed as at best a mere religious idea, and at worst a pious reinforcement for weakness, is now seen as an increasingly effective tool in helping people deal with interpersonal pain. We may draw several conclusions from this quarter-century of research that can help us in our attempt to define and understand forgiveness.

Forgiveness Is Good For You

The first and most common conclusion is that forgiveness, whatever it is, is good for us. Although some depict the relationship between forgiveness and health as an "unanswered question," the overwhelming conclusion of most writers in this area is that forgiveness brings at least some health benefits, including but not limited to: lower blood pressure, reduced hypertension, and overall better cardiovascular health. Furthermore, people who are more forgiving report less stress and fewer stress-related symptoms and overall health problems. One study suggests that the benefits of forgiveness could even penetrate to the cellular level, while another claims that forgiveness can even reduce the severity of psoriasis.

The benefits of forgiveness are not limited to the physical realm, however. Those who "take the time to go through the forgiveness process" become "psychologically healthier." One of the earliest studies in this area found that forgiveness could alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and even paranoia. Forgiveness also builds self-esteem and eliminates the unhealthy side effects associated with holding a grudge. Apparently, as the title of one work claims, It feels good to forgive. Morally, it builds character and contributes to overall emotional maturity. Forgiveness appears to be so effective for such a wide range of problems that it is even being considered as an empirically supported treatment — the title coveted by those who present new interventions, as such treatments are usually accompanied by increased third-party reimbursements. Robert D. Enright confidently states that "forgiveness works." Yet some are concerned that the benefits of forgiveness have been exaggerated. Jeffrie G. Murphy wonders if forgiveness is becoming a "universal panacea for all mental, moral, and spiritual ills." Despite these questions, there is some evidence from the current research that forgiveness is good for us.

If emphasizing the positive does not work, a corollary of this kind of research is that not forgiving is bad for us. Not only does it increase the chances for ulcers, high blood pressure, and ostensibly, all of the other disorders that forgiveness would help alleviate; but it also allows anger to fester, thereby causing all kinds of additional damage. Some authors compare unforgiveness to the "fight or flight" mechanism in that it serves well as a self-protective measure for a very short time, but no human was meant to live in that state permanently. Others equate unforgiveness with anger and thus emphasize forgiveness as a useful way to reduce all of the potential harm that can come from suppressed resentment. Hence, if unforgiveness promotes emotional conditions that have already been shown to be dysfunctional, then any intervention that reduces or eliminates such symptoms would clearly be healthy and beneficial. Thus, as an antidote to all of the toxic side effects of unforgiveness, some kind of forgiveness procedure seems to fit the bill nicely.

Factors That Correlate with Forgiveness

Another major theme of the research goes this way: since forgiveness is so good, it must be advantageous to identify factors that help or hinder the act of forgiveness. Anyone familiar with psychological theory will recognize the various attachment styles usually formed early in life and used as relational templates from then on. It should come as no surprise that those with secure attachment styles seem to have an easier time with forgiveness. In addition, certain personality traits and conflict resolution styles also correlate with a greater ability to forgive. These are just some of the variables that positively correlate with forgiveness, while, not surprisingly, rumination or brooding does not correlate as highly.

Design of Forgiveness Assessment Tools

A third conclusion from current research is that the newly discovered power of forgiveness has spawned a new cottage industry — the creation of assessment tools for measuring a person's level of forgiveness. These scales, in typical research fashion, assign a numerical value to either someone's level of forgiveness or her propensity to forgive. Again, if forgiveness is beneficial, it is incumbent upon researchers and counselors to be able to assess whether and to what degree clients are correctly performing such a powerful technique. There are at least two counseling related concerns with these tools aside from the diversity of definitions of forgiveness. First, the designer of the scale must assign some kind of quantitative threshold as a target for the client to reach. This could create pressure on the client to aim for a particular score rather than struggle with what forgiveness might mean in her particular situation. The second concern is the fact that this kind of research can only provide a snapshot of where the client might be in a specific moment in time. Where she is on a trajectory might be harder to measure (repeated administrations of the same test risk being corrupted by practice effect). If the process of forgiveness is often a winding road with lots of turns, the value of measuring one particular location is questionable.

Construction of Forgiveness Models

The final theme of contemporary forgiveness literature which can aid us in defining forgiveness is the actual methodology — a "how-to manual," essentially. This is the most theoretical of the four themes and thus not technically research in the purest sense of the word. Not surprisingly, for this reason and others, the conclusions about how to do forgiveness are varied; to date, there are close to twenty different step-by- step models. A cursory study noting the number of steps required to forgive (average of five, with a standard deviation of two) reveals the wide diversity. One method advocates as many as sixteen steps! Can all of these recipes possibly produce the same dish?

Assessing Two Common Forgiveness Models

Although each model has its own distinctive formula, surveying two of the more dominant paradigms of how to carry out forgiveness will at least provide some sense of what is usually portrayed as forgiveness. These are Enright's four-phase model and Everett L. Worthington's five-step model. Because these are two of the shorter models, many of the concepts mentioned are expanded upon in the other models. A comparison of these two models gives a sense of how the various models relate. The following chart outlines the two models and shows where they overlap.


Enright's four-phase model is actually much more involved than just four discrete steps; there are several subpoints under each phase. The first phase, Uncovering the Anger, assumes that the victim is repressing or denying the appropriate anger related to the offense. The anger eating away at the victim is what causes so many of the injurious side effects mentioned above. In Enright's model, "unforgiveness" is another term for anger, specifically unresolved anger. If this anger is not faced squarely, no real forgiveness can occur. Like spoiled food, it must be expunged in order for the body to feel better. Denying the poison only makes things worse.

Once the anger has been faced and released to some degree, the potential forgiver next needs to decide to forgive. The implication here is that if the victim makes the decision, it is more likely to be real and therefore completed. A person rarely does something without first deciding to do it. The actual decision somehow reduces ambivalence and anxiety. Deciding to forgive (especially after the anger has run its course) is similar.

Curiously, somewhere between Steps 2 and 3, actual forgiveness takes place. By Step 3 the forgiver is "working on" following through with the decision of Step 2. Forgiveness can be hard work and thus continual reinforcement may be needed to make forgiveness feel real. Although the model does not spell out when this actually happens, it is eventually cause for joy. An emerging recognition on the part of the victim that she has indeed forgiven her offender brings a new sense of relief. Those negative side effects that come with unforgiveness evaporate, while all of the positive blessings that accompany forgiveness emerge.


Worthington's model begins similarly, although he broadens the emotional response to involve recalling the hurt. This hurt may include anger but is not limited to it. Feelings of sadness, betrayal, pain, and many other emotions must be faced openly and honestly. Again, to deny the pain (in whatever form) only makes things worse.

At this point Worthington inserts a second preliminary step before the actual step of forgiveness: Empathizing with the Offender, in which empathy means the victim imagines herself in the shoes of the offender. "Why did he do it ? How intentional was it ? How could I, if I were he, ever do such a thing?" are all questions victims should explore as they attempt to project themselves into the minds of the offenders. The assumption here is that to whatever degree the victim can empathize at all with the offender, forgiveness will come that much more easily. This step comes before the actual step of forgiveness because it provides the victim a bridge from thinking of her own pain (Step 1: Recall the Hurt) to thinking of the pain of the offender, which eventually leads to forgiving him. The victim first embraces her own pain and is prepared through this empathy to feel the pain of the offender, which in turn paves the way for forgiveness.

Worthington's decision step is framed in terms of an altruistic gift to the offender. Since presumably the victim has already made the switch in her mind from thinking of her own pain to thinking of the pain of the offender, the forgiveness is free ("a gift") and for his sake. It is this supposed "other-centeredness" that makes the decision possible, but it is still a decision to forgive — which remains undefined. Like Enright, Worthington does not include a step that explains or describes the actual forgiveness and therefore, we are left to assume that it occurs somewhere between Steps 3 and 4.

Following such a decision to forgive, there is often a great deal of residual pain and resentment. Worthington explains this as the emotions not keeping up with the will. In other words, we can decide to forgive (and presumably even do it) and still not "feel" like everything has been resolved. One of the ways to accelerate this reuniting of the emotions with the will is to commit publicly to forgive. It is as if the will says to the emotions, "We are now going on the public record with this decision, so you had better catch up." Going public with a decision makes reneging just a little bit more difficult (although not impossible). Even after a public pronouncement, a gap can still exist between what a person has done and how she feels about the whole situation. For some people forgiveness is hard and long and thus has to be "worked through" (Step 5).

From this brief survey of two dominant views of forgiveness, it is clear that models may overlap at some points, and yet, there are significant differences. For example, Enright makes anger the main emotion that needs to be faced, whereas Worthington broadens it to hurt. Worthington adds the step of empathy as preliminary to the actual decision to forgive, whereas Enright moves directly from facing anger to deciding to forgive. Finally, Enright's model ends with a sense of joy and release, but Worthington leaves his forgivers still struggling to hold on to whatever forgiveness they were able to muster. These divergences, revealed in a comparison of just two of the shorter models, multiply in examination of the longer models of forgiveness.


Excerpted from Forgiveness And Justice by Bryan Maier. Copyright © 2017 Bryan Maier. Excerpted by permission of Kregel Publications.
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Table of Contents

Preface 9

1 Measuring and Defining Forgiveness 15

2 Sharpening the Definition of Forgiveness 31

3 Resentment and Repentance 45

4 Modeling God's Forgiveness 57

5 The God Who Keeps Score 71

6 Trusting God for Justice 81

7 Impact of the Imprecatory Psalms 89

8 Forgiveness Is Active and Other-Centered 97

9 Denning Forgiveness 107

10 Authentic Repentance 119

11 Results of Forgiveness 129

12 Forgiveness and Justice in Counseling 139

Epilogue 149

Endnotes 151

Bibliography 155

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