Struggling for Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a two part process involving the offender’s genuine remorse for the offense and the victim’s release of resentment, but what happens when one part is missing?  The last post considered a man’s painful struggle to put the past behind him and to release resentment in the absence of the offenders’ remorse.  I met him in a reconciliation workshop, and in the same workshop I met a woman who had sought forgiveness with sincere remorse for hurtful things she said and did to her mother during adolescence.  Her mother is now 92, and after almost 50 years, still withholds forgiveness.  It pains the woman to know that her mother is unlikely ever to release that resentment, and she continues searching for something she can do to win her mother’s forgiveness.

The Jewish tradition offers a particularly helpful framework for working through this situation.  Teshuva is the name for the rabbinic concept of repentance necessary, but not sufficient, to receive forgiveness.  It is a process for turning to God, mending relationships with others, and turning to one’s true self (the self one was created to become).  Although a deeply personal process, teshuva nominally consists of five steps:  recognizing our wrongs, feeling remorse for them, making restitution to those we harmed, confessing our wrongs to God, and above all, stopping the wrongdoing.

The Jewish tradition recognizes degrees of teshuva.  To stop sinning due to fear of human consequence is a lower degree of repentance than to stop sinning due to fear of divine consequences after death, which is yet a lower degree of repentance than to stop sinning due to a change of heart.  To stop sinning because of love is the highest degree of repentance, but it is not required for forgiveness.  The right actions are enough.  It matters not whether someone is beset with indecision or steadfast if in the end he chooses right actions.  The parable of the prodigal son is a great New Testament illustration.  Did the son return to his father out of love, his hardship having led him to appreciate his father in a new way, or because he was hungry?  It doesn’t matter.  The salient point is that he turned.

Once the steps are completed, there is a basis for forgiveness.  It is sometimes said that one can only be certain that teshuva is complete if the offender chooses right actions when placed in a situation identical to that which led to his wrongdoing.   However, sometimes the situation is impossible to recreate.  A woman in her 60’s cannot go back to her teenage years to prove her repentance.

Jewish law offers guidance here, too.  Medieval rabbinic authority Mainomides teaches that the offender “must appease and beseech until he is forgiven.  If his fellow man refuses to forgive him then he must bring a group of three of the injured party’s friends and go to him and ask him to forgive.  If he still does not forgive him he must go to him a second and third time with three other people.  If he still refuses to forgive he may cease and the other is the sinner.” [Mishneh Torah]

Following this path may not make forgiveness complete, but it does give someone seeking healing hope for making peace with a painful past.

Join the conversation.  Have you been locked in conflict with someone clinging to resentment?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit

2 thoughts on “Struggling for Forgiveness

  1. Pingback: Forgiving an Abuser: One Woman’s Story | Across Traditions Blog

  2. Pingback: When Parents Won’t Forgive | Across Traditions Blog

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