There is an area focus within the counseling field called Forgiveness Therapy. I entered into those gates as a Christian thinking that, as all truth is God’s Truth, this would systematize the concept of forgiveness to which the Scriptures speak. I can be naive, even now.

Modern, non-Christian psychology is good. And bad. There are therapists who embrace all that is Woke in this world, which translates into supporting mental illness in the name of mental health. The Therapeutic Forgiveness model isn’t Woke, and it isn’t wrong – but it is missing the core of what makes forgiveness forgiveness.

Thinking back to the coloring pages of my childhood (I’m sure there’s an app for that on your new-fangled iPad, kids – now, get off my lawn), coloring in the lines was the skill I remember being taught. As oppositional as I may be, I may have actually complied with that directive along the way. Coloring outside the lines, though – coloring only outside the lines – people can still tell what the blank object in the middle is supposed to be. There is no need to make the actual shape pretty colors if you can make the background pretty – and you can still know that it is a cupcake in the negative space. That picture (not the cupcake, but the verbal image I just colored), is what psychological forgiveness is.

Therapeutic forgiveness starts by accepting what you have gone through, recognizing how you endured, and can see strength in not taking further action, nor wishing ill, upon the offender. There is sometimes more, like thankfulness for the unintended growth found in hindsight. Advanced stages of psychological forgiveness may even help develop empathy for the one who did the wrong (not sympathy, for crying out loud!)RANT.

Therapeutic forgiveness is directed inward – it’s all about the person with the pain working at freeing themselves from it. With this model, when I forgive, I do so in order to no longer carry around the burden of a grudge, or the pain of betrayal. Not a bad desire, but not enough. And it’s also unjust – all of the work is squarely on the shoulders of the one who has already been kicked.

Therapeutic forgiveness is not about justice, although Scriptural Forgiveness is. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus described the rules of His Kingdom, where one component is loving your enemies. That’s not justice on the surface, yet it’s yoo-ooge! – loving our enemies implies forgiveness because we could very well be in His kingdom together, me and that enemy of mine. Wait a moment – being in eternity together? Not everyone will be in His kingdom, if the way is narrow. The sheep and the goats will be separated. And yet the lion will lay down with the lamb.

I’m going to connect a couple of dots here, which means that I may not be on solid ground – conjecture should have that caveat. But here goes – if eternity may include the company of our present-day enemies, and the gate into Christ’s kingdom requires that only those who love Christ can enter, then those who we currently identify as our enemies may not really be our enemies forever. And we will be in their company postmortem. Did I do the logic correctly?

Jesus was clear that when a fellow believer sins against us, then comes to us seeking our forgiveness, we are to have an attitude of open forgiveness. No matter how many times they repeat their offense, we are to be ready to extend forgiveness. As they move toward Christ, and as I move toward Christ, our paths will converge.

As they seek Christ, Christ will remake that person into His image – just as Christ is remaking me into His image. If He can transform me, he can transform anybody. That Good News requires I forgive that other person. And it was Jesus who received the punishment of us both, so justice is served.

So what is forgiveness, exactly? The Bible mentions ‘forgiveness’ frequently, but doesn’t use it with the understanding of modern day therapy. So I was unsettled when reading about forgiveness in Scripture with my modern American understanding; something didn’t fit. I found it.

Chris Brauns’ book, Unpacking Forgiveness is written from a pastor’s heart. (BTW, he is not me – but if I could write a book, I’d want it to be like his.) He identified the function of forgiveness, and thereby its core. He spelled it out as:

A commitment

by the offended

to pardon graciously

the repentant

from moral liability, 

and to be reconciled to that person,

although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.

He wrote a whole book on the process of forgiveness, and I am digesting it slowly. His understanding fits beautifully with Scripture. Putting my own understanding onto his definition, I would say that forgiveness is a clearing of the books; a zeroing of the ledger, by the one who was wronged. But not without conditions; repentance by the offender is required. Also, it’s not one-sided because the relationship is the point – so there is a bit of ugly haggling to be expected. The details of working out forgiveness are likely as messy as the details which require forgiveness in the first place.Note But it is necessary.

To put it another way: forgiveness is empathy and sympathy and justice.

Forgiveness is the Gospel.

RANT:  Brene` Brown, and even Douglas Wilson, get those two terms backwards – and because of their reach to their respective audiences, I’m afraid the very important roles and concepts of empathy and sympathy will die a slow and painful death through a lack of understanding. I won’t link to their misrepresentations because of how painful they are to watch.

We need these two words to continue in active use, which means we need them to be clearly understood. Both empathy and sympathy are healing, helpful, important, and needed. And so I rant.

Empathy is seeing through another person’s eyes without feeling what they are feeling. Basic Empathy is the core of all counseling – because I am not you, yet I understand you, I can help move you to where you need to be. There are two levels of empathy: basic and advanced, but neither are sympathy.

Sympathy is me feeling along with you, because I have gone through something similar. Sympathy is most clearly recognized in sympathy cards – because I have lost a loved-one, I understand the pain you feel when you lose a loved-one. That is good, but it can be crippling. I can cry along with you, as we both have experienced a similar hurt, and in that you will have a connection in me. Think of the sympathetic nervous system – it’s always operating alongside all the other bodily functions, but is only highlighted during stress. It can take over at times, which helps a person survive, because it feels everything you feel along the way.  Being alongside is valuable and good in those instances, but the sympathetic nervous system is also at the core of anxiety disorders and PTSD.  Sympathy, likewise, cuts both ways.

Empathy isn’t duplicating the feelings, so it is inherently stronger – I can be alongside you, but outside of your pain; I am the crutch. Basic Empathy goes at your pace yet sees beyond the present moment.  Empathy is able to understand your emotion, support your efforts, and walk with you in the pain - yet it is stable enough to not be swayed, and clear-headed enough to know when and how to redirect you.

Basic empathy is understanding what you are feeling. Advanced empathy is explaining back to you what you are showing. Not every counselor does the Advanced form of empathy well, yet no counselor has to ever do sympathy. Brief moments of sympathy from a professional counselor once in a blue moon can be therapeutic – but it might not be.

Example #1: Sympathy is the AA Sponsor who is also trying to stay sober; such a good thing. Empathy is the Clinical Counselor who works with Relapse Prevention strategies.

Example #2: The surgeon doesn’t need to have been through a bowel resection in order to perform one; but he can show understanding as he explains the procedure and the recovery process. Empathy is his good bedside manner, yet he would not show sympathy by saying, “I know what you’re going through”.

Rant over.

Note: Sounds like a Ninth Step.


All from Chris Brauns, and all well-worth your perusal: