Forgiveness and Faith

I suspect most people have had the experience of having to forgive themselves for something bad they did because there was no way to seek forgiveness from the person who was harmed. “I wish I hadn’t shoved that kid off the teeter totter in kindergarten — he got a black eye. I’d apologize now, but I can’t remember his name and anyway I think his family moved away years ago.” “I wish I hadn’t argued with Grandpa in the last conversation we had before he died, I should have been more respectful and now it’s too late.” But we can usually forgive ourselves using our own powers of reason and our moral sense. For example in the former case “I was a child, I didn’t know better, and the victim probably doesn’t even remember it today” or in the latter case “Grandpa knew that I loved and respected him, and he would have died knowing that whether our last discussion was positive or negative”.

But what about people who have done far more horrible things than the above examples, and can’t argue themselves out of an enduring sense of guilt? It has been my privilege to work extensively with Vietnam veterans over the years, some of whom have been in this soul-rending situation for decades. The magnificent series “Vietnam: A Television History” had an interview of one vet who was describing Vietnam and then suddenly burst into tears and admitted he had shot a Vietnamese woman in a rice paddy without reason. I have known a lot of vets like that, they killed people or did other horrible things and they don’t know the names of the victims or even exactly where it happened. There is no one on this earth to forgive them, not even a surviving relative of the victim is available.

Some societies have addressed this with Truth and Reconciliation commissions. But most guilt-stricken people (Vietnam veterans or otherwise) will never have an opportunity to participate in such fora.

What I have seen in my career and life is that this ultimately becomes a question of religious faith. If the person believes in God, who watches and knows all, then there is always a witness from whom forgiveness can be sought. In contrast, if the veteran doesn’t believe in God, they may carry their guilt throughout their lives, wanting to atone but not knowing to whom to turn. I suppose some people would argue that lifelong guilt is condign punishment for having done something awful. But I don’t believe that, particularly when I think of soldiers who have been in horrifically stressful situations that would severely test the moral character of the best of us. When my skills as a mental health professional are exhausted and have proven useless for a guilt-stricken veteran, I therefore hope for something I don’t have the power to deliver, namely a restoration of faith and the possibility of peace it may bring.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

11 thoughts on “Forgiveness and Faith”

  1. That is a beautiful little essay. I am firmly atheist, but I have been impressed in countless ways by the necessity and the power of forgiveness in life. We bestow a great gift when we can offer forgiveness to others, or to ourselves.

  2. I am a Viet Nam combat vet and a Buddhist. I don't have a higher power to turn to for forgiveness. But I believe in the law of karma, that actions have consequences. I believe in the teaching that it is possible for anyone to "burn up" their past negative karma (actions) by planting the seeds of goodness and compassion in their own life and the lives of others, through positive actions. Some might call this faith, but regardless, it has been very helpful and allowed me to practice self forgiveness as well as loving kindness. It is a practice that sustains me.

  3. The other side is that there are a lot of people in this world, who have witnessed or been on the receiving end of cruelty, some of it acutely, physically brutal, some of it subtle and persistent and psychological. There may be physical scars, pain and disability, or not. The damage may be economic. Millions of people, who worked hard, aspired to a college education or to own a home, are now in debt peonage or homeless, unable to provide for a family, or fulfill the most basic of human ambitions and obligations, because some narcissists at a bank wanted a bigger bonus. It might be as simple as having to work unpaid overtime at a job, because there's no feasible way to defend one's rights, without sacrificing a job in a time of 15% unemployment, and having to accept being cheated and powerless, in a political society that simply doesn't care about you. Or, it might be as personal and intimate as being abused and neglected as a child or other dependent in a family. Or, as random as being the victim of a car accident, the consequence of someone's irresponsible drunkenness or cellphone texting. Or, a victim of explosive criminal violence.

    What I would say to those sincerely seeking foregiveness, but unable to make amends to their particular victim, is that there are plenty of victims in this world. No shortage, there.

    I would also say, based on my religious faith, that religion is not for you. Religion — real religion — is not there to serve you, or to bind your wounds. Religion is there to serve the victims. Its for the guilt of the victims — and the victims, if they survive at all, suffer far more profoundly from guilt than the perpetrators of atrocity and oppression — that religion offers the needed power of forgiveness.

    I would also say that faith without works is dead. Religion is an opportunity for the guilty to serve. It is an opportunity too seldom taken up.

  4. Your short musing reminds me of Renato Rosaldo's Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis!

  5. A movie scene that taught me about the nature of penance and atonement occurs in The Mission. Father Gabriel assigns Mendoza (a slave trader) to perform an act of penance for the murder of his brother. He begs for the penance not to be too light. Gabriel packs Mendoza's armor and weapons into a satchel and tells him to climb the falls to the Guarani village above the falls. Mendoza accepts the penance and seems about to fail when he cries to God for mercy. Jesuit brothers cut away his satchel, but Mendoza refuses the assistance and ties the sack to his waist.

    He succeeds in climbing the falls. The Guarani cut away his burden and send the weapons over the falls and out of his life. Penance may be self-imposed or externally imposed. Regardless of the source, it is ineffective unless the penance is accepted by penitent.

    In my view (and experience), a psychiatrist or psychologist can assign penance. But it is only effective to the extent that the penitent accepts the penance as sufficient expiation for their wrongdoing.

    Carl, I'd like to join Keith in thanking you for both your service and your wisdom.

  6. Nice piece. I'd also quibble with the assumption that atheists have it worse. But I'll ask this: what is it about believing there is a higher power who saw what you did and is thus able to forgive you, that makes forgiveness any easier? Because it seems to me you're still stuck in the same place.

    "God is supposed to forgive me, but I still feel lousy; through doing good works I might find redemption."

    Seems the same as:

    "There's no real "purpose" to the universe so I shouldn't really feel guilty, but I still do; through doing good works I can increase happiness in the world and maybe make up for what I have taken."

    In both places, you're still just a human, farting around, as Vonnegut put it.

  7. A lovely essay. As one who has listened to the pain of Vietnam vets, there are times that I wished that I wore a collar backwards and could just forgive them. But guilt – the recognition that one's behavior has been monstrous and that there is no simple amends that will take care of it, can provide the basis of a very different life. I am an atheist, with Taoist leanings. I have done things that are monstrous on an individual level – it is amazing, the damage one can do with just a few words – and learning to accept myself, so imperfect, I also learned to accept the imperfections of others (as well as learning to hold my tongue). I didn't go to Vietnam although my age is right, I didn't face the challenges those men – and women – faced.

    Accepting oneself isn't the same as forgiveness, but the acceptance allows one to go on, and to see the value of giving back, to burn off the negative Karma, to make amends for that which can't be forgiven. The idea of Christian forgiveness is that of a washing away of "sin," But it is never really gone, but acceptance leads to congruence (and Rogers stated in 1973 that that's where mental health begins).

    The search for forgiveness is a chimera. even those that I have done wrong to, can't really take away my guilt and one can't give it to oneself and truly hold it – but acceptance of oneself – that is within reach. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" – the purity of heart comes with that acceptance – I am what I am (Popeye?) – congruence, that is within reach.

    Geez I get preachy…



  8. I've come back several times to reread Carl's and Bruce Wilder's comments. They're making me feel that the social justice ethos I grew up might still yet make a good-sized comeback, that it hasn't totally been extinguished.

  9. To echo Carl H and Bruce Wilder:

    There are a lot of situations in which you really want to do X to make up for what you did, but you can't. One is the one under discussion: you want to make amends to someone, but you can't. Another: having done something awful, you want more than anything to reach back through time, grab your previous self, and say: No! Do NOT do that! — and somehow manage to do what you now know that you ought to have done.

    In both cases, while the specific thing you want to do is impossible, something like it is not. In the case of reaching back through time, you can't undo the past, but you can do whatever it takes not to do something similar in the future. This is not *exactly* what you need to do, but it's close, especially since the very same motives that would lead you to reach back through time and undo your mistake if you could ought to lead you to try to prevent yourself from making the same mistake again. In the case of asking for forgiveness, you might not be able to make amends to *the specific person* you harmed, but you can try to help others, especially others whose need arises from someone else's need for forgiveness, and hope that someone, somewhere, might be doing the same for the person you harmed. And, again, part of what makes this work is that it draws on the same motives that lead you to try to make amends to the actual person you harmed.

    If you can't make amends to the specific person you harmed, you can at least try to make amends to the universe. And you don't need to be a theist to do that.

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