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The Selfishness of Forgiveness

Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (March 10, 2016)

“It is much more agreeable to offend and later ask forgiveness than to be offended and grant forgiveness,” said the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Causing an offence and needing forgiveness is much easier than offering forgiveness. But there are so many benefits to forgiveness, even selfish ones. Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting or pardoning the offence but it does mean to let it go.

Forgiveness for yourself

I was giving a lecture to university students on the topic of forgiveness recently and asked them the question “how many people does it take in a relationship to have forgiveness?”. Many of them raised their hands for the number 2, fewer raised their hands for the number 1. Many viewed forgiveness as a two-way thing where you need a forgiver and a forgive. It’s true that two people create the situation where forgiveness is required but choosing to forgive is the choice of 1 person, and one person alone. Choosing to forgive may mean not getting an apology, it may mean never telling the person you had forgiven them but it does mean making a choice to forgive that person. And there is so much research to show the benefits of forgiveness – better physical health due to lower stress levels, better emotional health and well-being and even better spiritual health. So, even if done for selfish reasons, forgiveness is a good thing.

Forgiveness for your relationships

Forgiveness is what mends relationships. We teach young children that friendship is like a bridge and in the same way that a bridge connects two places, friendship connects two people. Friendships can sometimes face challenges and conflicts and the bridge can wobble and break. What makes the bridge strong again is if we rebuild it and in relationships, it’s granting forgiveness. Forgiveness enables the ‘friendship bridge’ to be built again, and sometimes it can be even stronger than it was before.

Asking for forgiveness

I was recently giving a parenting talk on the importance of character education in the home setting and sharing with parents how it’s important that they serve as good role models. It’s not effective if you teach your child to be honest if he sees you telling a white lie to someone else. Your actions would then override the words you had spoken. After sharing this, a father raised his hand to ask a very good question. He said that he wants to be the best father he can be and be a good role model but the fact of the matter is that he sometimes loses his temper, even at his daughter, and worries that he’s not being a good example to her. He asked me what he should do in such situations.

In Asian cultures, it’s very rare to find someone older and in authority like a parent, elder or teacher, admitting wrong to someone younger and asking for forgiveness. But it’s so powerful and such a good way to teach younger people the need to show humility and ask for forgiveness. I shared with this dad that the best thing he can do is to ask for his daughter’s forgiveness - if he had a temper at her, to ask her to forgive him for shouting at her. That way, the daughter will learn two important lessons – first, that no one is perfect and two, that when she makes a mistake, that she too can ask for forgiveness. After all, nobody’s perfect; everyone will need to ask for forgiveness from someone at some point. Better to learn it at a young age.

The greatest forgiveness

Forgiving someone who has wronged you is never easy but one thing that does make it easier if you have once received forgiveness for something even greater. To be forgiven much gives you strength to forgive more. For someone with a Christian faith, I realise how many wrongs I have committed and how much I have been forgiven by God. To receive that forgiveness from God and not give it to someone else is like saying I’ve been given a million dollars and I won’t give ten dollars away. That would be absurd in monetary terms but that’s often how we treat forgiveness. The highest calling is to forgive and we have been forgiven much.

So, forgiveness has so many benefits – why not start now? Think of someone you have a grudge against, someone who has wronged you and perhaps never apologized, someone you’re still mad at and make a choice in your heart to forgive. You won’t regret it.


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