Free Article


by Everett L Worthington Jr.


Forgiveness involves mental, motivational, and emotional changes in a victim after experiencing a transgression—a violation of physical, emotional, or psychological boundaries. Forgiveness has been defined as being of two types—decisional and emotional forgiveness (Worthington, 2003). Decisional forgiveness is making a behavioral intention statement that gives up pursuit of revenge and intends to treat the offender as a valuable person. Emotional forgiveness prevents or replaces unforgiveness, which is an emotional complex of resentment, bitterness, hatred, aggression, anger, and fear. Forgiveness is differentiated from reconciliation, which is the reestablishment of a relationship, with or without communicating forgiveness (because one can say one forgives without actually reestablishing the relationship or one can maintain the relationship with the offender without actually forgiving).


Forgiveness is a core concept in the Christian faith and has been studied by theologians since the beginning of Christianity, which understands forgiveness differently than Jewish theology does (Dorff, 1998). Jewish theology, which emphasizes the external more than the internal life, locates forgiveness as an embedded process conditioned by an offender’s tseuvah (i.e., repentance, or return to the path of God). Jesus, and later Paul, conceptualized forgiveness as more internal—as a decision about one’s own future behavior and as an emotional coming to peace.


Forgiveness is assessed on three levels. The trait level measures consistency across time and different relationships, often using the Trait Forgiveness Scale (Berry, Worthington, O’Connor, Parrott, & Wade, 2005) or the Heartland Forgiveness Scale (Thompson et al., 2005). The relationship level measures consistency over time and across one relationship, such as marriage (Paleari, Regalia, & Fincham, 2009). The event level measures change over time in the level of decisional and emotional forgiveness (Worthington, Hook, Utsey, Williams, & Neil, 2007). McCullough et al. (1998) assessed unforgiving or forgiving motivation, and Enright (1994) assessed affect, behavior, and cognition around forgiveness. Forgiveness might also be assessed as the presence of positive (or the absence of negative) thoughts, motives, or feelings (Rye et al., 2001).

In addition to the forgiveness by the victim, it is important also to consider the offender. Some people are interested in forgiveness of the offender by God (Toussaint, Williams, Musick, & Everson, 2001) or the offender’s anger at God (Wood et al., 2010). Others have looked at the offender’s sense of guilt, shame, and remorse resulting in self-condemnation or self-forgiveness, which can be assessed at the trait level (Thompson et al., 2005) or the event level (Fisher & Exline, 2006; Wohl, DeShea, & Wahkinney, 2008). Measurement of forgiveness has been done with great psychometric support for most measures.


The most research-supported model of forgiveness therapy with psychopathology is Enright’s process model (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000), which conceptualizes forgiveness in 20 steps grouped in four phases of treatment. It has been done with individual clients or in groups and typically produces successful outcomes. Other models used for psychotherapy, but less investigated, are by Luskin, Ginzberg, & Thoresen (2005), Worthington (2006), and for couples counseling, Gordon, Baucom, & Snyder (2004). Other therapies for recovery from affairs are Worthington’s model for enrichment, enhancement, and couple therapy, and DiBlasio’s model (DiBlasio & Benda, 2008). Only DiBlasio’s and Worthington’s models have been tested explicitly with Christians. For group psychoeducation, Worthington’s REACH model has been shown to be effective in more than five published studies with secular populations and five studies with Christians—it is the only enrichment treatment that has been tested with Christians.

Biblical and Spiritual Issues.

Forgiveness is one of the two principles that are foundational for Christianity (the other is love). Thus, the verses supporting it are found throughout Scripture, most familiarly in connection with the Lord’s prayer (Mt. 6:12-15) and Peter’s question about how often Christians must forgive (Mt. 18:21-22).

Additional Issues.

Some disagreement about forgiveness occurs within the Christian community.

Should forgiveness be unilateral or conditioned on the offender’s repentance? Almost all believe it is unilateral.

Should forgiveness require willingness or efforts toward the reestablishment of a damaged relationship? Almost all believe that forgiveness is independent of relationship repair, though it often can lead to steps of reconciliation.

Are any acts unforgivable? Most believe that all offenses are forgivable, though many are extremely difficult to forgive.

Does complete forgiveness require total and constant emotional peace?

Regarding this last question, most believe that decisional forgiveness is an unwavering decision to treat the other as a valuable person and not to pursue harmful responses, such as revenge. However, most believe that emotional forgiveness is more difficult to experience, is subject to daily and event-related moods, and is not the forgiveness being spoken about in Matthew 6:14-15. There, Jesus requires interpersonal forgiveness (likely decisional forgiveness) as a condition for forgiveness from God. (Note: The forgiveness from God described in this passage is not the forgiveness of justification, which would make justification a matter of our work of forgiving rather than of God’s grace. More likely, this passage refers to the fact that harboring resentment effectively blocks our experience of God’s love and forgiveness.)


Berry, J. W., Worthington, E. L., Jr., O’Connor, L., Parrott, L., III, & Wade, N. G. (2005). Forgiveness, vengeful rumination, and affective traits. Journal of Personality, 73, 1 43.

DiBlasio, F. A., & Benda B. B. (2008). Forgiveness intervention with married couples: Two empirical analyses. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 27, 150-158.

Dorff, E. N. (1998). The elements of forgiveness: A Jewish approach. In E. L. Worthington (Ed.), Dimensions of Forgiveness: A Research Approach (pp. 29-55). West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.

Enright, R. D. (1994). The Enright Forgiveness Inventory. Available at

Enright, R. D., & Fitzgibbons, R. P. (2000). Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Fisher, M. L., & Exline, J. J. (2006). Self-forgiveness versus excusing: The roles of remorse, effort, and acceptance of responsibility. Self and Identity, 5, 127-146.

Gordon, K. C., Baucom, D. H., & Snyder, D. K. (2004). An integrative intervention for promoting recovery from extramarital affairs. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 30, 213-231.

Luskin, F., Ginzberg, K., & Thoresen, C. E. (2005). The efficacy of forgiveness intervention in college age adults: Randomized controlled study. Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, 29, 163-184.

McCullough, M. E., Rachal, K. C., Sandage, S. J., Worthington, E. L., Jr., Brown, S. W., & Hight, T. L. (1998). Interpersonal forgiveness in close relationships II: Theoretical elaboration and measurement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 1586-1603.

Paleari, F. G., Regalia, C., & Fincham, F. D. (2009). Measuring offence-specific forgiveness in marriage: The marital offence-specific forgiveness scale (MOFS). Psychological Assessment, 21, 194-209. doi:10.1037/a0016068

Rye, M. S., Loiacono, D. M., Folck, C. D., Olszewski, B. T., Heim, T. A., & Madia, B. P. (2001). Evaluation of the psychometric properties of two forgiveness scales. Current Psychology, 20, 260-277.

Thompson, L. Y., Snyder, C. R., Hoffman, L., Michael, S. T., Rasmussen, H. N., Billings, L. S.,…Roberts, D. E. (2005). Dispositional forgiveness of self, others, and situations. Journal of Personality, 73, 319-359.

Toussaint, L. L., Williams, D. R., Musick, M. A., & Everson, S. A. (2001). Forgiveness and health: Age differences in a U.S. probability sample. Journal of Adult Development, 8, 249-257.

Wohl, M. J. A., DeShea, L., & Wahkinney, R. L. (2008). Looking within: Measuring state self-forgiveness and its relationship to psychological well-being. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 40, 1-10.

Wood, B. T., Worthington, E. L., Jr., Exline, J. J., Yali, A. M., Aten, J. D., & McMinn, M. R. (2010). Development, refinement, and psychometric properties of the Attitudes toward God Scale (ATGS-9). Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2(3), 148-167.

Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2003). Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2006). Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and Application. New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge.

Worthington, E. L., Jr., Hook, J. N., Utsey, S. O., Williams, J. K., & Neil, R. L. (2007, October). Decisional and Emotional Forgiveness. Paper presented at the International Positive Psychology Summit. Washington, DC.