Some scholarly articles teach. Others infuriate. A few spark interest. A few more spark a good nap. But change the world? Those articles are rare indeed.

In the summer of 2016, however, Dr. Milo Milburn, a professor of psychology at Franciscan University, learned that his article, “To Forgive Is to Be Sane and Realistic: Contributions of REBT to the Psychology of Forgiving,” was selected by Springer Publishing as one of the “ground-breaking articles that has the potential to change the world.”

Milburn’s article was first published in the December 2015 issue of the Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive Behavior Therapy (JORE). Several months later, Springer, one of the largest publishers of scientific books and Journals, asked the editors-in-chief of 100-plus journals to select one article from 2015 that “addresses the world’s most pressing challenges.” Milburn was JORE’S choice.

After the announcement was made, Franciscan Magazine spoke with Milburn about the nature of forgiveness and some of the themes his article unpacks.

Franciscan Magazine: What does it mean to forgive? What does it not mean?

Dr, Milo Milburn: A number of people have written about this question over the years and the distinctions they’ve set up are very important- not simply academically, but also practically. A major obstacle to moving through the process of forgiving someone is confusing forgiveness with something else. If we think forgiveness means excusing the wrong that was done to us, saying there was nothing wrong with the behavior, trusting that person again, or being reconciled and having an ongoing relationship, we can be much more reluctant to want to forgive them. Certainly, many of those things could eventually happen in a situation where we’ve forgiven someone. But they’re not the same as forgiveness.

FM: So, if forgiveness isn’t excusing or trusting or pretending something had never happened, what is it? You just described it as a “process.” What does that process look like?

MM: It’s tough to pin it down into a set of sequential stages, but it starts with a person feeling offended. Whatever happened, something presented itself to them in a certain light, and they respond by getting defensive and unforgiving. The offended person feels anger, and that anger is rooted in how the other person’s actions affected them, how it made them feel about themselves. So, say a person steals from the cash register in your store. After that, how you see yourself can change. You can feel like a Chump for trusting that person, or like a fool for letting someone get something over on you. You start to define both yourself and the person who stole from you by that experience. That makes it difficult to forgive them. You’re angry, and you feel entitled to hold on to that anger.

Over time, however, other experiences can happen that remind you you’re not defined by that one experience. That’s not who you are; you’re not a Chump or a fool. Your sense of worth as a person comes to be less threatened. After that, it’s easier to ponder what happened and notice that the offender isn’t all bad. You begin to see that there are mitigating circumstances, influences on this person that may have limited their freedom or propelled them to a certain action. You might even realize that you played a part in what led up to their offense. As that happens, we stop defining the person by their offense, and our sense of peace is restored. The moment when you really forgive someone is the moment you get past believing that their offense defines you. You accept your vulnerability and others’ weakness as part of life. In that compassion for yourself and others is where you really find forgiveness.

FM: How does it hurt us when we fail to forgive?

MM: One of the things that seems to be fairly consistent in the literature is that there are both physical and psychological disadvantages to unforgiveness. Physically speaking, most studies can’t establish an absolute cause and effect relationship. There are, however, signsficant correlations and predictive relationships between anger or unforgiveness, and coronary artery disease or other physical ailments, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Psychologically, PTSD symptoms tend to be correlated to unforgiveness; they’re worse if trait anger [chronic or
persistent anger] is higher. There’s also excellent research that suggests almost any psychological illness can be helped by forgiveness.

FM: What are some of the unhealthy attitudes that inhibit forgiveness?

MM: Considering Jesus’ admonition to “Judge not,” you would think many Christians would know better, but one of the things that gets in the way for all of us is our failure to confine ourselves to practical judgments of deeds or traits. We’re quick to conclude that “I’m a bad
person,” or someone else is a “bad person” based upon an action. But that’s irrational. We can never know enough to come up with one label that sums up a person’s nature. We’re playing God when we condemn ourselves or another person. That’s one unhealthy attitude.

Another is when we have an overly critical interpretation of how God responds to our anger. Someone might read the parable of the unforgiving servant in Scripture and become anxious that God is demanding more than they feel capable of doing- for example, they may think that he doesn’t just want them to be willing and open to forgiving but to actually forgive that person right now. But sometimes that’s expecting too much of ourselves. I can be willing to forgive; that’s where the moral requirement is. But on the other hand, I may still struggle with feelings of resentment that I can’t switch off automatically. I’ve found that when people need to forgive significant things, it can require years to reach the point where they can feel compassion for the offender. It’s important to be willing to forgive, but you can’t necessarily force the process by which you forgive. Failure to give yourself time to go through that process can actually get in the way of forgiveness.

FM: What do we do when we can’t bring ourselves to forgive someone easily or right away?

MM: Prayer is always in order. When the desire to hurt someone who has hurt us strikes, we need to pray for the grace to understand and forgive. We also need to ask ourselves, do I have to forgive this person today? If the answer is no, that may take off some pressure that is getting in the way of authentic forgiveness and help me be willing to forgive. Another thing that’s really important is to ask ourselves, “What, if anything, am I mixing in with forgiveness that doesn’t have to be a part of it?” Do I think forgiveness means saying the behavior was OK or that I need to resume the kind of relationship I had with this person before or that I need to trust this person again right now? When we clear away those wrong ideas about forgiveness, we’re left to just focus on what we can do. Another thing Jesus counseled us to do is pray for those who persecute us. That means asking God to bless and redeem that person and have mercy on them. All that requires is moving my mouth. That’s a small thing for me to do, but it changes my orientation.

I’d also advise a person who is struggling to forgive to start looking at what psychologists call “demand beliefs” – personal expectations of what should have happened, of how reality should be. What am I saying about this situation should not have happened. Maybe I’ll find some expectation of mine that’s not rational. When we reject unrealistic demand beliefs, our struggles with others can become more bearable and our emotions change.

FM: Anything else?

MM: Changing our inner dialogue about how we were hurt can also help. Telling myself something was “awful,” “horrible,” or “I can’t stand it” can get in the way of finding peace. With so many things that we might be inclined to have difficult forgiving, we can actually think of 100 other things that could have been worse.

In those cases, we need to revise our mental script to make it more realistic. So, for example, telling ourselves, not “This is horrible; I can’t stand it,” but rather, “This is difficult to deal with, but I can stand it.”