Forgiveness – five components

Five components of a forgiveness journey:
Long before it is put into action the thought of forgiveness after a painful event is born in a victim’s mind by a reflective, inner journey. This introspective process has 3 phases or steps that may lead to two action steps.

Personal/Private – inner forgiveness. The most intimate part of Forgiveness has to do with SELF-LOVE. Here forgiveness focuses on my self – where I acknowledge and accept my feelings of grief, loss and bitterness or shame, I am truthful about what I did, or failed to do, and I release myself from carrying blame for my failures. Jesus said ‘love others like you love yourself’; to love my-self is to know forgiveness by my higher power and to ‘let go’ of my guilt. This is a building block for healing trauma.

Attitude towards the ‘other’. SELF-DENIAL can follow, in which I let go of my right to revenge. This means to follow examples like Nelson Mandela, Mama Deborah, Jean Paul Samputu, Michael Lapsley, Jesus and Stephen (the first Christian martyr), to have an attitude of forgiveness toward those who hurt me. Without some healing of my inner wound I cannot enter this stage because it is too painful to let go of my chance to repay the offender. Yet with healing work, I can forgive the other in my spirit before I have met with them, and even if I do not know who they are.

Willing to move towards the ‘other’. SELF-OFFERING is the 3rd phase. This is the part of forgiveness where I would be free to face the person who hurt me with an intent to treat them as a human being, even though they have not yet apologised to me.

NOTE: all the above occur without any communication with the perpetrator. This was the situation in many of healing stories from Rwanda. Forgiveness emerged from deep within many survivors.
This was unfathomable and irrational to those who believed forgiveness can only be granted after it is preceded by apology.

Able to receive an apology. SELF-GIVING is the 4th component – the part of forgiveness in action where I hear the words of contrition and accept the apology from the ‘other’ or their representative. When spoken in sincerity and face to face, the words ‘I am sorry, please forgive me’ add to the healing of my hurts and always deserves the response “ I accept your apology”.

But “empathy must not dismiss the reality” says Paul Valent. At this stage it is appropriate for the victim to add a call to justice: What you did was wrong and I want to know what you will do to repay something of what was lost.
Here is where forgiveness begins to impact the other person and may even bring the parties to the threshold of an opportunity to accept each other again.

When justice is seen to be done in the community. Where PUBLIC ASSENT is needed, it is a 5th and final act of forgiveness. This is when civil apparatus and the family, cohort or community declares the offender is ‘forgiven’ and opens the possibility to receive them back and re-integrate them. To achieve this the offender must meet the conditions of punishment of the law (or group norm) by attempting to make amends and restore some form of justice in an acceptable way. That was Rwanda’s aim through the Gacaca grass roots justice program.

Comment: These dimensions of forgiveness suggest that we should not be too quick to declare a person ‘forgiven’, nor should we forget the acts committed, or ignore their consequences. However, our openness to forgive grows to the point that prepares us to behave towards the offender in an I’m OK, You’re OK manner.

It is right to expect there be acts restoring something of what was lost after violence and exploitation. This involves both attitude change and justice that is restorative. It sounds just like a healthy interaction between forgiveness and apology.

Fibonacci is a way of describing the ever-expanding growth we observe widely in nature for example in flower petals, shells and seed heads. The sequence of the five components I’ve out-lined gently expands the experience and depth of the journey of forgiveness like the sections of a Fibonacci sequence, as pictured:

Forgiveness is a journey

Prepared by John Steward, Junction Village, 2021
adapted from Choices on the Way to Peace Study guide, 2005

Study guide TO LIVE WELL

Is now available on this website – see STUDY GUIDE. It is a ten part study for small groups. Includes a facilitators guide; question sheets and an introductory video for each session. The Guide aims to help us gain personal insights from the award winning book: “From Genocide to Generosity”.

Screen shot for study guide videos

Working on study guides


The stories in the award-winning From Genocide to Generosity contain principles for steps of healing and change for individuals after difficult events. But the stories do not spell out how you move from grief, bitterness, hatred etc. The process to do this is now explained and developed.

To enable your small group to find some of the principles in the book that can help you, I worked with a videographer to film key questions and ideas on how to step towards change.

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Small group study guide


Six session STUDY GUIDE

The questions relate to the sections of the book From Genocide to Generosity, hatreds heal on Rwanda’s hills by John Steward Ph.D. The purpose of the questions is to reflect on the healing and hope conveyed in the stories and apply what we learn from the Rwandan experience.

“The first duty of love is to listen”, said Paul Tillich. It is essential that our conversations take place in an environment that provides freedom to talk from the heart, and safety to converse without any member of the group wanting to make us change our mind. This is consistent with the small group processes in Rwanda, which allow a person to open their heart without someone else interrupting, judging or correcting them.

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