A Brief Review of
A Just Forgiveness:
Responsible Healing Without Excusing Injustice.
By Everett L. Worthington, Jr.
Paperback: IVP Books, 2009.
Buy now: [ ChristianBooks.com ]
Reviewed by Shaun C. Brown.
Everett Worthington, Professor of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, has spent the last two decades studying forgiveness scientifically and clinically. Worthington has written numerous articles and books, such as Forgiving and Reconciling and The Power of Forgiving, on the subject. Worthington’s newest work, A Just Forgiveness, continues his research. Worthington is currently a lay Presbyterian, but says that he has attended churches of numerous denominations. His theological perspective, as seen in the pages of A Just Forgiveness, has Reformed and Augustinian tendencies.
Worthington deals with forgiveness in concrete situations, such as in stories of patients he has counseled, victims of the Holocaust and Rwanda genocide, and his own struggle to forgive his mother’s murderer. Throughout A Just Forgiveness, Worthington calls upon Christians to humbly submit to God with a self-sacrificial attitude in the midst of hurt. His primary argument throughout the book is that Christians can forgive others without being doormats and that forgiveness and justice can and must be held together. Micah 6:8 serves as the book’s theme passage.
In part one, Worthington deals with the tensions of justice and forgiveness and fully defines humility, justice, and forgiveness. Worthington roots forgiveness in the initiative of God and the atonement of Christ, which he sees as including both propitiation and expiation. He says that forgiveness is not synonymous with reconciling, exonerating, or condoning. “Instead, forgiveness holds the offender responsible for wrongdoing” (74). Worthington discusses two different types of forgiveness: “Decisional forgiveness is controlling our behavioral intentions. Emotional forgiveness is experiencing emotional replacement of negative, unforgiving emotions with positive, other-oriented emotions” (75). Emotional forgiveness takes longer for a person to reach. Worthington offers five steps to emotional forgiveness by using the acronym REACH: Recall the hurt, Empathize, Altruistic gift of forgiveness, Commit publicly to forgive in a way that can be observed, and Hold on to forgiveness (103–104).
While Worthington does not believe forgiveness and reconciliation are synonymous, he does hope (emotional) forgiveness will lead to reconciliation. He also gives four steps of reconciliation: decide, discuss, detoxify, and devote (107 – 111). Worthington also discusses the need for self-forgiveness.
In part two, Worthington applies just forgiveness to four spheres: family, church, communities and societies, and world. The chapter on the family includes a helpful discussion of how to confess sin. In his discussion of the church, Worthington uses Max Weber’s church/sect distinction and examples from history and the present to illustrate the power struggles and group dynamics of churches, as well as the need for people to heal wounds. Worthington roots human participation in communities and societies in humanity’s creation in the image of God and discusses the need for just forgiveness in the workplace, business, and in the United States. In the chapter on the world, Worthington deals with prejudice, societal violence and conflict, the cycle of aggression, and diplomacy.
A Just Forgiveness has its weaknesses. While Worthington correctly roots forgiveness in the atonement, the work often lacks theological sophistication. Worthington’s decision to place forgiveness, rather than issues such as God’s love or the incarnation, at the center of Christianity is questionable. His theological presuppositions, such as substitutionary atonement, may also upset readers with feminist or Girardian perspectives. Also, while Worthington briefly discusses four types of justice (distributive, retributive, restorative, and procedural ), he focuses upon justice primarily as punishment. Worthington writes from a distinctly American perspective. Thus, many of the issues he addresses in the world chapter, such as prejudice and societal violence, should be considered local issues for the people involved rather than global.
Despite these weaknesses, A Just Forgiveness has its share of strengths. Worthington writes at an accessible level in his discussions of both theological and psychological issues. Worthington also raises important issues for the church to discuss. Worthington takes the issue of forgiveness seriously. He describes in various cases how difficult it is for people to forgive someone who raped them or killed a family member. Despite this difficulty, Worthington notes, “Christians do not forgive because it is easy—it isn’t. Christians forgive because it is right and because we are responding to God’s love and forgiveness of us” (91).
Shaun C. Brown is Associate Minister of Youth at Central Holston Christian Church in Bristol, TN, where he lives with his wife Cassandra and beta fish, Gimli.