Question: What is the difference between false forgiveness and true forgiveness?

Short answer: According to the Course, the basic difference between the two is that false forgiveness sees sin as real, while true forgiveness sees sin as unreal. False forgiveness assumes that sin is real and then attempts to overlook it; this doesn't work, because it only ends up reinforcing the "reality" of the sin. True forgiveness recognizes that sin is unreal, and thus truly overlooks it; this works, because it reawakens us to the truth that God's Son is sinless. We can exchange false forgiveness for true forgiveness by allowing the Holy Spirit to teach us how to forgive.

False forgiveness assumes that sin is real and then attempts to overlook it; this doesn't work, because it only ends up reinforcing the "reality" of the sin.

Forgiveness, whether false or true, is a response to situations in which we perceive that another person has wronged us and caused us pain. The key feature of false forgiveness is that this perception is assumed to be the truth. False forgiveness says, in essence:

You have caused me real harm, and therefore, you are a sinner. Your sin against me gives me the right to resent you and punish you—this is what you deserve. However, because I want to be loving, I will overlook your sin against me. I will sacrifice my right to resent you and punish you, and I will get no benefit from this except the solace of knowing that I made a sacrifice for the sake of love. In the name of love, I will release you from the punishment you truly deserve. I will forgive your sin against me, and thereby show how good and innocent I am by overlooking your guilt.

This kind of forgiveness basically asserts that the sin against us was undeniably real, but we can somehow drop the emotional and behavioral responses—resentment and punishment—that are the natural consequences of sin. This "forgiveness" may seem to be a loving act, and indeed, this is what generally passes for true forgiveness in the world. However, the Course material dismisses it in no uncertain terms. T-30.IV calls it "false forgiveness" (T-30.VI.4:1), a kind of forgiveness that "pardons 'sinners' sometimes, but remains aware that they have sinned" (T-30.VI.3:7). Earlier in the Text, it is called "the ego's plan for forgiveness" (T-9.V.1:1), a plan in which we are to "see error [sin] clearly first, and then overlook it" (T-9.IV.4:4).

But perhaps the most striking name the Course material gives this kind of forgiveness is one that unveils the true motive behind this seemingly loving act: "forgiveness-to-destroy" (S-2.I.2:1). (This is from Chapter 2 of The Song of Prayer, a chapter entitled "Forgiveness"; I highly recommend reading this chapter in its entirety, because it has a great discussion of false vs. true forgiveness.) Forgiveness, of course, was given to us by the Holy Spirit as a means of healing, not of destruction. But distorted by the ego's appetite for death and destruction, forgiveness as typically practiced in the world has become "a scourge; a curse where it was meant to bless, a cruel mockery of grace, a parody upon the holy peace of God" (S-2.I.1:2).

The Song of Prayer goes on to describe some of the specific forms that forgiveness-to-destroy takes, forms that I'm sure are familiar to most of us. One form is forgiveness based on moral superiority, in which a more "righteous" person affirms that a "baser" person has indeed sinned, but condescends to let this hopeless sinner off the hook (S-2.II.2). Another form is forgiveness based on false empathy, in which the forgiver basically says, "I'm just as rotten a sinner as the person I'm angry with, so who am I to hold his sin against him?" (S-2.II.3). Still another form, like the first rooted in the idea of moral superiority, is forgiveness as martyrdom, in which a person "forgives" another by meekly and patiently enduring the sufferings that the other's "sins" have inflicted upon him (S-2.II.4-5). Finally, there is the form of conditional forgiveness, which says, "You sinned against me, but I will forgive you if you repent, show remorse, change your ways, apologize, recompense me for my injury, give me a backrub, etc." (S-2.II.6).

Most all of us use these various forms of forgiveness-to-destroy, but they never really give us the peace and sense of release from the ravages of sin that we seek. Why? The following passage tells us plainly why the ego's plan of seeing a brother's error clearly and then trying to overlook it—the core idea behind all forms of forgiveness-to-destroy—simply cannot work:

How can you overlook what you have made real? By seeing it clearly, you have made it real and cannot overlook it. (T-9.IV.4:5-6)

Forgiveness-to-destroy cannot really free us from sin, because it actually affirms and reinforces the reality of sin. As I said above, false forgiveness asserts that sin is real, but we can somehow let go of sin's natural consequences. However, the Course is clear that as long as we believe in the reality of sin, its consequences will inevitably follow in our experience. There is no way around this, because the consequences simply come with the territory. If sin is real, the Course says, then eternal guilt (see W-pI.134.5:4) and punishment (see W-pI.101.2:1) are our inescapable lot. Real sin is "forever be beyond the hope of healing" (T-19.III.8:1). It is a declaration that we truly succeeded in attacking God and separating ourselves from Him.

This, in fact, is the ego's very goal for false forgiveness: To make sin real, so that the separation from God and our brothers can never be healed. Now we can see why it is called "forgiveness-to-destroy." False forgiveness, while it masquerades as a means to heal us, is really the ego's means to destroy us. In place of the eternal life that only our true relationship with God and our brothers offers us, false forgiveness offers us permanent separation from eternal life. False forgiveness proclaims sin forever real, and "if sin is real, its offering is death" (W-pI.101.4:4). In the ego's hands, God's healing gift of forgiveness "has become a twisted knife that would destroy the holy Son He loves" (S-2.I.2:6).

True forgiveness recognizes that sin is unreal, and thus truly overlooks it; this works, because it reawakens us to the truth that God's Son is sinless.

True forgiveness is the exact opposite of false forgiveness. As I said above, the key feature of false forgiveness is that the perception that another person has wronged us and caused us pain is assumed to be the truth. True forgiveness, on the other hand, declares that this perception is false. Sin is unreal, because our true Self cannot really be harmed. True forgiveness says, in essence:

You didn't cause me harm; only my false perception of what you did caused me apparent harm. Therefore, you are not a sinner. You have not sinned against me, and so I have no "right" to resent you and punish you—this is not what you deserve. Because I want to be loving, I will truly overlook your seeming sin against me. When I choose to see you as you really are—a holy Son of God, who deserves only love—my resentment and desire to punish you will disappear automatically. This will not feel like a sacrifice, because I will benefit from this as much as you. In the name of love, I will release you and myself by giving you the love you truly deserve. I will forgive your seeming sin against me, and thus see both your innocence and my own.

True forgiveness does give us the peace and release from the ravages of sin that we seek, because it undoes the problem at its source: our perception that our brother really sinned. False forgiveness has the same outward goal as true forgiveness: the relinquishment of our resentment and our desire to punish a person who has seemingly wronged us. But as we've seen, it doesn't work because it upholds our perception of our brother as a sinner, a perception which is an attack. This attack is the underlying goal of false forgiveness, whatever its outward goal may be. True forgiveness withdraws this attack, and only in this way can our resentment and desire to punish be truly relinquished.

This, then, is the difference between false and true forgiveness: False forgiveness tries to keep our perception of sin intact, but somehow magically remove its consequences; true forgiveness replaces our perception of sin with the recognition that "there is no sin; it has no consequence" (W-pI.101.6:7). False forgiveness attempts to forgive our brother for what he did; true forgiveness forgives him "for what he did not do" (T-17.III.1:5). False forgiveness doesn't work because it simply reinforces the "reality" of sin; true forgiveness works because it reasserts the reality that all of God's Sons are forever sinless: "God's Son is guiltless, and sin does not exist" (M-10.2:9).

We can exchange false forgiveness for true forgiveness by allowing the Holy Spirit to teach us how to forgive.

False forgiveness doesn't work because it doesn't really alter our fundamental perception of the world. To use a biblical analogy, it is basically an attempt to take the new wine of forgiveness and pour it into the old wineskin of our ego-based worldview. As The Song of Prayer puts it, we take God's gift of forgiveness and try to "set it in an earthly frame" (S-2.III.7:3). Since the whole point of true forgiveness is to help us transcend our earthly frame, this move on our part effectively robs forgiveness of its power to heal.

What, then, can we do if we want to escape the trap of false forgiveness and learn how to truly forgive? The Course is full of instructions on how to forgive and gives us many practices for that purpose, but here I want to focus on a basic principle underlying all of them: Of ourselves, we can do nothing, because of ourselves we cannot really see beyond our ego-based frame of reference. Therefore, in order to learn how to truly forgive, we need a Teacher from outside our frame of reference. We need the Holy Spirit (or Christ, for Whom the Holy Spirit speaks). That is why The Song of Prayer gives us this succinct advice for how to transform forgiveness-to-destroy into forgiveness-for-salvation: "Let Him take charge of how you would forgive, and each occasion then will be to you another step to Heaven and to peace" (S-2.III.3:4).

Letting Him take charge of how you would forgive: A practice

Let's take this advice right now and apply it to a real-life situation. Bring to mind a person against whom you have a grievance, a person whom you need to forgive. Visualize the person's appearance—see him or her in your mind's eye—and briefly review the "sins" you believe this person has committed against you.

Now that you have the situation clearly in mind, think of some of the ways in which you have tried to forgive this person in the past, or ways that you are considering now. Do you have a sense of moral superiority when you think of forgiving this person? Or do you empathize with the person's faults, and feel like letting him or her off the hook because you've done some pretty bad things yourself? Are you attracted to the idea of silently enduring this person's abuses and showing him or her how "spiritual" you are? Or do you find yourself going through a list in your mind of the things this person needs to do in order to "earn" your forgiveness?

Recognize that these are all forms of false forgiveness. Keeping the situation in mind, let go of your own ideas of how to forgive this person in this situation by saying the following:

I do not know what anything, including this, means. And so I do not know how to respond to it. And I will not use my own past learning as the light to guide me now. (T-14.XI.6:7-9)

Now, with your mind clear and open to receive a new way of seeing the situation, ask for the Holy Spirit's help in forgiving this person. Say, "Holy Spirit, please take charge of how I would forgive this person. Guide my mind, and let this situation help me learn what forgiveness means" (based on S-2.III.3:4 and W-pI.81.4:2).

Now, simply be still, and open your mind to receive His guidance. Perhaps you will be given words to mentally say to the other person. Perhaps you will receive a visual image, such as an image of loving light extending from you to this other person. Perhaps you will receive guidance on how to outwardly communicate forgiveness to the other person the next time you meet. Or your guidance may be something totally unexpected. Whatever you receive, accept it with gratitude. You have taken another step to Heaven and to peace.

Some personal reflections on false vs. true forgiveness

Personally, I find the Course's sharp distinction between false and true forgiveness to be truly mind-bending. The shocking but unavoidable implication of this teaching is that the vast majority of what passes for forgiveness in this world is in fact false forgiveness. I've seen a lot of different rationales for forgiveness in various spiritual paths and psychotherapeutic systems, and in my opinion, the vast majority of them fall squarely within the parameters of false forgiveness as described above. I say this not to disparage other paths, but simply to point out that the contrast is there, and we would do well to look at it honestly.

As I've looked at this contrast, one of the questions that I've pondered for years is the following: If most of what the world presents as forgiveness is really false forgiveness, has anyone in this world (besides Jesus) truly forgiven? This question is particularly challenging when applied to people like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr.—two people who developed great reputations for forgiveness, but who also unquestionably (based on their public statements) believed that sin is real, an idea that makes true forgiveness impossible.

The answer that I've personally come with is: Yes, there have been (and are) people in this world who have truly forgiven, though most likely not perfectly. (The impression I get from the Course is that very few people have ever forgiven perfectly.) I believe that it is possible to extend true forgiveness even if one's professed doctrine is false forgiveness. True forgiveness is a shift in perception that happens deep in our minds; our surface beliefs can help or hinder this process, but the shift can happen regardless of what we outwardly profess. Therefore, I believe that the great spiritual masters in the history of our world—including Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr., two of my personal heroes—did indeed extend true forgiveness. Whatever their outer doctrines may have been, the loving fruit they produced in the world bore witness to what was really in their minds: Deep down, they truly recognized the sinlessness of their brothers. By their fruits, we have come to know them as bearers of true, forgiving love.

I think that many of us who are less well known than Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. have been bearers of true, forgiving love as well. As clouded as our minds are by ego, true forgiveness does shine through at times. While I'm certainly no spiritual giant, I'm convinced that I have given true forgiveness, however imperfectly, at various times in my life. I'm equally convinced that I've received it at times, both from those who are Course students and those who are not. And I think that deep down, all of us know when we've experienced true forgiveness. Giving and receiving false forgiveness just doesn't feel good; there's just something grimy, hollow, and unsatisfying about it. But giving and receiving true forgiveness does feel good; it brings a sense of sweet release that is unlike anything else I have experienced. This is the fruit that tells us we have given and received the blessing of true forgiveness.


False forgiveness damns, while true forgiveness blesses. False forgiveness is a bitter curse disguised as a gift, while true forgiveness is the greatest gift we can give and receive in this world. We have seen how cruel forgiveness can become in the hands of the ego, and how beneficent it is in the hands of the spirit. The obvious question then becomes: In whose hands will we place it? The equally obvious answer, if we want the blessing of true forgiveness, is to place it in the hands of the holy Teacher God has given us. He alone knows how to use it wisely; He alone can use it to open the door to the redeeming vision of our true Self, revealed in our holy brothers:

Forgiveness has a Teacher Who will fail in nothing….He stands beside the door to which forgiveness is the only key. Give it to Him to use instead of you, and you will see the door swing silently open upon the shining face of Christ. Behold your brother there beyond the door; the Son of God as He created him. (S-2.III.7:2, 6-8)

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