Being forgiven by other people feels good, but it is not really part of your program. It may be a part of the other person’s program to forgive, just as it is your responsibility to forgive others. If you nurture your resentments and avoid forgiving, you block the awareness of forgiveness that comes from your Higher Power or Program. And like so many other things in the Program, you may not be able to forgive through will power; you will probably need the help of something more.

Lewis Smedes

Lewis Smedes (1984) offers a model of forgiveness that many addicts might find useful if they find themselves snarled in resentments. He describes forgiveness as a process that involves hurt, hate, healing, and coming together. You may need to work at deeper levels of forgiveness if you have experienced severe hurts, especially as a child. Until you can forgive, you will miss much of the peace, joy, and love recovery has to offer.

Abuse & Incest

Forgiving has nothing to do with blocking the memory of what happened to you. If you experienced incest or abuse, or have been victimized in any way, you should consider therapy to get in touch with and desensitize those memories without having to repress them. You may have to get very angry for a while, and let the forgiveness come when it is natural. These are skeletons that cause trouble while they stay in the closet.

Nor does forgiving mean placing yourself in harm’s way. You can forgive the uncle who molested you without leaving your children alone with him. You can forgive and still choose to have nothing to do with a dysfunctional family.


You can develop the skills to know where forgiveness ends and assertiveness begins. This is a common confusion among children of addiction or codependents.

For example, a relative or close friend borrows your new shorts, and goes swimming with them in a pool. When they return they are noticeably faded. Compare these three responses:

  • You say nothing, though you feel angry and hurt that the other person didn’t even try to take care of them, and didn’t offer to replace them.
  • “You’re always careless with my clothes. I’ll never let you wear anything of mine again. You really ought to pay for them, too.”
  • “That’s all right; our friendship is more important than pants. But maybe we would both be more comfortable if we didn’t exchange clothes. We don’t want to risk bad feelings coming between us.”

The first response shows no forgiveness, and no honesty about your feelings. The second protects your interests, but also keeps you stuck in blame. The third shows both forgiveness and a willingness to be assertive.

Some addicts who are comfortable with a traditional God, and one story in the Big Book (p. 552), suggest praying for someone you resent. This even works if your prayer is, “Give that S.O.B. what he deserves,” as long as you do not presume to tell your Higher Power what the S.O.B. deserves.

Who’s hurting? It may be easier to simply realize who is doing the hurting. You are suffering from your inability to forgive much more than the resented person is. Also, you may see that judging others is in some respects like playing God, and that will inhibit your recovery.

It may be helpful to understand why someone hurt you, but that is not essential for forgiveness. Forgiveness has more to do with discovering that you, a finite imperfect human (like all others), do not have to suffer from the harsh role of judge or Vigilante.

To expect unconditional forgiveness is to deny that human beings are limited and not God, or perfect. It also tells the person you are forgiving that anything they do to you doesn’t matter. Assertiveness must be part of the equation.

Not forgetting If you “forgive and forget,” you will waste the learning potential of the experience. A major lesson from AA is that we should learn from our past rather than forget it.

Higher Power

Remember that forgiving, or not being forgiven, like everything else in the program, is not something you have to do alone. Nor can you make it happen. It comes as grace, a gift from your Higher Power, usually a while after you are ready for it. You have a Higher Power or Program if you will simply make some contact.

Forgiveness, see also: Amends, Anger, Assertiveness, Attitudes, Behavior, Character defects, Control, Defenses, Family, Gratitude, Guilt & shame, Higher Power, Humility, Incest, Inventory, Love & caring, Program, Relationships, Resentments, Step Three, Step Eight, Step Nine, Trust.

Updated 11 Sep 2015

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