Forgive them; for they know not what they do

On Forgiveness, Justice and Pain

Nuwan I. Senaratna
Apr 2 · 3 min read

To forgive, they say, is divine. It is often difficult for us humans to forgive; certainly compared to other things we excel at, like erring.

I’ve tried to forgive whenever I can, and a few times have even been successful. However, this article is about failures. More specifically, some reflections on two reasons why I’ve been unable to forgive.


For you to forgive me, I should have wronged you. Without this wronging, forgiveness is meaningless. I might have punched you in the face, or spoken to you rudely, or knocked your bishop over, when your eyes were averted from the chess-board.

In all such “wrongings”, great and small, there is a pattern. There are rules that define “right”; rules for decent behaviour, rules for speech, and rules for playing games like chess. And in all cases, doing a “wrong” involves breaking these rules. In other words, “wronging” is relative to some system of justice.

This “sense of wrong” is the first part of the justice system. The second part involves “putting the wrong right”; I might have to pay your medical bills (to compensate for the face-punching); or apologise in front of all our friends (for being rude to you), or forfeit that game of chess (for cheating).

Collectives like countries, organisations, or even two friends playing chess, need rules such that they may operate smoothly. Without justice, systems tend to descend into chaos. And hence often, and not unreasonably, justice is hailed as a virtue.

However, justice has problems. It is relative and arbitrary. It depends on who defines the rules. The people who define the rules (often plutocrats and politicians) tend to legislate as it suits them. For example, I could define some “laws” that make punching you, or being rude to you, or cheating at chess, “just” and “justifiable”.

Hence, it is best to be mindful of justice’s weaknesses, use it only when necessary, and not be too profoundly identified or “married” to it. It is a tool, like a knife, that, when used carefully and correctly, is useful. But when it is not essential, it is best not to cut others and oneself with it. “Judge not”, as they say.

More relevant to this article however, justice has a deeper problem. It often undermines forgiveness.

Often I’ve tried to forgive people but have not been able to, because justice reminds me loud and clear, “You are in the right! And you have been wronged! You should demand justice!” And at some level, forgiving seems to feel like undermining justice.


Pain is the other thing that gets in the way of forgiveness.

I have never been scourged and nailed through my hands and feet. Nor, I assume, have you, dear reader. And I hope neither of us ever will be.

But at times, when I have been “wronged”, I have felt significant physical and mental pain. When your mind or body is in pain, forgiveness becomes even more difficult.

How do you forgive someone who has caused (or is causing) you real pain?

The path for me begins with “they know not”, or the realisation that people wrong and cause pain through ignorance. Not ignorance of justice, but ignorance of how fellow beings are and feel.

The opposite of this ignorance is compassion: the ability to internalise another’s suffering. If I genuinely had such an ability, I would not have punched you in the face.

But even more profoundly, if you could understand and internalise that I too was “suffering”, not from a painful face, but from ignorance, you too would have found it easier to forgive me. If the punching were reversed, I too, you, I’m sure.

Concluding Confessions

Reflecting on the limitations of justice and the distractions of pain have made forgiving a little easier. However, it is still a challenge, and I do not forgive as much as I should. Nor do I expect you do.

But I hope we can forgive ourselves for that.

After all, to err, is human.

Forgive Thy Brother by Scott Erickson (Photo Source: Charter For Compassion)

On Philosophy

Articles on Philosophy by Nuwan I. Senaratna

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