A Personal Reflection on Forgiveness

What does it mean to forgive those who wrong us personally or do terrible things to others in the world? Abdu’l-Baha affirms that,

Inasmuch as God is clement and loving to His children, lenient and merciful toward our shortcomings, why should we be unkind and unforgiving toward each other?1

And:

Let not your heart be offended with anyone. If someone commits an error and wrong toward you, you must instantly forgive him. Do not complain of others. Refrain from reprimanding them, and if you wish to give admonition or advice, let it be offered in such a way that it will not burden the bearer. Turn all your thoughts toward bringing joy to hearts. Beware! Beware! Lest ye offend any heart.2

The first affirmation sets out the foundational Baha’i belief that we must forgive others because God has forgiven and shown mercy toward us. God is forgiving, and forgives us. I do not need to fear because I have sinned. If God is lenient toward me, I ought not to be “unkind and unforgiving toward each other.” In this context, I think that the truth of God’s leniency requires the utterly difficult command that our hearts not be offended by anyone.

We must instantly forgive those who commit wrongs against us. Baha’is are opposed to adversarialism and cultures of contest, offering instead a culture of acceptance. God’s sympathy for our suffering compels us to be sympathetic with all suffering, nurse the sick, offer a shelter to the exiled, help the poor and those in need, dress all wounds and share the happiness of each one. We are not permitted to seek revenge or force our views on others. Abdu’l-Baha states:

Our only role is to spread the teachings. If it be accepted, all is well; if not, leave the people to God.3

If I refuse to forgive others, I sunder the relationship I have with the one who has offended me. I turn away from the principle of oneness of humanity. Perhaps the importance of Abdu’l-Baha’s counsel, that I not let my heart be offended by someone, has to do with the ease with which animosity can arise in my heart and chill my spirit. According to my understanding, an individual has no right to seek revenge, but the body politic does have the right to see that justice is done. Revenge is that “inner gratification that results from returning like for like.”4 As Baha’is we should beware lest we “offend the feelings of another, even though he be an evildoer, and he wish you ill.”5

At the outer extreme of those who are murdering women and children—let us say—in a war arena, I am not the one to whom the act of forgiveness is entrusted, nor the body politic that will pursue justice. But I am exhorted to “love my enemies”—this is most difficult because it clashes so fundamentally with my lower desire for punishment against those who perpetuate war and injustice in the world. How can I, as a person, love those who abrogate international law and bomb other vulnerable nations at will, detached and hard-hearted?

As I struggle to love them I can, at the very least, bracket the anger that arises in my heart. I can place space between the knowledge of the egregious act and my response. I can refuse the desire for vengeance. I can gaze not on their sins, but turn my gaze upward instead. I can try to learn to be patient when the world breaks my heart because it doesn’t go the way I desire.

Working to have a “sin-covering eye”6 also draws upon the axiom that all humanity is one. The person(s) who commit(s) horrible, even evil acts, remain(s) part of the human family. They have mothers and fathers, perhaps brothers and sisters. More importantly, I believe that the Baha’i Faith asserts that there is no evil force acting autonomously on the perpetrator of evil acts. We are all capable of good and bad actions. We also have the capacity to turn away from our evil actions toward God in acts of repentance.

Perhaps my individual act of “forgiveness” means that, once my emotional arising is bracketed, I can love the evil doer by prayerfully desiring that he or she turn away from these actions toward the one who is All-merciful. This is not easy. But both Jesus and Baha’u’llah taught us to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile. This violates conventional wisdom.

These Divine Educators have seen into the murky depths of the midnight oceans of suffering. They have suffered horrifically in Their own lives—and have emerged from these darksome depths still counselling us to love our enemies. How can I connect the divine command to embrace my enemies with my heart and mind and soul? Submission in prayer to God and sustained devotional practices is one possible pathway. My barnacled heart cries out for a depth of understanding.


  1. Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 447 []
  2. Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 638-9 []
  3. Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p.41 []
  4. Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions []
  5. Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha []
  6. Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha on Divine Philosophy, pp. 41-42 []

About the Author

Michael Welton

One of Michael's lifelong passions has been the study of spirituality and social transformation. He loves the Baha'i Faith as a compelling way of thinking and acting in the world. He and his wife Carmen serve in BC's Lower Mainland Baha'i community.

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Discussion 10 Comments

  1. I’ve long been moved by bringing together these two quotes:

    “Strive ye then with all your heart to treat compassionately all humankind—except for those who have some selfish, private motive, or some disease of the soul. Kindness cannot be shown the tyrant, the deceiver, or the thief, because, far from awakening them to the error of their ways, it maketh them to continue in their perversity as before. No matter how much kindliness ye may expend upon the liar, he will but lie the more, for he believeth you to be deceived, while ye understand him but too well, and only remain silent out of your extreme compassion.”
    http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/ab/SAB/sab-139.html.utf8#gr1

    “You must manifest complete love and affection toward all mankind. Do not exalt yourselves above others, but consider all as your equals, recognizing them as the servants of one God. Know that God is compassionate toward all; therefore, love all from the depths of your hearts, prefer all religionists before yourselves, be filled with love for every race, and be kind toward the people of all nationalities. Never speak disparagingly of others, but praise without distinction. Pollute not your tongues by speaking evil of another. Recognize your enemies as friends, and consider those who wish you evil as the wishers of good. You must not see evil as evil and then compromise with your opinion, for to treat in a smooth, kindly way one whom you consider evil or an enemy is hypocrisy, and this is not worthy or allowable. You must consider your enemies as your friends, look upon your evil-wishers as your well-wishers and treat them accordingly. Act in such a way that your heart may be free from hatred. Let not your heart be offended with anyone. If some one commits an error and wrong toward you, you must instantly forgive him. Do not complain of others. Refrain from reprimanding them, and if you wish to give admonition or advice, let it be offered in such a way that it will not burden the bearer. Turn all your thoughts toward bringing joy to hearts. Beware! Beware! lest ye offend any heart. Assist the world of humanity as much as possible. Be the source of consolation to every sad one, assist every weak one, be helpful to every indigent one, care for every sick one, be the cause of glorification to every lowly one, and shelter those who are overshadowed by fear.”
    http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/ab/PUP/pup-133.html.utf8

    1. Hello Steven:
      Thanks for offering us these two quotations. Abd’ul-Baha points out that “tyrants, deceivers and thieves” do not heed our kindly actions. They don’t turn from the “error of their ways.” Thus, kindliness, in this case, does not put any brakes on their nefarious actions.

  2. Thank you Michael for encouraging us to be forgiving. For sure it is a daily spiritual practice. I find it perplexing and at the same time rewarding to delve into these spiritual mysteries.

  3. I was quarrelling with my neighbour, he brought up so much hate and anger in me. One day i realized this guy was not worth all these emotions, i started to laugh at the situation. Just like in the fairy-tales: When the “trolls” see the sun they die. Afterwards hate and anger has left me

    1. Hello Bjorg:

      Thanks for this thought. It is crucial, I think, to struggle very hard to prevent anger welling up. Putting space between the “anger welling up” is a deep spiritual practice. It may be necessary to stay away from the presence of one who sets our blood a-boiling!

  4. The Baha’i Faith has enabled me to understand that others are my brothers and sisters, and to have love for them as such in my heart. When they commit an injustice, I feel sad for them, and pray to God for them, the same as I would if they were my a brother or sister in my immediate family. Forgiveness, then, is a given it’s not something that I even need to consciously address.
    Being a frail human, that love can become clouded with other emotions when an injustice is closer to or directly affects me. Then it takes time to overcome those emotions. For that reason, we must all pray for each other in this world.

  5. Hello Johnny O:
    This is a lovely posting. I often think that as Baha’is we must “be what we are working to build in this dangerous world. I, too, feel sad when someone commits an unjust act. They could act otherwise!
    I am struck by your statement that the forgiving attitude is an integral part of your way of being. That’s very fine!

  6. Forgiveness is a very interesting topic and it seems to me that conventional wisdom has an incorrect perspective of it – the conventional view is that when we forgive someone we are giving them a gift – the gift of our “acceptance” or “forgiveness”. But perhaps in reality the gift is for ourselves.
    I once heard it said that “non-forgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”.
    When we forgive we are not relieving the offender of the burden of our scorn. We are relieving ourselves of it. The offender has to live their lives with the burden of their actions and we have to live our lives with the burden of ours – and our non-forgiving is one such burden.
    Another way to look at it is from a very personal experience – at times my partner can say things to me which I can take offense from. So am I going to hold onto that offense for the rest of my life? No, probably not. So if not, then when will I let it go and forgive? Next week? Tomorrow? In an hour?
    “Well, some time in the future”.
    So if I look forward to that time when I have let it go, I can see us happily together again. Yes?
    So why wait? I may as well let it go now and enjoy quality time with my partner immediately rather than live in anger for days or weeks.
    But it’s not easy is it?
    No.
    But then, what is easy is usually of little value, and what is difficult…

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