The Difference Between “Praying For” and “Forgiving”

So in light of the extremely good responses (still coming in) to yesterday’s Must We Pray for Our Enemies, I thought I’d take a quick moment to distinguish between praying for and forgiving someone.

You don’t have to forgive a person in order to pray for that person. I’m always praying for people whom I don’t forgive. Most of the “enemies” of mine that I pray for don’t think they’ve done anything that even needs forgiving.

Forgiveness comes into play after a personal, one-one-one process by which wrongs done are delineated and resolved through the mutual allocation and acceptance of responsibility for those wrongs. I can only forgive someone after they’ve clearly and explicitly taken responsibility for whatever wrong they did me. Forgiving someone before they’ve apologized is like saying “Gesundheit!” to someone before they’ve sneezed. It doesn’t make sense; there’s no proper object for its application.

What you can do with someone who has wronged you, and couldn’t care less how you feel about it, is to understand them, and thereby achieve peacefulness in your feelings toward them. That is wonderful, doable, and, because harbored resentment is so toxic, necessary. All of us should so pointedly reflect upon those for whom we harbor resentment that ultimately we conclude that if we were them — with their history, and their challenges, and their resentments — we would have done the same sort of thing they did, if not something worse.

You forgive someone if they ask you to; you empathize with them if they don’t.

You pray as you pray.


[Update: As evidenced by some of the initial comments it engendered, this post is a bit of a failure. And that’s my fault; the distinction I’m trying to make between forgiving and praying for is essentially a matter of semantics. I meant to make that distinction partly in service of moving people away from too readily saying they forgive someone before they’ve really thought about what exactly it is they’re saying when they say that. And the reason I think it’s important to unpack that sort of knee-jerk “forgiveness” is because I find that so often people use “I forgive [the person who wronged me]” as a way of either short-circuiting the anger they should be feeling for that person, or as a passive-aggressive means of asserting moral authority over them. And in their own ways both of those really are failures.]

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  • I would disagree on a point here. I think it is possible to forgive someone who has not asked for forgiveness. But that may be because I would consider forgiveness as removing the need for retribution. If I forgive you, I move on, I don’t get caught up in needing you to do anything to help me get over the situation.

  • yeah, I think I’d have to disagree too.. Jesus forgive us before we asked, right? But I definitely agree that empathy is one of the best things we can do, not just for our enemies, but for ourselves!

  • Dirk


    I totally agree with you.

    Not, that I am prepared to forgive or pray for the conservative Christians who are waging war against us gays and the transgender.

    For over three decades I tried to work within the Christian community.

    It is pointless, the hatred and violence towards us runs too deep and is increasing exponentially.

  • Maybe what I’m saying in this post is just too subtle. But … well, no, for instance: if you think about it, anyone DOES have to ask for the salvation of Jesus before they receive it. Ask and ye shall receive, and all that.

  • DMK

    Yeah, I have to agree with the two posts before mine. I think it’s possible to forgive someone if they don’t ask to be forgiven. Forgiveness is definitely a gift we give to ourselves…. plus the extent to which we forgive others, God will forgive us our own sins. “Forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us.”

    But John, the concept of being able to pray for people whom we have not forgiven is a revelation that might help me get to the point of praying for those that I need to pray for in my own life…. though I believe forgiveness should be the ultimate goal.


  • Dirk

    It is not too subtle, it is Jewish law.

    That is something which Christians are not well grounded in.

  • DMK

    But John, what about those people who feel they can forgive someone, and have in fact, forgiven in their hearts; but the offender cannot/will not ask for forgiveness? Also, are we offering salvation when we forgive someone?

  • So….Was Jesus prayer “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing” answered by God, or was it contingent on the Romans, Jewish leaders, etc. asking God for forgiveness?

  • I have said this so many times, and I’m always surprised how many people don’t “get it.” Most of them do not want to “understand.” They prefer to think the worst of those who have wronged them, rather than try to get to the core of why it happened.

    Great post, as usual, John.

  • Jack

    Jesus commanded us to pray for our enemies.

    So, yes, you “have” to do this. It’s not optional.

  • Debbie

    I got what you meant the first time and was totally nodding my head yeah in your elaboration in brackets and I have a damn good reason why I got you. My mother was a child abuser and a child molester. Dead serious. I struggled for years silentl believing I did not have the love of God in my heart because no matter how hard I tried I could not forgive what she did to my baby brothers or me for that matter. One she full on molester when he was 13 and the younger was well acquainted with her putting her cigarettes out on his body and sometimes that was his scrotum and to his day he denies she molested him sexually – like wtf! Anyway Mommie dearest died 22 years ago last week five days before her 41st birthday from alcohol related problems. I met Christ 13 years ago at the end of a very broken life and discovered that I was free to confess to Him the hatred and rage and sense of injustice I had in the very core of my soul and that I hated my mother and was scared shitless that meant I could never have truly ‘repented’ and had the Holy Spirit in me. I actually didn’t just tell God this…I was scream freaking mad at Him and scared and finally I agreed I could never no matter what reasons, excuses, environmental misplacements she ever tried to use to excuse her behaviour none of that would ever cause me to call good what was evil. And that was what had me stuck for so long. I didn’t have to and it was ok to feel that rage and to cry for justice from my shattered heart…to stand that naked and ashamed before Him and find nothing but acceptance changed my life forever and I knew I need never fear His Love ever…and that it is ok to hate evil and trust it into His Hands. It was also there that I learnt the power of Golgotha. Praying for my enemies changed me.

    On another level my mother was baptised the year before she died but I had forgotten because I was so not into her ‘got religion’ trip while she was driving drunk on sunday nights and putting her car on peoples front porches…nope it wasn’t until I was cleaning out some of her papers eight years after she died I found her notes and remembered – He healed another layer of my brokeness – the longing to reconcile with the woman who was never a true mother yet was always a child of His too.

    Shedding this mortal body is gonna be a trip!

  • That’s true too! good point, good point.

    I like your update, and fully agree with it!

  • Ok, I understand what you are saying. I still hold that forgiveness, in its true form, is a gift. I gift is given period. I have been given the gift of salvation and it is there whether I accept that salvation or not. It is not taken away if I choose not to accept it. Forgiveness can be given as a gift. If the recipient does not choose to accept it, that has not bearing on me.

  • Judy Tate Mahan

    I wish everyone understood this. Grace does not cancel responsibility. To grant forgiveness without repentance makes the grace of God an accomplice to evil. I can’t forgive my abuser while the abuse continues without repentance. But I can pray for them and I don’t have to allow their sin against me to continue without consequences. However I must seek healing and resist anger and hate remaining in me and festering. I also must pray for those Christians who heaped condemnation on me for not forgiving; and insisted I had to forgive the unrepentant or I wouldn’t be forgiven by God of my sin.

  • Molly by Golly

    Grace makes moot salvation. None are lost, all are saved.

  • John, where in the forgiveness, understanding, empathy triangle would you place letting go? Those who have wronged us have not asked for forgiveness. They don’t even know nor admit what they have done. We are beginning to understand how it could be that they wronged us even though it is completely painful and wrong and messed up and counter-intuitive what they did. And we have reached a point of healing where we refuse to let them hurt us any longer by enduring the pain and suffering brought on by thoughts of hate and anger and animosity towards them. We know they are responsible for their actions and we are responsible for our own happiness. We’ve let go our negative feelings and are no longer plagued by them. We are free of that. How does that fit in?

  • Christina

    I really needed to read this part today:

    “What you can do with someone who has wronged you, and couldn’t care less how you feel about it, is to understand them, and thereby achieve peacefulness in your feelings toward them. That is wonderful, doable, and, because harbored resentment is so toxic, necessary. ”

    It doesn’t mean you can’t be angry. It doesn’t suggest you negate those feelings. Both things the Christian therapist I saw insisted I had to do once I became a Christian. It gives you the time to work thru those feelings and come to a healthier place without having to say a knee-jerk “I forgive you.”

  • Susan in NY

    Thanks for the addendum, John. It really struck a chord for me, especially the last three lines.

  • Susan in NY

    One other thing. There was a particular girl in junior high school who bullied me. I can’t seem to forgive her; I still harbor anger towards her. If I try to pray for her, my prayers are hollow. I’m still so angry that I don’t want to pray even harder for her, or meditate on the issue at all.

    I’m not sure why I am sharing this, other than to say that I think I will hash it over in therapy. Maybe then I can shake it loose and get rid of it.

    Being bullied is not like some of the terrible things that people endure. In the grand scheme of horrible things that happen to people, verbal bullying is pretty low on the list, IMO.

    That fact makes me feel even more angry and frustrated that the bullying still has such a negative hold on me.

    Tonight, I will pray a prayer of thanks for good therapy!

  • Laurel Hedge

    I do forgive people who have wronged me, whether they want me to, or not. This may be more semantics, but it’s a core belief, so thank you for giving me the opportunity to share it. For me, forgiveness is very different from stuffing my feelings and not allowing myself to recognize that I’ve been harmed, and probably need to do something about it, and has little to do with praying for someone. If I pray for someone, I do so in hope of their benefit, forgiveness is for mine.

    If someone harms me, he or she owes me healing. But he or she can’t always “fix” the harm done, even when truly repentant. So I carry my hurts, my anger, my rage, my fear, and everything else I feel about being harmed to God, who heals me of those feelings by transmuting them into love. God’s love, not mine, but it does live in MY heart. God’s forgiveness doesn’t replace my stolen ipod, or fix the dented fender. Forgiveness of trespass isn’t making things as good as new, or as if they never happened, it’s reframing one’s thinking about having been trespassed against.

    Essentially, Jesus “pays” the “debt” of repairing the wounds to my feelings, and I no longer need anything from whoever wounded me in order to feel whole and at peace. (Though I would like my ipod back. And his or her insurance to pay to fix my car.) That transmuting process often involves the creation of empathy, but not always; sometimes it gives me detachment instead. Or both.

    For me, “forgiveness” can’t be earned, it must be given as a gift. (“Trust” must be earned; that process–if undertaken–can begin when forgiveness is complete.) I expect to be forgiven my sins; especially the harm I cause to others. So I must forgive those who sin against me. I must let go of my resentment and hatred and anger and frustration, to make room for God’s love to take their place, and I call that process “forgiving.”

    “Praying for” IS a whole ‘nother ball of wax.

  • Debbie

    God pulls the bitter root at the perfect time do none may miss the Grace of God. He is the master Gardener of the good soil within. Just feeling the weight of despair to let go of my end of the rope was all He needed to pull that sucker out and root me deep in His Love. It is The Spirit speaking the language each heart understands and yet we are many we are One following Our Shepherd. Very free.

  • Debbie

    The core is always unbelief.

  • Debbie


  • I had an online friend for a while who became a rather fierce online enemy. All of my other online friends who knew her understood the reasons for the split (because she was utterly annoying, paranoid and disrespectful to them, as well). A narsassistic emotional-vampire is probably the best way to describe her whom I became friends with for some reason but couldn’t bear up under after her tendencies became more pronounced.

    I do not know where she is or what she’s doing now, in cyberspace or otherwise and am glad of it. I do pray for her when I think about her, though… just because someone whom I last remember as being really messed-up I cannot help but worry for (as a human being).

    However, if she ever showed up out of the blue wanting to try to be friends with me again, the answer would be a flat out “NO!” There’s a big difference between having a sense of compassion (or pity) for someone and making yourself a doormat or subject to abuse.

    Praying for this person aside, I shall always remember her as a narsassitic emotional-vampire.

    Tired – just got back from a concert.

  • Rebecca

    I sympathize with this one, John. It took years for me to understand *why* my mother was the way she was. I went round and round, trying to figure out what in the hell I’d done to deserve the abuse dished out to me daily, and I came up short every time. And I was angry. But I stopped just short of bitter and resentful, thankfully, because in the nick of time, I realized it wasn’t about me. In the midst of her madness (and let’s call a spade a spade: she was nuts), all children were fungible. At that point, I moved on, hoping she found a way toward healing. That was my version of praying for her. I never believed she’d have some miraculous epiphany in which she realized what a terror she was and reach out toward me with open arms on bended knee, begging for forgiveness for all the beatings, namecalling, and neglect. But, if for some reason that had happened, and she’d completely owned the wrong she’d done and *sincerely* asked me to forgive her for it, I would have. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have proceeded with caution afterward. I mean, hell, I’m forty years old, but two days ago, I had *another* nightmare about getting a beating from her. Understanding the “why” of a person’s actions just leads you closer to avoiding victimization (or even becoming a perpetrator yourself). But until they truly accept that they have hurt and terrorized others, and until they feel shame and sorrow for that, and ASK for forgiveness, it’s not time.

  • Mindy

    The other side of the coin I see are people who believe that simply asking for forgiveness means they have received it and are no longer responsible for the pain they’ve caused. Like people who say “I’m sorry” the moment they think someone might be unhappy in their presence, yet really have no idea what they are, or should be, sorry for. Or even if they should be sorry at all. It’s another form of not taking personal responsibility, by pretending to take too much personal responsibility. Say “forgive me” or “I’m sorry” then turn right around and cause the same pain again. Not cool.

  • Patiently Waiting

    I still don’t see why forgiveness requires a person to take responsibility. Jesus said, “Forgive them, Father. They know not what they do.” If they do not know what they are doing, then they are not taking responsibility. Yet Jesus asked that they be forgiven by God. Certainly, Jesus was actually praying for them, not necessarily doing the forgiving himself (although he was God so maybe so? Whatever). The point is that Jesus thought people should be forgiven even though they did not know what they were doing was unacceptable. What stronger Biblical authority is there that a person need not repent to receive forgiveness? Certainly, God is better at forgiveness than we are, but if we are striving to be holy, shouldn’t we strive also to forgive even when the offending party does not repent?

    I do not disagree that there are a lot of people who use the word forgive either to try to get past something without really dealing with it or to gain higher moral authority (though people pray for others to get higher moral authority, too), but shouldn’t your point then be that people should forgive sincerely, not that the offenders take an extra step? The dictionary definition of “forgive” is “stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake.” I think you can do that without someone asking you for forgiveness.

  • Patiently Waiting

    Agreed. Jesus clearly felt they did not need to know what they were doing to merit forgiveness.

  • DMK

    Rebecca… My mother was a yeller and a beater. Towards the end of her life, our relationship got a little better. When she died, I grieved for the relationship that we did not have my whole life… though I am happy that by the end, we were more peers than mother/daughter. I felt free to speak my mind to her which is something my sister could never do.

    I came to realize that my mother was not suited for being a mother and she lived all her life with frustration and resentment. She was an unapproachable, cold person and it was rare that I felt any love from her. She was a VERY unhappy person. Her mother lived with us, despite the fact that she got married to get away from her. I don’t excuse the way she treated us, but I realize that she and my father were products of the way they were raised. I believe they both did the best they could with what they had, which wasn’t much financially and in respect to resources and information, particularly parenting. As they say, babies don’t come with a users manual. I was born in the early sixties. I see myself today looking up anything and everything on the internet for my information. She could not do that. If someone had a problem, the last people to find out were family and friends.

    It saddens me, but I strive to not let the past repeat itself. I am so much like my mother and my instinct is to yell at the top of my lungs and it hits me like a ton of bricks. I am so acutely aware of my nature and where it comes from that I can most times avoid losing my cool… sometimes no, but I am determined to break the cycle.

    Rebecca… I felt compelled to respond to you. I just wanted you to know that I feel your pain.

  • Rebecca

    DMK, you are very kind to respond. Thank you for reaching out like you did. I’ve been very lucky, I think, to be able to make lemonade out of the dumptruck of lemons she laid on me; because of my experiences, I’m able to work with both battered children *and* women. I know that, had I not been abused myself, I wouldn’t have what it takes to do this work. My mother wasn’t suited to be a mother, either. Fortunately, my grandparents were sweet, wise, loving people who provided me with love and guidance.

    My mother was never able to swallow her pride and try to reconcile. For my part, I had to cut her loose once I realized how toxic she was to me. She would turn up like a bad penny periodically, but that happened less and less frequently, and one day, about three years ago, I got word she was dead. A part of me just sighed in relief; she could never just “turn up” again.

    Our gift is to unmake our pasts. Children like you and I won’t fall into their footsteps, not consciously. As long as we pay attention and live determined to carve out a new way of doing things, we will succeed. The circle will be broken.

    *big hugs*


  • Jean

    Oh, Debbie, how your post touched me! I have had abuse and was told I had to forgive, and Lord knows I tried! I told God I wanted to forgive, I wanted to be obedient, but I could not make the pain go away. It was not until I acknowledged the awfulness of what was done to me and much to my shock, confessed my hate which I had denied was even there, that I found God waiting for me, accepting me, forgiving me and healing me. That was one person I loved so very much, who has died, and who I can see now both his good and his evil.

    As for another person: It wasn’t until I spent hours typing as fast as I could the abuse and lies that my children and I had endured, that anger pouring out like hot liquid through my fingers on the keyboard … I typed for hours – 20 single spaced pages . .. and topped off the event by spitting on his picture … that my healing started to begin.

    Then I wanted to confront him with the truth, so that I could forgive him. I was allowed that meeting with his counselor and mine … the events in writing … and of course he did not accept responsibility nor ask for forgiveness, (blaming others) but I had given him the opportunity and I begged him to repent. My healing began that day. It’s been years since I’ve seen him. He called about 10 years ago and asked forgiveness for some specific deeds. I told him I had already forgiven him. I’m no longer angry, but experience has taught me that I cannot even be “friends” because he is toxic and sees no need to change. Even a phone call can turn toxic. So I have a no contact policy. It is sad that his children and all his relatives have walked out of his life. But he has been unwilling or unable to face the truth about himself.

  • Jean

    I agree.

    As for praying for our enemies, I have found that in praying for them, even those who hate me, something in my heart changes. I begin to see that my Father loves them just as much as he loves me and as that is revealed to me, somehow love begins to creep into my heart. It’s not an “emotional” type love, but I begin to care about them and want the best for them. I’m not being sappy here, but just knowing from my own experience, that I’ve had people who hated me and wanted to harm me. I prayed for them and began to see them as a person that God loved and it changed my perspective as well. Then when they wanted a confrontation I was neither afraid nor defensive. My attitude was one of love, and they could not comprehend nor understand that and they were both shocked by it and affected by it in a positive way. I have seen that love is stronger than hate. Much, much stronger. I have seen my enemies become my friends through God’s love for them through me.

  • cat rennolds

    Exactly. As in forgiving a debt. If you owe me money and skip the country without paying me, I can write it off as gone without ever having to inform you. What it does is free ME from the expectation of you ever paying it back. It means it’s over and I don’t have to think about it any more.

  • Perfectly said, Cat.

  • Christy

    Rebecca and DMK, I have taken great solace in reading Anne Lamott. I grieved through her book Traveling Mercies as I recognized in her a familiar soul. “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a different past” she writes knowingly. The source of all human unhappiness, I heard somewhere else, is wanting things to be not as they are. Yes, this is true also. Giving up on the “maybe one day she will change” fairy tale that lived inside my head, unconsciously, for so long finally is what broke me out of the emotional bondage I had locked myself into of wanting the truth to be different. John might be Rob Bell’s brother from another mother, but you both must be lost sisters from the same mother…. only I didn’t know parenting wasn’t supposed to look like that until I had children of my own. I wonder now how I had more self-control at 8 and 12 and 14 to not hit her back than she did. Probably because I knew it was wrong, and I was afraid of what would happen if I did, and too, church had taught me 1) Parents are supposed to hit their kids and 2) I’m supposed to honor my parents.

    Surrogates saved my life. To use John’s word, I gloamed onto anyone who showed the mildest interest. I had all my life, but it didn’t hit me until age 37, like a boulder intended for the roadrunner, that: No, Sweetie, you’re not just more mature, you don’t just like things that older women like – you needed a mom and you found some….over and over again to fill that hole in your life that your psyche wouldn’t let you believe existed…..and how could it be that it took me 37 years to figure that out? Why white-haired, brightly-colored reading glasses bespeckled, smartly dressed women caught my eye. How I would notice what they were wearing and how they carried themselves and how they interacted with other people. I was starving for woman wisdom and maternal love. And I thought I was alone until I read a book by Hope Edelman called Motherless Daughters, and I wept through that to discover that not only was I not crazy or weird, I wasn’t alone. Something really messed up had happened, and I had all the symptoms of it.

    I too am determined to break the cycle.

    What I know now is that sometimes we aren’t born into the families who are best equipped to love us in all the ways we want and need them to, so we make the family that we need from the friends we meet along the way. They are in our lives not out of duty or obligation – but because of our choosing. This is how we cope. And, thank God for all the willing and wise souls who knew we were gloaming and loved us, unconditionally, anyway. May every abused and wounded soul find their way to the ones who can love them like they never knew love could be. Blessings and hugs to both of you ~ C