“The difference between justice and forgiveness: To be just is to condemn the fault and, because of the fault, to condemn the doer as well. To forgive is to condemn the fault but to spare the doer. That’s what the forgiving God does.”

~Miroslav Volf

The Oxford Dictionary defines forgiveness as the following:

1. Stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake

1.1 No longer feel angry about or wish to punish (an offense, flaw, or mistake)

Under these definitions, forgiving someone has nothing to do with them: it’s about managing our emotional experiences. It’s not about consequences and punishment, but releasing emotions that hold us back.

Justice and forgiveness are big words. While they are often found in discourses of philosophy and law, these concepts are equally important to grapple with when looking to our personal relationships which also involve “offenders” and “victims” so to speak. Sometimes we are “guilty” of hurting someone and sometimes as “the victim”, we are hurt by the actions of an “offender”. Typically, someone is more likely to forgive when the offender makes constructive efforts to mend hurtful behaviour. Or when the victim re-frames their thoughts and feelings about the transgression and the offender, thinking for example, “she didn’t mean to do it”, for example, or “our relationship is more important”. Or, of course, when both happen.

But sometimes offenders are not aware of their hurtful behaviour so they don’t take responsibility, their reparative efforts are inadequate, or re-framing encourages forgiveness but still leaves residual resentment.

Now, at first glance, this claim may appear counter-intuitive – people tend to think that punishment and forgiveness are opposites. When you punish someone, you hurt them; when you forgive, you are benevolently disposed towards them.

But there is indeed consistent and strong evidence of a clear link between punishment and forgiveness.

Justice refers to fairness, which is fundamentally important to humans, particularly when we’ve been wronged. Research in the criminal justice system suggests people prefer to punish so that offenders get their just deserts – punishing often leaves us with the sense that justice has been done. But the punishment must fit the crime; offenders should be seen to suffer to the same degree as the person they hurt. If this happens, the victim’s suffering is, theoretically at least, cancelled out.

The effect of this is that it may allow the victim to have a greater sense of empowerment and control. We must remember that when a person has been hurt by another, they are vulnerable to the states that only justice can restore: feeling demeaned, lacking control and feeling disconnected from the person who hurt them.

Punishment also sends a deterring message: “I value this relationship, so don’t do it again!” This message of deterrence coupled with the restoration or rebuilding of certain valued psychological states is important for encouraging forgiveness. Forgiving means being vulnerable again. Therefore by punishing, victims may feel strengthened and sufficiently confident to risk being vulnerable one more time, which may enable them to forgive.

It is, however, important here to distinguish between punishment and revenge. Revenge effectively means not only making another person suffer, but making them suffer more. Vengeful responses tend to be destructive; they usually lead to a downward spiral of revenge and counter-revenge. When the point of punishment is to restore fairness, the punishing act should be perceived as roughly the equivalent to the original hurt. What constitutes a “fair” punishment usually depends on the nature of the relationship between victim and offender.

But how is anyone to measure the equivalent of a particular kind of hurt? According to researches, the most effective punishment is achieved through dialogue. This usually means communicating to the offender what he or she has done, explaining why it is so upsetting, and often discussing how the offender will make up for it.

Although victims don’t necessarily set out to make an offender feel bad, guilt is often an outcome, which means that the conversation itself is the “punishment”. When victims think they’ve been heard, that the unfair behaviour will be addressed or that the offender is also hurting (or all of these), then they feel justice has been done. And forgiveness is therefore more likely.

Naturally, we wouldn’t advocate pre-emptive punishment. But in situations where victims may need to re-assert themselves, a punishment that is fair seems to be a viable and effective way of enabling forgiveness. Therefore justice and forgiveness — two responses generally thought to be contradictory — can co-exist, so that the one may encourage the other.