Book Review: Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving

Book of Forgiving cover“Forgiving is how we move from victim to hero in our story.” – The Book of Forgiving

I wrote earlier that I have been listening to Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving as I work on my half marathon training. In this book, Tutu seeks to provide the reader with both the motivation (by citing research as well as anecdotes on the benefits of forgiveness) and method to forgive those who have committed injuries against us.

Desmond Tutu seems like a fairly legitimate and reliable source, so I figured I would give the book a shot.  Here is my summary of the fourfold path to forgiveness, and my thoughts on his plan.

Part I: Telling the Story

“This is what healing requires. Behavior that is hurtful, abusive or demeaning must be brought into the fierce light of truth, and truth can be brutal. In fact, truth may exacerbate the hurt; it might make things worse. But if we want true forgiveness and real healing, we must face the injury.”

Tutu speaks at length about the importance for victims to tell their story. It is only through honesty that healing can begin, both for the victim and perpetrator. Tutu gave example after example of how victims must tell their story, without recrimination, correction or condemnation, in order to “own” what happened to them.

Especially meaningful to me was Tutu’s discussion of research by child psychiatrists who stated that children who grow up in homes where the family history is not authentically represented struggle with identity, adult relationships, and trust issues.

“Some find forgiveness difficult because they believe forgiving means forgetting the pain they have suffered. I can say, unequivocally, that forgiving does not mean forgetting the harm. It does not mean pretending the harm did not happen, or that the injury was not as hard as it really was. Quite the opposite is true. The cycle of forgiveness can only be activated and completed in utter truth and honesty. Forgiveness does not mean that we pretend things are anything other than they are.”

Part II: Naming the Hurt

“Giving the emotion a name is the way we come to understand how what happened affected us. After we’ve told the facts of what happened, we must face our feelings. We are each hurt in our own unique ways, and when we give voice to this pain, we begin to heal it.”

This part of the book was the most unclear to me at first, but as I listened, I realized Tutu was talking about accurately identifying just how the trauma of the act needing forgiveness hurt, and damaged, the victim. It reminded me of Dr. Phil’s saying “you cannot change what you don’t acknowledge.”  This step is about understanding, and owning, exactly what has been done to you.

Through my own therapy over the past several years, I have become very familiar  with the terms “rug-sweeping” and “gaslighting“.  Tutu discusses how individuals must break free of these false rationalizations, justifications and defense mechanisms in order to therapeutically process the events.

“When we ignore the pain, it grows bigger and bigger, and like an abscess that is never drained, eventually it will rupture. When that happens, it can reach into every area of our lives—our health, our families, our jobs, our friendships, our faith, and our very ability to feel joy may be diminished by the fallout from resentments, anger, and hurts that are never named.”

Part III: Granting Forgiveness

“Forgiveness does not relieve someone of responsibility for what they have done. Forgiveness does not erase accountability. It is not about turning a blind eye or even turning the other cheek. It is not about letting someone off the hook or saying it is okay to do something monstrous.”

How do we actually grant forgiveness? As you might imagine, Tutu is unable to definitively give a “how-to” for all situations (although secretly, this is what I was waiting for), rather he discusses what forgiveness is, and is not, and how it is all for the benefit of the victim. Ultimately, in simplest terms, it is about letting go of the offense, and no longer wishing retribution for the transgression or ill will towards the perpetrator.

While I agreed intellectually with everything Tutu wrote, my problem lay with the rhetorical construct of the argument. In the book, Tutu gives several anecdotes involving either remorseful perpetrators, or anonymous crimes, or dead attackers.

None of which I could relate to.

If the person needing forgiveness wants it, there is a section later in the book addressing how to help him or her go about that process (discussed below).

“How do we genuinely renew or release a relationship after we have been hurt? How do we move forward from the loss? In order to renew or release the relationship, we must make meaning from the experience.  This is how we continue to move away from our identity as victims. If your best friend calls you an ugly name, you would want an apology and an explanation. When we are hurt, we need an explanation for why we were hurt, why a trusted friend lied to us, or a spouse was unfaithful, or a stranger saw fit to accost us. Often it is this truth-telling that gives us the momentum to move forward.”

Part IV: Renewing or Releasing the Relationship

 The final step in the path to forgiveness is to redefine the relationship – to either renew or release it. Tutu argues that the premium should always be on renewal if possible, as that speaks to the ultimate goal of harmony and connection. However, he is clear that, in some cases (particularly when the perpetrator is remorseless and still desires to do harm), it is necessary to release the relationship.

“We may also demand restitution or recompense for what was taken or lost. Ask yourself what you need to renew or release the relationship, and then, if you can, ask it of the person with whom you need to renew or release the relationship. You may need to hear the person is remorseful before you are able to renew or release the relationship. If the person is not sorry for what they have done, you may decide it is best to release the relationship.”

Tutu’s book gives advice for how to decipher what you need in order to renew or release the relationship, and which course of action is best. He asserts (and I agree) that even in circumstances where the perpetrator(s) are unwilling or unable to work with the victim, it is still possible to forgive and release the relationship.

“Releasing your relationship is how you free yourself from victimhood and trauma. You can choose to not have that person in your life any longer, but you have only truly chosen the path of releasing the relationship when you no longer wish that person ill. Releasing is choosing to no longer allow that person space in your head or heart. It is releasing not only the relationship, but your old story of the relationship.”

Obtaining Forgiveness

The last part of the book is for those seeking forgiveness. Tutu outlines the steps those who have wronged others should follow to best receive forgiveness.

  1. Admit the wrong. “It is not easy to admit our wrongs, but it must be done. It is much more difficult to live a lie. Only when we speak our secrets can we hope to banish our shame and live with integrity… Acknowledge the wrong, and that we have harmed the person horribly, and perhaps, irrevocably. Do not self-justify or seek to rationalize the harm. There can be no reconciliation without responsibility.”
  2. Witnessing the anguish“When people are hurting, they cannot be cross-examined out of their pain. If you argue with the person you have harmed, you will both be trapped in an endless cycle of telling the story and naming the hurt. “
  3. Genuinely apologize. “We may need to utter those magical words many times before they are heard. Before they are believed. When you apologize, you are restoring the dignity you have violated in the person you have hurt. You are acknowledging the offense has happened. When you apologize with true remorse for what you have done, you open a space for healing. A hollow and insincere apology only compounds the injury done. An apology said with self-interest causes further harm.”
  4. Asking for forgiveness. “When we ask for forgiveness, we express true remorse, and explain how and why we will not harm the victim again. When we seek forgiveness, we will do whatever it takes to make things right. We will be willing to not only ask the victim for their forgiveness, but be willing to offer whatever form of restitution is required in order to forgive. It is as simple, and as difficult, as that.”


I have read many, many books and articles on overcoming trauma and forgiveness over the past several years, and this is definitely one of the better written and persuasive books. It clearly lays out what I believe most of us already know intuitively – that to withhold forgiveness and hold on to anger only grants those who harm us more power.

With that said, Tutu acknowledges how difficult forgiveness can be, and how it can take many of us years to authentically release the pain, particularly when the transgressors are unrepentant, lack the desire to make amends, or even deny the wrongdoing in the first place.

However, I have always been committed to doing the right thing, and rising above my circumstances. I do not believe that two wrongs make a right, or that I am “justified” in any belief, thought or action that I know to be wrong.

I know exactly how damaging, and hurtful,  those defense mechanisms of rationalization and justification can be.

As such, I have signed up for the Tutu Global Forgiveness Challenge. I will report back at the conclusion of the challenge with my impressions.

“There is a certain kind of dignity we admire, and to which we aspire, in the person who refuses to meet anger with anger, violence with violence, or hatred with hatred.”


2 responses to “Book Review: Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving

  1. Pingback: New Year’s Goals: 2015 | I Used to Drive a Minivan

  2. Pingback: Book Review: How Can I Forgive You? by Janis Abrahms Spring | I Used to Drive a Minivan

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