Does Forgiveness Need To Be Earned?

While watching a college basketball game today, I saw this statement in the scrolling news ticker at the bottom of the television screen: “From our conversations, he understands that forgiveness must be earned, and he is willing to work for it.”

Uh…what? Forgiveness has to be earned? Since when?

Let me tell you the backstory. Gregg McDermott, head coach of the men’s basketball team at Creighton University, recently stuck his foot in his mouth, big time. In delivering a post-game speech to his team in which he was trying to emphasize the importance of team unity, he used a racially insensitive analogy that was completely inappropriate. He recognized his mistake and quickly apologized. Last week the university suspended him indefinitely while they investigated the incident. Today, Creighton athletic director, Bruce Rasmussen, issued the following statement:

“Through his immediate apology, ownership of his actions, difficult dialogue with his team, and more, Coach McDermott has demonstrated a commitment to grow. I believe his apology, his commitment to grow from this, to learn, and to regain the trust of his student-athletes and others impacted by his words. From our conversations, he understands that forgiveness must be earned, and he is willing to work for it. His actions during his career reveal an individual committed to his team and his community. As such, coach Greg McDermott has been reinstated for all team activities, including this week’s Big East tournament.”

Perhaps it was just an awkwardly worded press release, or maybe Bruce Rasmussen was simply trying to emphasize the importance of Coach McDermott working to regain the trust of those around him (which was explicitly mentioned), but the truth is this: Forgiveness can’t be earned; it can only be given. (click to tweet)

Forgiveness is not something under the control of the person who committed a breach of trust. Forgiveness rests solely with the person offended. The offended party has the choice to offer forgiveness or withhold it. What McDermott does, or doesn’t do, has no impact on whether his players, assistant coaches, university administrators, fans, or anyone else chooses to forgive him. There’s no way he can earn it. Don’t confuse forgiveness with making amends. Making amends is the responsibility of the party who committed the offense. Forgiveness is the responsibility of the offended.

If forgiveness had to be earned, it would also mean that forgiveness was conditional and could only be granted upon meeting certain criteria. How would that work? If Coach McDermott doesn’t say anything stupid for six months, does he earn 25% forgiveness? Maybe six months is worth 50% forgiveness? Or maybe it’s only worth 15% forgiveness if the offended party is still holding a grudge? Forgiveness is either given or it’s not. Forgiveness is not a weapon to be wielded to manipulate, coerce, or control someone into doing what you want them to do.

There are many misconceptions about forgiveness, like it’s a display of weakness, it lets the offending party off the hook, or opens the door to people taking advantage of you. Those are misconceptions for a reason: they’re wrong. I’ve written in-depth about the role of forgiveness in restoring trust. It’s the most powerful tool at your disposal to move beyond the pain and suffering of broken trust. Forgiveness is a soothing balm to the wounds of broken trust. It works best when applied liberally and frequently.

What are your thoughts about the role forgiveness plays in restoring trust? Do you believe forgiveness is earned or given? Please leave a comment and share your perspectives.

16 Comments on “Does Forgiveness Need To Be Earned?

  1. “Forgiveness is not something under the control of the person who committed a breach of trust.” Absolutely right. It’s up to the forgiver, not the forgiven.

    • Thanks for adding your insights Charlie! PS – I haven’t forgotten about our article! I’ve been working on a draft.

  2. Interesting Randy. Made me think about forgiveness and its role in building or rebuilding trust. I try to forgive everyone. Depending on the nature of the violation, I also get to decide whether one, two or three strikes gets you thrown out of the trust game. In other words, some players get permanently benched faster than others.

    • Hi Barbara,

      I’m glad it sparked some thought for you. I didn’t mention this, but of course forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting, and it also doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for someone’s behavior. You can forgive someone while also putting boundaries into place.


  3. As a person of color, my first reaction to this piece was the Creighton/McDermott tragedy is a story about structural and systematic racism first and forgiveness second. For those of us who have been victimized by racism, forgiveness absolutely has to be earned and not freely given since the racism robs its victim of their humanity. The Old Testament formula for forgiveness starts with confession, proceeds to behavior change and ends with compensation to the human beings the transgressor has hurt. All McDermott has done is confess. I think all of us should pause and examine our own privilege in this tragedy that was perpetuated by a so-called Christian organization. We forget that the major actors in this story are not McDermott but the Black players, coaches, recruits, students and professors he victimized on the Creighton plantation.

    • Hi JC. Do you believe someone must confess to their wrongdoing before the offended can give forgiveness?

  4. I love this quote by Gandhi “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong” I’d add there has to be wisdom in the forgiveness.

  5. A thought-provoking post Randy. In one of your other posts you wrote this: “Forgiveness is letting go of all hopes for a better past.” Really powerful! It makes sense that forgiveness is a choice by the person who has been offended in some way. I cannot feel forgiven or be forgiven until the person who has been offended forgives me … it’s their choice and not something I earn. While forgiveness is a choice, I’m wondering what the evidence-based research tells us about the contributing elements upon which that choice to forgive is made? I would think an assessment of a person’s intentions in whatever action(s) caused the breach of trust or offence would be one of those contributing elements. That is, was it an unintentional mistake, or was it an intentional action (there’s no such thing as an intentional mistake). Either way, the choice to forgive still remains with the person offended. Thanks again for making think more deeply about the importance of trust in our world.

  6. Absolutely correct, Randy! Forgiveness is given to the offender whether asked for or not…best examples are Biblical based!

  7. I think the mistake should be both deserved to be forgiven (they should make an effort and be persuaded by the other side) and forgiven by the victim. Very relative, my experience is that forgiveness relaxes and uplifts people …

  8. Much thanks Randy for your eloquent insights about forgiveness!

    The spirit is reliant on it more than not. It is rarely in vogue and is unteachable. It is a quality of wisdom, and when expressed, becomes a quality of our lives. You are welcome to view my video about forgiveness, a story of Sofia who was fired from her job via rumors. Forgiveness is an opportunity that is full of courage and naturally results in greater levels of well-being. Thank You! Eric

    Forgiveness Floats at

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