So, how did your week go? Did you have any arguments, conflicts or consternation? Did you remember how important it was to forgive? Did you find it tough? Do you want some help?
Let’s first remind ourselves the value that forgiveness has on our health.
To date, studies have found the following trends regarding (un)forgiveness and their relationship to health and well-being outcomes:
- sustained negative affective responses, including hostility, anger, and vengeance, are associated with higher rates of mental health problems (e.g., suicides, depression, reduced psychological well-being, and lowered life satisfaction), compromised physiological functioning associated with prolonged stress reactions, and overall worse self-reported physical health.
- Findings connecting forgiveness with health highlight the ability of forgiveness to interrupt and prevent negative effects, offering health-promoting outcomes in various ways. Forgiveness has been associated with higher self-esteem, as well as the expression of empathy, compassion, and love.
- Individuals considered forgiving by nature tend to also score highly on measures of altruism, report healthy relationships, and be buffered from age-related health risks in several ways.
- Forgiveness has been positively connected to cardiovascular health, such that forgiving results in lowered blood pressure, cholesterol, heart rate, and cortisol level, and other relevant heart health measures.
- Forgiveness has also been associated with a host of self-reported observations and health-promoting behaviors such as fewer chronic medical conditions, less reported pain, quicker recovery from medical procedures, better sleep, less drug and alcohol use, and higher global health ratings.
Can You Learn to Be More Forgiving?
Forgiveness is not just about saying the words. It is an active process in which you make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the person deserves it or not. As you release the anger, resentment and hostility, you begin to feel empathy, compassion and sometimes even affection for the person who wronged you. If you don’t, then at least you aren’t feeling the negative impact of your emotions.
Studies have found that some people are just naturally more forgiving. Consequently, they tend to be more satisfied with their lives and to have less depression, anxiety, stress, anger and hostility. People who hang on to grudges, however, are more likely to experience severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as other health conditions. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t train themselves to act in healthier ways. In fact, 62 percent of American adults say they need more forgiveness in their personal lives, according to a survey by the nonprofit Fetzer Institute.
Making Forgiveness Part of Your Life
Forgiveness is a choice. You are choosing to offer compassion and empathy to the person who wronged you. The following steps can help you develop a more forgiving attitude—and benefit from better emotional and physical health.
Reflect and remember
This includes the events themselves, and also how you reacted, how you felt, and how the anger and hurt have affected you since.
Empathize with the other person
For instance, if your spouse grew up in an alcoholic family, then their anger when you have too many glasses of wine might be more understandable.
Simply forgiving someone because you think you have no other alternative or because you think your religion requires it may be enough to bring some healing. But one study found that people whose forgiveness came in part from understanding that no one is perfect were able to resume a normal relationship with the other person, even if that person never apologized. Those who only forgave in an effort to salvage the relationship wound up with a worse relationship.
Let go of expectations
An apology may not change your relationship with the other person or elicit an apology from him or her. If you don’t expect either, you won’t be disappointed.
Decide to forgive
Once you make that choice, seal it with an action. If you don’t believe you can talk to the person who wronged you, write about your forgiveness in a journal or even talk about it to someone else in your life whom you trust.
The act of forgiving includes forgiving yourself. For instance, if your spouse had an affair, recognize that the affair is not a reflection of your worth.
There’s a big difference between seeing things as forgivable and having it be the consuming factor in your life. Forgiveness does not always include reconciliation. Having a relationship with someone in the future is about whether they are reliable and dependable and trustworthy, and sometimes they’ve broken your trust in a way that you can never have a relationship again.
A Few Points to Ponder:
Do we erroneously associate forgiving with forgetting?
I wonder if people sometimes have an expectation of forgiveness–that it must include absolution. Forgiving isn’t giving absolution where you say,
If someone’s done something really thoughtless, you think about them differently. You trust them differently. You have a different relationship with them.
Here is what Charles Stanley suggests we think about:
The phrase “forgive and forget” is not found in the Bible. However, there are numerous verses commanding us to “forgive one another” (e.g., Matthew 6:14 and Ephesians 4:32). A Christian who is not willing to forgive others will find his fellowship with God hindered (Matthew 6:15) and can reap bitterness and the loss of reward (Hebrews 12:14–15; 2 John 1:8).
Forgiveness is a decision of the will. Since God commands us to forgive, we must make a conscious choice to obey God and forgive. The offender may not desire forgiveness and may not ever change, but that doesn’t negate God’s desire that we possess a forgiving spirit (Matthew 5:44). Ideally, the offender will seek reconciliation, but, if not, the one wronged can still make a decision to forgive.
Of course, it is impossible to truly forget sins that have been committed against us. We cannot selectively “delete” events from our memory. The Bible states that God does not “remember” our wickedness (Hebrews 8:12). But God is still all-knowing. God remembers that we have “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). But, having been forgiven, we are positionally (or judicially) justified. Heaven is ours, as if our sin had never occurred. If we belong to Him through faith in Christ, God does not condemn us for our sins (Romans 8:1). In that sense God “forgives and forgets.”
If by “forgive and forget” one means, “I choose to forgive the offender for the sake of Christ and move on with my life,” then this is a wise and godly course of action. As much as possible, we should forget what is behind and strive toward what is ahead (Philippians 3:13). We should forgive each other “just as in Christ God forgave” (Ephesians 4:32). We must not allow a root of bitterness to spring up in our hearts (Hebrews 12:15).
However, if by “forgive and forget” one means,
then we can run into trouble. For example, a rape victim can choose to forgive the rapist, but that does not mean she should act as if that sin had never happened. To spend time alone with the rapist, especially if he is unrepentant, is not what Scripture teaches. Forgiveness involves not holding a sin against a person any longer, but forgiveness is different from trust. It is wise to take precautions, and sometimes the dynamics of a relationship will have to change. “The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty” (Proverbs 22:3). Jesus told His followers to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). In the context of keeping company with unrepentant sinners, we must be “innocent” (willing to forgive) yet at the same time “shrewd” (being cautious).
The ideal is to forgive and forget. Love keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5) and covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). However, changing hearts is God’s business, and, until an offender has a true, supernatural heart change, it is only wise to limit the level of trust one places in that person. Being cautious doesn’t mean we haven’t forgiven. It simply means we are not God and we cannot see that person’s heart.
It can be so hard to opt for empathy in the face of perceived betrayal. How do we begin to make that choice?
If you think of forgiveness in terms of thinking that something terrible has happened, being honest with yourself about your reaction, making a choice to forgive, to be empathic, to be compassionate, and then to decide whether or not to maintain a relationship, that’s different. That’s actually a process. But first you have to start with the idea that you even can say you could forgive them without condoning what happened.
And even that kind of forgiveness can have health benefits?
It can. To many of us, we wonder, what does it even mean to forgive on that level if you’re not completely letting something go? But the brain does understand that. Your thoughts drive your feelings and emotions and can drive your behavior. So if you think about it, if you continue to have negative thoughts all the time, you’re constantly in a negative, very tense state. It’s going to spill over into your thoughts about lots of other relationships. Can you trust people? And so it has lots of implications that are beyond just that one relationship.
Are there physical prompts for letting go? Can we think about breathing, for example, if we can’t get it into our emotional brain?
If you think of the steps of relaxation training, they’re often a part of forgiveness training. When you go into fight-or-flight mode, what you’re trying to say to your body is, “We don’t need to be in this mode. Let’s relax. Let’s do some deep breathing, let’s do muscle relaxation”. You focus on something else. And you actively work on relaxing your body; that’s often the first step. Let’s physically get you feeling differently, because then maybe you can think about things differently and not be in such a tense and geared-up state that you can’t really process information.
Do mood issues have a bearing on forgiveness?
There are two big things that happen. When people are depressed, they are in a negative mind-set all the time. That’s a part of depression—you see the negative version. So your reactions are out of proportion. So a small thing can happen and you’ll have a very strong negative reaction. You can be in a relationship where someone does something pretty trivial and you’re tremendously wounded by it. Also, people who are very depressed can make poorly thought-out decisions that may need forgiveness.
What do we bring into conflicts that might have little to do with the conflict itself—and that might be barriers to forgiveness?
So much of what fuels conflict is not necessarily the conflict. Part of forgiveness training is you have to look to yourself. “What is it about this that is really about me?” “Have I been depressed?” “Did I step over the line?” “Am I someone who gets furious when I’m in a particular situation?” And that allows you to process a more understandable reaction. I think it’s hard when you have two people and one person is having an intense reaction and the other person is saying, “If that were me I’d have much less of a reaction.” It’s hard to understand. Most of us know our own experience; we don’t really know someone else’s. Real empathy is, “I know what you’re feeling.” We can’t really achieve that. We can try. But because we can’t, most people are just disappointed that we don’t understand what they’re feeling. Which leads to more conflict and makes it harder to resolve some of these issues. It’s amazing how powerful it is for someone to apologize. And it’s amazing how difficult it is for so many people to do it.
And also to say the words “I forgive you.”
Yes! Forgiving someone is going to be facilitated by them saying, “I’m very sorry that this happened.” And sometimes what people have to realize is they don’t have to take responsibility for the whole conflict. They can take responsibility for their part in it. Like, “I’m sorry I didn’t know that would be so upsetting to you. I understand that now.” But sometimes people feel when they apologize, they are taking all the responsibility and saying, “It’s completely my fault.” Usually, each person has contributed to the misunderstanding and the difficulty.
Do we make a mistake in tending to think that forgiveness is something we do for other people, when in fact perhaps the greatest benefit is to ourselves?
Certainly the healthiest thing is to forgive. We have seen the many studies now that are demonstrating that—that you’ll have lower blood pressure and so much more. It would be better if people could view forgiveness as something they’re doing for themselves. Again, it’s not absolution. They get hung up on, “If I forgive you, it gets forgotten, or you’re not in trouble,” or something else. Forgiveness is something different, which is to say, “I am not going to have these negative emotions consume me.” That’s how to view it. And so forgiveness isn’t so much about the other person as your own process of saying, “I’m moving forward.”
Do we get too wrapped up in the morality of forgiveness? Do we hold on to the notion that it’s something we “should” do?
Other people can intrude on the process of forgiveness. People say you need to be a good person and forgive your sister, your dad, etc. The problem with that is when outside forces tell you what you need to do or decide for you what’s the right thing to do, it doesn’t have nearly the same benefit as saying, “I’m going to look at this”,” I’m going to work on changing my emotions”, “I’m going to substitute some of the negative feelings and thoughts I have into something more positive.” This can help you become healthier, and as the person who is doing the forgiving, to move on with your life instead of being too caught up in what it does or doesn’t do for someone else. So, it really is about the one who feels wronged.
Learning to Forgive
Identify the problem, give it time and get objective input. That input doesn’t have to come from a mental health professional. It could come from a close friend or a religious adviser.
Since most of us are aware that we need more forgiveness in our hearts and in our lives, then it makes sense to begin the process of learning how to forgive. We are the first to admit, that it isn’t ever easy. It is much easier to harbor the hurt and anchor the anger than it is to set ourselves free from the chains of it all.
When I am in those moments, the best thing I can do is look at the greatest example of forgiveness that ever lived on this earth—Jesus Christ. He chose to be ridiculed, mocked and crucified as a way of forgiving me and you for all of our future sins. Although I can never, ever live up to His standards, the very fact that He set them so high—for me—should clearly state His love and intentions to never, ever let me go. Why is it so hard to remember this? We need to continuously bring back the pictures of Him carrying the cross, His mother weeping over him, the stains of blood on His back and the wounds carved into His hands and feet—all of that–for you and for me.
No matter what has happened to us, none of us, not even one, can ever truly grasp the magnitude of what this innocent man did, but we all must realize that to maintain our relationship with Him, and to maintain our physical and mental health, we should always strive to let go of those areas that will spiritually deform us and ultimately kill us.
We must remember that there is no one on this earth who can provide for us the true living food that God can. You can’t find it on a tree and you can’t find it in your loved ones. If you want sustained love that will nourish your soul, go back to the only One who will give it to you. Stay attached and stay in Love with Jesus at all costs. There is no other lifeline in this world that can keep you happy, healthy and at peace.
The First to Apologize is the Bravest
The First to Forgive is the Strongest
And the First to Forget is the Happiest…