Forgiveness is and always has been a tricky subject. The very idea of forgiving someone who has deeply wounded you does not come naturally to us. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The world around us would cheer us on to hang onto that anger and unforgiveness and tell us we have a right to be mad and stay mad. Somehow, there is a belief that holding something against someone gives you power over them. But does it really?
Many studies have concluded that the act of forgiving someone can lead to significant rewards for your physical health, reducing the risk of heart attack; improving sleep and cholesterol levels, and even reducing blood pressure, physical pain, and levels of anxiety, depression, and stress. Research also indicates an increase in the forgiveness-health connection as you grow older.
“There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed,” says Karen Swartz M.D., director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. The result of chronic anger (which is perpetuated by unforgiveness) keeps you in fight-or-flight mode, resulting in numerous changes in blood pressure, heart rate, and the body’s immune response.
All of this increases the risk of depression, diabetes, and heart disease, as well as other conditions. Forgiveness seems to be the golden key, calming stress levels which leads to an improvement in health.
So, how do we forgive? What if someone hurts us more deeply than we’re even comfortable sharing with the majority of people in our lives? How do we forgive slander, gossip, and being beaten up verbally, emotionally, and physically? What if sexual violence is involved? How do we forgive someone who killed a loved one?
Many would believe that ultimately forgiveness is good and healthy, but there are extenuating circumstances in which we should never have to forgive. The more we hold onto anger and unforgiveness because we feel justified in doing so, the more we allow the person we have chosen not to forgive to dominate our thoughts, our feelings, and even our actions. Think of this as letting that person (or those people) live rent-free in your head.
When you think about this person (which is probably fairly often), your emotions change for the worse, your attitude will shift your behaviors and the way you interact with others and the world around you, and you will likely ruminate on why you are angry and embittered toward this person, reinforcing this cycle. So, who really holds the power here? The person hanging onto unforgiveness, or the person who is the subject of that unforgiveness?
Additionally, there is a common misconception that in order for us to forgive someone, that person must first ask for forgiveness. What about those cases where that will never or could never happen? What if that person is too prideful to ask for forgiveness, doesn’t believe they were in the wrong, is no longer in our lives for whatever reason, or has passed away? Is forgiveness really for that person who probably doesn’t deserve it? Or is it more for us?
Think back to the health problems addressed earlier in this article. If we understand that forgiveness leads to improved physical, emotional, mental, and even spiritual health for us, isn’t it worth the difficult task of going through the steps to forgive, no matter how horrible the offense? The idea that someone has to ask for forgiveness in order for us to forgive could not be more inaccurate.
Forgiveness does not have to be a two-way street. Someone could choose to forgive someone who hurt them when they were young and will not or cannot ask for forgiveness because the person holding onto that unforgiveness decides they no longer want to carry the weight of that unforgiveness.
That forgiving act would then just be for the victim of the offense, and not even necessarily for the benefit of the perpetrator. Imagine that unforgiveness like a bag full of stones you carry around on your back. The burden is heavy and difficult to carry, but you can choose to unburden yourself by removing that backpack and setting it down.
Don’t misunderstand the message here. Forgiveness is certainly not an easy task and it typically won’t happen overnight. It can be a long and arduous process, but you don’t have to go through it alone. Surrounding yourself with a strong, natural support base can be really beneficial in forgiveness.
These supports can be friends, family, neighbors, peers, church family, etc. Counseling can also be an extremely helpful, healing step in the right direction. Make sure to find a counselor who supports your worldview, especially from a spiritual perspective if you are a person of faith.
Speaking of faith, how can we use that to forgive, and what does the Bible say about forgiveness? Let’s look at what Jesus said in the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 6: (14) For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, (15) but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
That’s a very heavy and straightforward command that comes with a promise. If we forgive others, we will be forgiven our own sins. But if we don’t? Then God doesn’t pardon us. So, not only is it healthy for us to forgive, it’s a direct order from our Heavenly Father. The most scandalous thing about Jesus dying on the cross to pardon our sins is that he did it for everyone, including those guilty of murder and sexual violence.
The catch is simply this: acknowledging that gift, accepting it, and being willing to do the same for others. We forgive because He forgave us. And not just the things you are most willing to talk about (e.g. cheating on a test, lying to your spouse, friend, parent, significant other, etc.) but the things you are most ashamed of.
He forgave you for everything you’ve ever done and will do, including the deepest, darkest thoughts we have toward others. Jesus is clear on this: even our very thoughts are sinful! Acting on them is not the only way to sin. Even thinking something evil toward another is sinful in the eyes of God. But here’s the good news: For those that have accepted the gift of eternal life by putting their trust in Jesus, God doesn’t look at you and see your sin.
He looks at you and sees the example of the perfect, sinless life Jesus lived FOR you. My pastor uses the analogy that Jesus “traded report cards with us at the cross.” He takes our “F” and gives us His “A+.” But we have to be willing to extend that same grace toward others. Grace can be simply defined as “giving someone something good that they do not deserve.” This would include forgiveness.
Sometimes it may seem like an overwhelming and impossible task to forgive someone due to the nature and severity of the pain they caused us. When it feels like you can’t do it yourself, try turning to God for help in forgiveness. The Bible contains many promises that when we ask for something (good for us) “in Jesus’ name,” God will grant that for us.
This comes with caveats of course. We may think that randomly receiving a huge sum of money will be good for us, so why wouldn’t God grant that? But He sees things we don’t, like how that type of gift could actually corrupt us and cause us to lean away from a dependence on Him. However, He will help with things that are good for our hearts and souls.
This includes asking for peace in a stormy situation in life, asking for courage to face something difficult, asking for patience and humility to deal with a difficult person, and yes, even asking for help in forgiving someone who hurt you deeply. He wants those things for His children. He wants peace for you in your life. And He knows that peace cannot be effectively attained if you are holding onto bitterness and unforgiveness.
In his book “Unoffendable,” Christian radio DJ and author Brant Hansen says “Yes, God sees things we don’t. We can risk loving people—because He loves us. That person you find so offensive? Somehow, God sees something there. Something you don’t. Ask Him what it is. Maybe He’ll show you. I bet He wants to.”
If you are struggling with unforgiveness and need a counselor to walk alongside you through the process, I would be honored to take that journey with you. You may feel alone, but you’re not. Forgiveness is not only possible, but with the right help and guidance, it’s very attainable. Unburden yourself from that heavy pack you’ve been hauling around and find peace and freedom. God wants this for you. Believe that.
“Angry”, Courtesy of Whoismargot, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Gavel”, Courtesy of sergeitokmakov, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Angry Man”, Courtesy of Peterziegler, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Cross”, Courtesy of Yannick Pulver, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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