Most of us really don’t understand forgiveness. If we’re honest, we crave forgiveness at some point from someone, either a person we’ve wronged, or from God. We want it for ourselves, but we’re loath to grant it to others. We say things like, “there’s no way I can forgive that person…it would be like saying what they did was okay. It would be like an open invitation for them to keep doing it.”
But let’s stop for a moment and think about that God dynamic. When we confess our trespasses and sincerely ask to be forgiven, do we actually expect God to tell us that what we did was okay? Of course not! We know that forgiveness from God comes for actions that are absolutely NOT okay. What else would we need to be forgiven for? So, can we take that off the table? Forgiveness is not the same as excusing or condoning bad behavior. It’s much deeper than that.
Unforgiveness is hazardous to your health
A surgeon named Dabney Ewin conducted a series of experiments in 1978 on burn victims he was treating. He observed that many of his patients were extremely angry, either with themselves or another person they blamed for their injuries. His angry patients were slower to recover and their bodies more often rejected skin grafts than patients who were not so angry. His conclusion was their deep anger was interfering with their ability to heal.
When he took steps to help his patients forgive themselves or others, he saw their stress levels drop and they achieved faster recovery times. Unforgiveness had a tangible effect on their emotional and physical healing, but choosing to let go of their anger allowed his patients to relax and respond better to their treatment.
Another researcher, Dr. Robert Enright, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, developed a four-part forgiveness therapy in the 1990s: 1) uncovering your anger, 2) deciding to forgive, 3) working on forgiveness, and 4) discovery and release from emotional prison. I think that last part is the most telling – unforgiveness is nothing less than an emotional prison.
Christian pastor Greg Laurie puts it this way: “Unforgiveness is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” Withholding forgiveness does little or nothing to the object of our anger; it only imprisons and even incapacitates us. And thus showing forgiveness, which we’re actually commanded to do, is an act of liberation…for ourselves. Forgiving that person releases us from the bondage we put our own selves in, for when we hold onto anger we sacrifice our own peace.
Jesus taught us to ask God to forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. He went on to say, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Easier said than done? Absolutely. So, how do you forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it, maybe doesn’t even want it? Enright’s four-part therapy is an excellent model. First, you must recognize your anger and the damaging effect it’s had on your health, your outlook on life, the way you act, even your relationship with God. Understanding that, next make a conscious decision to forgive.
Working on forgiveness is where it might get a little harder. You can start by praying for that person. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” You may be surprised to find that by really praying for that person you develop compassion and empathy for them.
The payoff comes in the final step. As you begin to truly forgive, the weight of hurt, anger, and longing for vengeance will start to lift. The chains of your emotional prison will break. Who knows, you could even discover a way to bring some good out of your experience.
Consider the Old Testament story of Joseph, who suffered great cruelty at the hands of his brothers. He had every reason to be bitter and vindictive; no one would have blamed him if he had destroyed his brothers when he had the chance. Yet he rose above his plight in dramatic fashion and he showed mercy instead. “You intended evil for me,” he said to them, “but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid.”
His actions healed a family and left a shining example for the rest of us.
Now, who do you need to forgive?