How important is forgiveness? The greatest benefits may come from granting, not receiving, forgiveness.
A 29-year-old police officer whose wife is pregnant with their first child is shot on the streets of New York. For days his life hangs in the balance. Although he lives, the shooting leaves him a quadriplegic. In Texas a young woman is brutally raped, beaten with a hammer, stabbed and left for dead. Although she survives, the incident leaves her emotionally devastated. A 7-year-old Cleveland boy lives through the mysterious murder of his mother. His father is arrested for the crime and convicted in a sensational trial that gains national attention. Ten years later his father is freed from prison after the real murderer is located. But irreversible damage has already occurred. The boy's childhood is over, his family shattered.
The victims in these three unrelated stories have more in common than having suffered tragic, brutal crimes. All three have been able to regain control of their lives by learning the power of forgiveness.
Social benefits of forgiveness
Recent studies have shown forgiveness also provides a vitally important dimension of human life, especially for those who have been victimized by life-changing tragedies. Forgiveness has widespread social applications. Realization of its value has led to the development of the restorative justice movement, which initiates conferences between crime victims and jailed perpetrators. More than 300 such programs are now in effect throughout the United States, including a million-dollar religious-based juvenile justice initiative in Florida.
Forgiveness and health
Examples such as those related above reveal that forgiveness also promotes the emotional and physical health of victims. On the other hand, holding on to bitterness, hatred and a desire for revenge can cause serious emotional and physiological problems that compound the suffering of the victim. Those who nurture these powerful emotions fail to realize the damage that they are bringing on themselves. As one person put it, "Holding on to anger is like taking poison and waiting for someone else to die." For example a leader of an uprising against the Warsaw ghetto described the bitterness that remains in his heart over how he and his neighbors were treated by the Nazis. "If you could lick my heart," he says, "it would poison you." Researchers have discovering that this statement may indeed be true.
Recent research on the benefits of forgiveness
As recently as 1980 virtually no data existed on the subject of forgiveness. The prevailing trend in counseling and psychotherapy has long been "the talking cure." Victims were encouraged to talk about their experiences, but the element of forgiveness was lacking. So the suffering usually remained.
In 1984 theologian Lewis Schmedes wrote Forgive and Forget. This book caught the eye of social scientist Robert Enright, who was seeking to apply the biblical concept of forgiveness to social problems. Enright sought support for a program to teach forgiveness to prisoners, reasoning that by learning to forgive others, they might seek forgiveness from their victims. For years his attempts were scorned and dismissed. In time his efforts gained the attention of other researchers. Ironically, the world-renowned Mendota Mental Health Center recently approached him with an idea for rehabilitating prisoners by teaching them forgiveness--the same idea that Enright sought to promote years earlier.
He has since founded the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI) http://www.forgivenessinstitute.org/ as "a source of promotion and dissemination of the most important research in the world on the topic of forgiveness." Research on forgiveness has continued to gain momentum, catapulting forgiveness out of its native Christian setting into the mainstream of scientific research. As stated in a recent article in Time magazine, "there is not only a religious impetus to forgive but also therapeutic, social and practical reasons to do so. This applies to victims of crimes as well as to those who must deal with... more common misfortunes--unfaithfulness, betrayal, ungratefulness and mere insult."
According to the Time article, "A number of psychotherapists are testifying that there is nothing like it for dissipating anger, mending marriages and banishing depression. Just a few years ago, says Robert Enright, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin and a pioneer in the scientific study of forgiveness, most secularly inclined intellectuals trashed it; they said, 'Only wimps forgive.' But now, Enright says, 'psychiatrists, M.D.s, scientists, lawyers, ministers and social workers can all be on the same page. We are really on a roll'" (David Van Biema, "Should All Be Forgiven?," Time, Jan. 23, 2001,).
Health benefits of forgiveness
Clinical psychologist Joseph Neuman of East Tennessee State University is currently engaged in a research project seeking to learn more about the link between forgiveness and physiological health. Dr. Neuman observed: "When I treat[ed] patients with cardiovascular diseases, I was struck with how many were bitter, angry and depressed. It clearly affected their health and their ability to heal." His experimentation seems to document the cardiovascular benefits of forgiveness. "Theologically speaking, forgiveness is an Act of God," says Neuman. "In terms of health care, forgiveness could save your life."
What forgiveness is not An important part of this treatment philosophy "assumes that forgiveness ...be experienced and expressed in full realization that an offender's actions may not merit such benevolence." The "forgiveness" spoken of by researchers does not depend on the attitudes or actions of the offender. Neither does it imply denying, condoning, excusing or condemning them. It doesn't demand justice or compensation. Forgiveness is not equivalent to, nor does it require, reconciliation. The IFI explains that forgiveness is "one person's moral response to another's injustice." Reconciliation involves "two parties coming together in mutual respect."
Many make the mistake of assuming that forgiveness should be extended only if the offending party apologizes and makes amends for his or her actions. But to experience the benefits of forgiveness, the victim must be willing and able to let go of resentment whether or not the perpetrator seeks or deserves to be forgiven. Otherwise, the victim remains at the mercy of the guilty party and continues to suffer from what the program calls "the cancer of bitterness." This can include mental and emotional turmoil and even degenerative diseases. According to Dr. Glen Mack Harnden, forgiveness "releases the offender from anger, rage and stress that have been linked to physiological problems, such as cardiovascular diseases, high-blood pressure, hypertension, cancer, and other psychosomatic diseases."
What forgiveness is
Clinical psychologist Everett Worthington, Jr. offers this definition of forgiveness: "Forgiveness is when an individual who's been hurt or offended decides and practices giving up his or her desire to avoid the person who hurt him or her, or giving up the desire to exact revenge on the person, and also to seek reconciliation between the two people, if it's safe and possible" (Robert Owens Scott, "The Practice of Forgiveness," Spirituality & Health Newsletter).
Many researchers offer this twofold definition: "Forgiveness is releasing the other person from retaliation and wishing the other person well" (Gary Thomas, "The Forgiveness Factor," Christianity Today, Jan. 10, 2000). In short, forgiveness is an unconditional gift to someone who does not deserve it.
Forgiveness in the Bible
What these men have articulated is stated simply and eloquently in many passages of Scripture. In the Sermon on the Mount, the cornerstone of Christian teaching, Jesus tells us to "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..." (Matthew:5:44).
The apostle Paul advises: "Ask God to bless everyone who mistreats you. Ask him to bless them and not to curse them... Don't mistreat someone who has mistreated you... Don't try to get even... If your enemies are hungry, give them something to eat. And if they are thirsty, give them something to drink... Don't let evil defeat you, but defeat evil with good" (Romans:12:14, 17, 20-21, Contemporary English Version). These admonitions undoubtedly appear unwise, unwarranted and unfair to a non-Christian. Even Christians have viewed this in terms of a unilateral obligation. Lewis Schmedes observed that "human forgiveness had been seen as a religious obligation of love that we owe to a person who has offended us. The discovery I made was the important benefit that forgiveness is to the forgiver." Schmedes believes that "untold pain is brought about in the world by people's unwillingness to forgive and the corresponding passion to get even."
Forgiveness is not easy. But it is the best way for all concerned. By letting go of hostile, vengeful feelings and leaving it up to God to deal with wrongdoers who have hurt us, we can move beyond our hurt to live happy, healthy lives.
The greatest example of forgiveness
Forgiveness is also at the core of the gospel. If you have difficulty forgiving someone, consider the debt of sin that God has forgiven you of if you have repented and accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior.
In Matthew 18 Jesus tells us how to deal with someone who "sins against you." He enumerates a three-step conflict resolution process followed by forgiveness.
Headstrong Peter apparently found difficulty with the concept of forgiveness. He asked, "How often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" (Matthew:18:21). Peter probably reasoned that he could grit his teeth and utter words of professed forgiveness seven times if he knew that after the eighth incident, he could take actions to get even. But Jesus told him that forgiveness must not only be unlimited, it must also be from the heart. To put the matter into a spiritual perspective, Jesus told a story of a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. One of his servants who owed a great sum of money pleaded with the king for mercy. The master was moved with compassion and forgave him the entire debt. But the forgiven servant then demanded immediate repayment from a fellow servant that owed him a very small sum of money. The debtor was unable to repay and begged him for mercy. Instead of extending the mercy he had received for a much larger debt, the unforgiving servant had the other thrown into prison. When the king found out, he was furious. "You wicked servant!" said the king. "I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?" The king then rescinded his original forgiveness and demanded full payment from the unforgiving servant (Matthew:18:23-34).
Jesus concludes the parable with the warning, "So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses" (Matthew:18:35).
Biblical perspective on forgiveness
This parable helps us understand how important God considers forgiveness. The point is not whether the other person is worthy. Forgiveness is a fundamental quality of godly love that seeks the ultimate good of everyone.
The IFI definition further explains forgiveness as going beyond the call of duty by "overcoming of wrongdoing with good" to offer "a freely chosen gift (rather than a grim obligation)." The definition correctly promises, "As we give the gift of forgiveness we ourselves are healed."
Forgiveness is fundamental
Forgiveness is fundamental to healing--physically, emotionally and spiritually. Jesus, the Master Healer, offered His life for the forgiveness of all the sins of all mankind forever. He set the perfect example of forgiveness even up to His dying breath. Never did He seek vengeance, in word or in deed (1 Peter:2:20-25). Instead He prayed regarding those who crucified Him, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do" (Luke:23:34).
Jesus knew that most people do not realize the full consequences of evil. He also understood the evil potential of the human heart that yields to hostile, vengeful emotions (Mark:7:20-23). He wanted no part of the damage--for Himself, His followers or anyone else.
As Christianity Today concludes, "...for international, national, and even personal issues, researchers are finding that a practice taught by Jesus Christ two thousand years ago may be our most effective tool and response."
To make sure we remember the importance of forgiveness, Jesus instituted a most meaningful ceremony to commemorate His death for our sins. When we follow His instructions and partake of the symbols of bread and the cup (1 Corinthians:11:23-26), we should remember the magnitude of God's forgiveness and seek to practice forgiveness in every aspect of our personal lives.
Let us learn, practice and benefit from the power of forgiveness.