Forgiveness and Health
Story by Grant Leitma
A familiar biblical imperative is clear about the significance of forgiveness: “But if ye forgive not men their trespass es, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses,” (Matt.6:15). Why did Jesus say this was important? Watson (2017) suggests the following: “In relationships, forgiveness is liberating. It frees us from a negative attachment to a person who has hurt us. This liberates us from the cycle of negativity and anger allowing us to open our hearts to gratitude.” Gratitude paves the way and allows a person to experience forgiveness. And the more one is open to practicing gratitude the greater chance you become more open to the idea of forgiving people too. Nelson Mandela (1994), who spent a long time in prison for his political beliefs, summarized it this way: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
But what is forgiveness? Those who have researched forgiveness have made this point. It is not how we relate to another person, or our ability to regain intimacy or to be reconciled to a person who hurt you, but rather it’s about you and your heart’s condition. How can this take place? A spiritual transformation must take place by being partakers of the divine nature. Apostle Paul informs us we must “Be transformed by the renewing of mind” (Romans 12:2). Negative energy such as hate, envy, jealousy, and anger (Gal.5:20,21) must be replaced with positive energy such as love, joy, and longsuffering (Gal.5:22,23) by reflecting the fruit of the Spirit. Then we will be in the best condition to ponder and create new neural pathways and be open to what is true, pure, lovely, virtuous, and anything praiseworthy (Phil.4:8). We will be able to meditate or think about these things. Using thought control influences our emotional condition! Praiseworthy means offering up a sense of gratitude, thankfulness, joy and appreciation. It’s an attitude change from within. When forgiveness doesn’t exist within a person, the anger, resentment, and hurt can make you ill both on an emotional and physical level.
An angry emotional state triggers the increase of stress chemicals known as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. Consequently, there are some serious negative health issues for experiencing and recalling negative emotions. Research indicates that high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and a poorly functioning immune system are experienced (Luskin, 1999; Swartz, 2014). That means every time you recall the distressing situation, you release more damaging chemicals. This situation may cause chronic inflammation. The body responds to anger and resentment by becoming inflamed. Research indicates that continued inflammation creates many health issues: such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, and autoimmune weakness (Nordqvist, 2017).
According to Luskin (1999), dwelling on the past with negative emotions is destructive. He has found that mismanaged anger and hostility is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Luskin, who is the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, says “forgiveness boils down to a simple choice: whether to dwell over the past hurts or try to see the good in others.” When you don’t forgive you release all the stress chemicals which we know have a negative impact on your health and relationships.
On the other hand, Donsky (2019) found that the act of forgiving someone can raise a sense of optimism, happiness, and hope. Not forgiving and holding resentment is correlated with anxiety, hostility, depression, and major psychiatric disorders. If you forgive someone, you won’t experience this spike in stress hormones. You are responsible for your peace of mind and health. Taking the time to practice forgiveness principles will help improve your emotional and physical condition. If you are having difficulty practicing forgiveness, here are a few techniques to start the process:
Can you rewire your brain in 3 minutes a day?
Breuning (2016) recommends focusing on good thoughts three minutes a day for 45 days or three times a day at one-minute intervals to create a new neural pathway. It takes 45 days for a new neural connection to be firmly in place to experience the world more positively. This way, you will slowly lessen the times you replay the hurt. Eventually, a new tape will play in your mind, and new positive emotions will occur. Optimism, hope, compassion, and greater self-confidence will replace negative thoughts (Patri, 2017). Thought control!
Write a letter to the person who hurt you. Don’t send it.
List the ways you have been wronged and hurt. Describe how this affected you. End the letter by writing you have forgiven them. This letter is actually for you! (Carpenter Smith Consulting, 2019).
Reflect on times you’ve been forgiven.
Given the instruction in the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” (Matt.6:12). We have no choice. Many of us have hurt someone by our words or actions. We need to reflect on our experience of forgiveness and what it has meant to forgive someone else. Clinically we know that individual healing starts in a counseling session when the client can forgive that person who hurt them. We must examine ourselves first. We have to accept our responsibility for our emotions, decisions, and ultimately, our health practices (Carpenter Smith Consulting, 2019).
Meditate on God’s Word.
Inspiration informs us how dramatic forgiveness can be experienced in our life by dwelling on his Word: “O how many souls are starving for words of tenderness, for words of brotherly kindness, for words of hope, of faith, of forgiveness, of Christlike love, that will not quench the last spark of hope: “And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought (joy, contentment, happiness), and make fat thy bones (immune system benefit); and thou shalt be like a watered garden (hope & optimism) and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not,” (White, 1895).
Forgiveness and gratitude contribute to wellness. Forgiveness is a personal choice that has a significant impact on the quality of our physical and mental health. When we can take hold of the biblical wisdom from Proverbs 17:22, “A merry heart doth good like medicine and a broken spirit drieth the bones,” we are promised it will increase our ability to promote positive relationships that will create peace of mind when we learn to forgive one another.