Psychologists have done significant research on forgiveness, and while there are some peripheral studies cautioning against forgiveness in specific situations, overall it is believed to be a very good and helpful practice allowing you to live a better life. In fact, hanging on to anger, hatred, and intense emotions associated with unforgiveness can significantly impact your wellbeing. According to Dr. Karen Swartz director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, the practice of forgiveness is quite helpful for living a healthy happy life. Everything from lower blood pressure, lower risk of heart disease, lower levels of bad cholesterol, decreases in depression, anxiety, and numerous other health factors are experienced when practicing the exercise of forgiveness. Much of this is because when we are unforgiving we experience a chronic sense of anger which puts us into “fight or flight” mode thus constantly pumping us full of the hormones and physical factors necessary for survival. This constant “stress state”, even if experienced as normal because of its permanent part of our life, is not good for our physical health. You were not designed to have a constant experience of stress delivered to your body. Forgiveness is one way in which we can counteract this stress state in order to experience peace on all levels of our being. Forgiveness doesn’t just positively impact our emotional wellbeing, it impacts our physical, mental, and relational life as well.
An important point to keep in mind when considering how to exercise forgiveness is that it’s something very different from reconciliation. Too often people think if they forgive someone for what they’ve done then they have to reenter a relationship with them. Somehow we have linked forgiveness with the reestablishment of a relationship which is absolutely not the same thing. Forgiveness is a way to give yourself peace with a situation not a way to reestablish an abusive or dysfunctional relationship.
Another factor stopping people from exercising forgiveness is their sense of justice. When someone hurts us we want justice for what they’ve done. We believe if we’ve been hurt, then it’s only right for the other person to hurt as badly as we do. Our sense of justice emerging from the virtue of justice is important for living in a civilized world. Without justice, the world would be a free for all in which the strong take what they want and the weak have no recourse to get what is rightly theirs. I’m not advocating for the elimination of justice. I am however merely stating that if your desire for justice is so strong that it traps you in a world of anger and emotional turmoil, you may want to reconsider your options. In fact, for someone to be a forgiving person they have to be willing to give up what is rightly theirs (recompense for what was done to them or taken from them) in order to gain something better, personal peace.
I want to walk with you over the next few posts and help you consider whether or not being a more forgiving person is something you’re ready to embrace. It’s not easy, and it takes real work, but I believe all of us can have a more fulfilling life if we can learn to be forgiving and embrace the peace it brings. Just to encourage you to consider exploring this difficult topic, I want you to read what happened one warm Wednesday night in June in Charleston South Carolina and the response one person gave to the man who took something very special away from her.
Dylann Roof entered Mother Emmanual African Methodist Episcopal Church with one thing in mind. He was intent on killing people he disliked because of the color of their skin. After spending time listening to the bible study he drew his gun and slaughtered nine unarmed people. One of his victims was Ethel Lance, a wonderful 70-year-old woman who raised five children and had seven grandchildren, as well as four great-grandchildren. She was a pillar of that faith community and was gunned down like her life meant nothing. At the trial of Dylann Roof Nadine Collier, Ethel’s daughter said this:
“I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul… You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”
Nadine would not let her anger, hatred, and distress trap her in a world that had no future joy or love. Does she want justice? Of course, but she is not willing to let anger trap her so that whatever time she has left in this life is spent in a pure stress state, negatively impacting her emotions, thoughts, relationships, and physical well being. If she can do that, don’t you think it’s worth taking some time to consider how you can be a forgiving person? Let me help you over the next few weeks and we will journey together into the practice of forgiveness.