The Health Effects of Forgiveness


Life is not all laughter and fun. On life’s country road we can encounter bumps and holes some of which can shake us to the core. These are often related to injustice and challenging relationships.

Don’t despair, “I forgive you is actually one of the best things you can say for your physical and mental health,” I read in a newspaper. For a long time forgiveness has been preached mostly from church pulpits, but in recent years health professionals and media have begun to recommend forgiveness.

Research on forgiveness has revealed that forgiveness is associated with less depression, anxiety, anger, stress and PTSD as well as increased well-being.

"To err is human, to forgive, Divine" 
– Alexander Pope

What forgiveness is NOT

Okay, but what does it mean to forgive? Many people have the idea that forgiveness involves a whole series of things that are not really part of forgiveness. Forgiveness does NOT mean to

  • Condone unkindness
  • Overlook or excuse the bad that has happened, e.g. “I guess it wasn’t so bad, he was just a teenager.”
  • Just forget the bad things that have happened
  • Stop having negative feelings about what happened
  • Restore relationships

Some types of wrongs are so serious that the relationship cannot be restored even if you forgive the person. Reconciliation is an interpersonal process where you talk to the other person about what happened, exchange stories, express pain, listen for remorse and begin to restore trust. It is a much more complicated process that includes but moves beyond forgiveness.

Forgiveness is also not a give and take agreement, such as “I forgive you if you vacuum for the rest of the month”. Nor is forgiveness given in a feeling of moral superiority.

Forgiveness takes one person, reconciliation takes two.

What is forgiveness?

In research on forgiveness, forgiveness is defined as renouncing or letting go of bitterness and thoughts of revenge.

This sounds simple but can be challenging for many people. Some find it easier to forgive than others, and a lot is about personality and the value and importance we put on forgiveness.

Studies show that the more selfless and empathetic one is, the greater the probability of being able to forgive. Conversely, the more self-absorbed and apathetic we are, the less likely we are to be able to forgive another human being

Do you struggle to forgive, or do you find it easy? Take this test to see how forgiving you are as a person.

How can i forgive more easily?

People who hurt us do it mostly through

  • Ignorance
  • Thoughtlessness
  • Insecurity
  • Intentional bad actions
  • It is probably the last category that is the most difficult to forgive. When people with intent hurt us, it easily becomes a deep wound.

What can we do to forgive each other more easily? One of the best pieces of advice is to do what Jesus did. When he was nailed to the cross he said: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). This is an example of forgiveness in an extremely demanding and life-threatening situation. What Jesus did here was to see the people in a broader perspective and not just see the injustice done to him. He understood that the soldiers who crucified him did not have the prerequisites to know who he really was. They did not realize that they were crucifying and taking the life of the Son of God.

By seeing the person who wrongs us in a broader perspective, we can perhaps more easily understand why they hurt us. People can hurt us out of ignorance, but people who hurt us intentionally often have problems themselves. Often the bad actions they do are an expression that they are struggling with their own life.

“Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone” 
– Apostle Paul

Bitterness

The opposite of forgiveness is to go around being bitter and seeking revenge. It’s a bit like taking poison and hoping the enemy dies. This is not how it works on the battlefield or in life. The person who wronged us may have left the “war” scene and I’m left with bitterness and a bad story that goes on auto-play . This is harmful to my health and is worse for me than for the person who wronged me. This is how bitterness binds us to the past and we are unable to move forward in life, even if we would like to move forward.

Someone has said it very aptly that “to forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was yourself” – LB Smedes

Forgiveness heals the wounds

Forgiveness may be compared to wound healing. We all get wounds on body and mind during life. The world is full of injustice and suffering, and it is no coincidence that the archetype in Western civilization was a person unjustly tortured and crucified. The worst can happen the best. Such is the world. That’s how it is to be human. The question is: How should we deal with it?

The wounds on body and mind tend to heal if the wound is treated well. For wounds received in the mind forgiveness can aid in wound healing. However, it is not a miracle cure. Even if we forgive another person, we can still end up with scars. We may have to carry the consequences of bad encounters with us further in life. However, there is a big difference between walking with open wounds and walking with scars.

What will you choose?

References

Toussaint , Loren L., ELJ Worthington, and David R. Williams. Forgiveness and health. Springer Netherlands, 2015

Allan Fjelmberg, MD, MPH, DipIBLM

As a Norwegian based medical doctor certified in Lifestyle Medicine he currently serves as the medical director of Skogli Health and Rehabilitation Center, Lillehammer. Through consultations, presentations, articles and other public health-related activities, he motivates people to utilize the potential that a healthy lifestyle has both in prevention and treatment of disease.

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