We’re moving on with the subject of forgiveness. In Part 1, we attempted to define this powerful term and discovered what it means to God. With that information in mind, here’s our next question:
What if I just don’t want to forgive?
I’m just going to jump right in with bluntness. The bottom line is…unforgiveness hurts. Sounds simple doesn’t it? You may wonder who it hurts – that’s a fair question, especially when those who hang onto their anger/bitterness/fear/sorrow, refusing to forgive, may hope to hurt the offender by doing so. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Being unable to forgive hurts you. You, the victim in whatever situation forcing you to face the decision to forgive, you are the one who suffers for your choice. I believe that learning to truly forgive has positive effects on our spiritual, mental, and physical well-being. I also believe choosing not to forgive produces negative effects in the same areas. Let’s start with the Spiritual since most probably knew that one was coming already.
Spiritual – my relationship with God, the Father
We’ve already mentioned in part one that God understands what true forgiveness is, and that He is faithful to grant it to those who seek Him for it. Let’s just meditate on this verse for a moment:
“For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:“ Matthew 6:14
Hmm, what do you make of that? So, God is faithful to forgive…but, it is conditional. You must ask Him for forgiveness (as we saw in part 1), and we must be willing to forgive others? Now, I’m not saying once you’ve become a child of His that you can be booted out of the family for having difficulty forgiving others. If you’ve put your faith and trust in His Son then you have forgiveness in the way of being pardoned from payment for your sin (remember the definitions from part one?). Relationally speaking though, if you are unwilling to forgive someone, does this enhance your relationship with that person in a positive way? No, and likewise is true with God. By being unforgiving (despite all the mercy God has shown us) we place sin between us and God relationally.
This sin is like any other, it blocks our communication with our Heavenly Father. Our relationship with the Lord is largely on a spiritual level (although that relationship obviously touches the physical and mental levels as well). It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that not forgiving will jeopardize our spiritual well-being.
“In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.“ Matthew 6:9-13
Before we move on, please read The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. I think, no, I know God is serious about this forgiveness stuff. But maybe it isn’t enough to know how God feels about it; maybe some need to know how our own bodies feel about it.
Mental & Physical – my relationship with me.
In today’s society we are all pretty self centered. Maybe you are on the low end of that scale, but to some degree we are all concerned with how things affect us personally. You probably already have an idea that being unforgiving can cause you physical and mental harm. It’s true, it does. In fact, in the parable given above, we see at the end that if we won’t forgive, we can expect God to be angry and to allow us to be tortured in some way. We probably won’t be locked up and put through agony at the hand of literal torturers, but if you’ve lived at all in this world, you know that torture can come in various ways.
I went in search of studies on the effects of forgiveness/unforgiveness on the human body. I think it’s interesting to note that those who can forgive tend to be sick far less often than those who do not. At Hope College in Michigan, Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet and her colleagues have shown that holding anger and resentment is damaging to physical health. Their study was on the physiological effects of forgiveness vs. holding a grudge. Their theory was that forgiveness…
“may free the wounded person from a prison of hurt and vengeful emotion, yielding both emotional and physical benefits, including reduced stress, less negative emotion, fewer cardiovascular problems, and improved immune system performance. . . . Unforgiving memories and mental imagery might produce negative facial expressions and increased cardiovascular and sympathetic reactivity, much as other negative and arousing emotions (e.g., fear, anger) do.”
Working with 70 undergraduates from Hope College, they requested the students remember a time when they were mistreated or harmed by someone. The participants were asked to practice forgiving or being unforgiving. They’re psychophysiological, emotional, and facial responses were recorded. Participants reported feeling sadness, anger, negativity, and lacking control when being unforgiving. Physiologically, they showed greater tension in the brow area of the face and higher blood pressure during unforgiveness periods. Overall Wityliet (and colleagues) surmise that “although it is unlikely that the brief unforgiving trials in this study would have a clinically significant effect on health, we believe that the effects obtained in this study provide a conservative measure of effects that naturally occur during unforgiving responses to real-life offenders.”
Since we are a whole person, our emotions affect our physical body. The negative physical affect of unforgiveness can cause muscle tension, headaches, strokes, heart conditions, and even some cancers. It’s very hard to measure how closely unforgiveness and illness are linked, but noted improvement has been shown in afflicted individuals who have been able to forgive.
Refusing to forgive is dangerous to your mental and emotional well-being. It can cause us to suppress our feelings and become distrustful of others. This begins to prevent us from building healthy relationships in the future. I may think I’m hiding my negative feelings but they will come out at some point, and sometimes are unleashed on an innocent person.
Admittedly I have become obsessed with a hurt before. I felt justified in clinging to it because I felt it was a big deal. I didn’t want to forgive that person and in an effort not to forgive I played the offense over and over in my mind – which only served to continually hurt myself psychologically. This brings us to why some people might be “forgiveness challenged”.
I just can’t forgive, I can’t…
We hear about forgiving one another everywhere and most of us will agree it’s a good thing to do, that is, until it’s something really huge right? Some of you may be wondering why on earth someone might not want to forgive:
- The reasons vary but most often I think I have more difficulty when the person hasn’t apologized. (saying “sorry you got hurt” is not the same as “I’m sorry that I hurt you.”) After all, my birth order demands justice 🙂
- Another instance depends on the offense, and if it’s a “huge” one, wrought with pain/scars/fear – well, the offense may feel too big to forgive.
- Sometimes I’m afraid that if I forgive, I’ll “forget” and that brings the fear that the person will hurt me again.
Can you relate to any of those? I’m just being very candid here with my personal struggles – maybe your reasons for unforgiveness are different than mine. Whatever they are, are they worth the destruction this can bring about in our lives? I’m pretty sure the answer is “no”. I think we can agree that we need to forgive but I don’t believe many of us have been taught how.
Join me next time for “I want to forgive…but how?”