What is forgiveness? How does forgiving another help us? And how can we cultivate forgiveness in our lives?
The body of research on forgiveness has grown in the last two decades from nearly nonexistent to hundreds of studies and dozens of books. Researchers are finding a powerful connection between forgiving others and our own well-being.
Researchers who study forgiveness and its effects on our well-being and happiness are very specific about how they define forgiveness.
Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky calls forgiveness “a shift in thinking” toward someone who has wronged you, “such that your desire to harm that person has decreased and your desire to do him good (or to benefit your relationship) has increased.” Forgiveness, at a minimum, is a decision to let go of the desire for revenge and ill-will toward the person who wronged you. It may also include feelings of goodwill toward the other person. Forgiveness is also a natural resolution of the grief process, which is the necessary acknowledgment of pain and loss.
Researchers are very clear about what forgiveness is not:
Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness is one person’s inner response to another’s perceived injustice. Reconciliation is two people coming together in mutual respect. Reconciliation requires both parties working together. Forgiveness is something that is entirely up to you. Although reconciliation may follow forgiveness, it is possible to forgive without re-establishing or continuing the relationship. The person you forgive may be deceased or no longer part of your life. You may also choose not to reconcile, perhaps because you have no reason to believe that a relationship with the other person is healthy for you.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. “Forgive and forget” seem to go together. However, the process of forgiving involves acknowledging to yourself the wrong that was done to you, reflecting on it, and deciding how you want to think about it. Focusing on forgetting a wrong might lead to denying or suppressing feelings about it, which is not the same as forgiveness. Forgiveness has taken place when you can remember the wrong that was done without feeling resentment or a desire to pursue revenge. Sometimes, after we get to this point, we may forget about some of the wrongs people have done to us. But we don’t have to forget in order to forgive.
Forgiveness is not condoning or excusing. Forgiveness does not minimize, justify, or excuse the wrong that was done. Forgiveness also does not mean denying the harm and the feelings that the injustice produced. And forgiveness does not mean putting yourself in a position to be harmed again. You can forgive someone and still take healthy steps to protect yourself, including choosing not to reconcile.
Forgiveness is not justice. It is certainly easier to forgive someone who sincerely apologizes and makes amends. However, justice—which may include acknowledgment of the wrong, apologies, punishment, restitution, or compensation—is separate from forgiveness. You may pursue your rights for justice with or without forgiving someone. And if justice is denied, you can still choose whether or not to forgive.
Forgiveness is a powerful choice you can make when it’s right for you that can lead to greater well-being and better relationships.
The growing body of research on forgiveness is finding that people who forgive are more likely than the general population to have:
- Fewer episodes of depression
- Higher self-esteem
- More friends
- Longer marriages
- Lower blood pressure
- Closer relationships
- Fewer stress-related health issues
- Better immune system function
- Lower rates of heart disease
And they are more likely to be happy, serene, empathetic, hopeful, and agreeable.
Researchers have been able to demonstrate how holding a grudge affects our cardiovascular and nervous systems. They did this by asking people to think about a wrong they experienced and measuring their heart rates, blood pressure, and muscle tension. All increased. The participants also said they felt less in control.
But can forgiveness reverse the effects of holdig a grudge? Research is finding that it can. Researchers have studied whether training in forgiveness results in improved well-being. They are finding as they follow up with people that the benefits listed above are significant, and that they last long after the training. This seems to be the case whether the person learned about forgiveness in group workshops or one-on-one.
Forgiveness is a religious and spiritual experience.
All of the major faith traditions include forgiveness as a central value. However, forgiveness is so universal to our human experience that it plays a large role across faith traditions as well as among people who do not practice a religion.
First a person needs to apologize; then the person who was wronged can forgive him.
Forgiving is something we choose to do for our own well-being, and is not dependent on an apology from another. If we wait for apologies, we run the risk of suffering longer than necessary. It may be much easier to forgive someone who has apologized, but you can still choose to let go of thoughts of revenge and other negative feelings and move on, even if the person who hurt you is not sorry.
People who haven’t forgotten about a wrongdoing haven’t really forgiven the other person.
It is not necessary to “forgive and forget.” In fact, the process of forgiveness involves acknowledging to yourself what happened and how you feel about it. “Forgetting” about an injustice could be denying, suppressing or excusing it—which is not forgiveness. It is enough to be able to remember a wrong that was done to you and not wish harm on the person who hurt you.
9 Keys to Biblical Forgiveness
Forgiveness is a command.
God’s call to forgive is not merely a suggestion. It’s a command. Colossians 3:13 tells us, “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Luke 6:37 says, “forgive, and you will be forgiven.”And Matthew 6:15 goes on to say, “but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”God does not take forgiveness lightly. As followers of Christ, we have been forgiven by God, and we are without exception called to give that which we have been given.
Forgiveness is a gift.
Forgiveness can certainly be painful, but I can assure you that everything God calls us to is for our benefit. God is not some cosmic dictator who arbitrarily commands His subjects to do things simply for His amusement. Instead, he is a loving Father who truly wants the best for His children––and who asks His children to do that which will bring them life. We are called to forgive so that we might experience all the beauty life has to offer. Forgiveness sets us free. It is a gift given to us by our all-knowing, loving God for our good and His glory.
Forgiveness begins with prayer.
There is nothing we can do of any worth apart from Jesus. True Biblical forgiveness cannot take place without prayer and guidance from the Holy Spirit. We are told “the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working”(James 5:16). Prayer is an essential element that we must devote ourselves to in all areas of our lives, but if we are to make any progress toward forgiveness and healing, we must first humble ourselves and drop to our knees.
Forgiveness is a decision.
Our feelings are not to be trusted. They will never lead us toward forgiveness, and so ultimately, forgiveness becomes a decision we must make. It’s a decision that we may need to make many times until we receive the grace needed to forgive. As we commit ourselves to the pursuit of forgiveness, we will see Jesus heal our emotions little by little as He brings them in line with His will.
Forgiveness is a process.
Forgiveness takes time. It does not happen over night. The process will look different for every one of us, but it is a process for each of us, nonetheless.
Forgiveness requires close communion with God.
It’s important to remain close to Jesus throughout the process of forgiveness. We need to seek His will and pray for His guidance to show us the “hows”of forgiveness. Remember, the process is unique for each of us, and so we it is essential for us to hold fast to God, seeking His will as we take each step toward forgiveness.
Forgiveness allows God to be the judge.
God is judge. We are not. When we refuse to forgive, we take the place of God as judge over those who wronged us. Ultimately, we must understand that justice will prevail. God is a good God––a just God who ensures justice is done. Romans 12:19-21 tells us, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Forgiveness is not reserved for more “acceptable”offenses.
Just as God forgives all sins, we are called to forgive every offense committed against us regardless of how terrible it was. No sin is unforgivable.
Forgiveness is unconditional.
Biblical forgiveness is unconditional. It may take us a while to get to this point, but ultimately, forgiveness is not complete until we have forgiven unconditionally. It seems God often tests our forgiveness along the way until we get to that point.
Jesus is ultimately our example of forgiveness. I remember pondering the story of Jesus dying on the cross when I was first called to forgive. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I read the words Jesus spoke. He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,”as he hung on that cross dying a death He did not deserve (Luke 23:34). I was totally and completely astounded by this account. By the fact that Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of those who were in the process of murdering Him, and I thought to myself, This is the example we all must follow.
That, my friend, is what we fix our eyes on when we’re called to forgive. Jesus’ response to the evil committed against him demands the same response from us. His response compels us to forgive as He forgave.
But it’s not easy. Forgiveness is quite possibly one of the most difficult things you will ever do. True Biblical forgiveness is gut-wrenching. It requires us to allow Jesus unhindered access to the deepest, darkest parts of our souls. Forgiveness is difficult and painful, but let me tell you, it is the most life-giving gift you can receive from the One who desperately wants to see you thrive.
So, come to Him. Lay your burdens down. Pray for guidance and the grace needed to forgive. Pursue forgiveness, and I guarantee that you will begin to experience the bounty of blessings forgiveness brings